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Let us reimagine Delhi’s outdoors, reclaim public spaces

The packed lawns of India Gate, the zoo and Purana Qila have people coming from all corners of the city. If the crowds to these places are any indication, Delhi is clearly becoming more outdoorsy.

columns Updated: Apr 22, 2019 10:39 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times
delhi,CP,india gate
People enjoying the weather, at India Gate, in New Delhi, India, on Wednesday, April 17, 2019. (Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)

Until not so long ago, Delhi used to go dead after sundown. But now, it is heartening to see Connaught Place and India Gate lawns teeming with people not just during the day but also late in the evening.

Connaught Place, for one, is almost always crowded. It helps that the vintage Georgian arcade is spacious and shaded, and there is enough street furniture in the inner circle to sit and relax. Vendors here not just offer inexpensive shopping options but they also serve as the ‘eyes on the streets’. So, many come to Connaught Place just to hang out in a vibrant and relatively safer environment, although there is scope for improvement in the outer and the middle circles and radial roads.

The biggest reclamation of a public place has been Central Park. Until the arrival of the Metro in 2005, this island in the middle of bustling traffic in Connaught Place was a den of drug peddling and thievery. But along with the opening of Rajiv Chowk Metro station, the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation restored the park with proper lighting and walking paths. The local police chipped in with better surveillance. The municipality opened it up for cultural events and concerts.

Similarly, the packed lawns of India Gate, the zoo and Purana Qila have people coming from all corners of the city. If the crowds to these places are any indication, Delhi is clearly becoming more outdoorsy. Some recent interventions such as fountains and public art in some open spaces and the “waste to wonder” park at Sarai Kale Khan is a good addition to the cityscape.

But for most residents, the outdoor options are still limited to select markets, parks, open arcades of malls, and Dilli Haat.

It is not that Delhi lacks public places of interest. With hundreds of monuments, ours is one of the world’s oldest living cities. The Aravalli Ridge and the many bio-diversity parks have the most amazing flora and fauna. A 2018 report by Delhi Urban Art Commission on safe public quoted experts to assert that there was no dearth of public space in the city. “All we need to do is activate these spaces with careful and imaginative planning so that more people can utilise them.”

The core principle of placemaking — explains Project of Public Places, a New York-based non-profit organisation — is to offer options to do different things at one place. For instance, “a park is good. A park with a fountain, playground and food vendor is better. If there’s a library across the street, that’s better still… If there’s a sidewalk café nearby, a bus stop, a bike path, and an ice cream stand, then you have what most people would consider a great place,” says their report “Placemaking and Future of Cities”.

In 2005, a design collective turned a parking space in San Francisco into a ‘parklet’ with turf, a tree, a bench and signs inviting passersby to sit and relax. It then returned the space to its former condition, but designers shared the photos and videos of the experiment online, reported The Guardian.

The images caught on and, by 2010, San Francisco had introduced a policy to help create parklets. Today, the idea has gone global. San Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, has installed benches and tables on some of its sidewalks to serve as miniature parklets. The city even has a set of regulations for construction and use of these spaces.

In Beijing, the 15th century Temple of Heaven, a World Heritage site, is now also a bustling playground. A part of its large green space has been set aside for people to exercise. Here, one can learn a martial art for a small fee– tai chi for the elderly, sword fighting and kung fu for the youngsters, says a tourism website. Apart from a small badminton court, there is a pavilion for the board and card games, used mostly by the locals.

There are enough examples to show that any public place — a market square, street, pavement, park, parking lots, monuments, vacant piece of land, or even a defunct railway line — could become a destination without requiring big makeover budgets. To create them, Danish urbanist Jan Gehl prescribes quality criteria that include reasonable protection from traffic, crime, extreme weather and pollution; good walking surfaces; street furniture or talkspace; accessibility to all; and opportunities to enjoy the positive aspects of climate, good architecture, trees, plants and water bodies.

It is really that simple. With creative planning, community participation and political will, Delhi’s outdoors could offer so much more.

We only need to look around for opportunities to surprise ourselves.

First Published: Apr 22, 2019 10:39 IST