Metro Matters | In Delhi, creating open spaces for every neighbourhood
- Nearly one-fourth of Delhi is green, but it has to find ways to ensure a more equitable distribution of open areas for residents to have access to quality outdoor spaces locally
For a city rated as one of the greenest in India, one would assume that Delhi offers enough open, recreational space to its residents. So why do so many people travel across the city to crowd the recently restored Sunder Nursery, the waste-to-art parks, the sprawling gardens in New Delhi or even the under-construction Central Vista Avenue?
Many of them do because Delhi’s green spaces and parks are not distributed evenly across the city. Because most of these residents do not have the option to enjoy their fair share of open space in the neighbourhood.
Indeed, Delhi is quite green for a tightly packed metropolis. According to the biennial India State of Forest Report (ISFR)-2021 released last week, Delhi’s green cover increased by 17.56 sq km in two years. At 342 sq km (195 sq km of forest cover and 147 sq km of tree cover), Delhi’s green cover is now 23.06% of the city’s area. Since 2019, the city’s forest cover shrunk by 0.44 sq km due to the cutting of trees for construction, while plantation drives added 18 sq km to its tree cover.
Though data on district-wise tree cover — mostly lining streets and in parks — is not available, the distribution of forest cover, which includes the alien and invasive vilayati kikar in the ridge and any area greater than one hectare with 10% canopy density, points to spatial inequity. The “forests” covering 13.15% of the capital are mainly concentrated in New Delhi (47.06%), South Delhi (34.27%) and Central Delhi (23.86%).
Significantly, while Delhi’s total green cover is 342 sq km, the area under parks is merely 81.28 sq km. The baseline analysis for the draft Master Plan for Delhi-2041 (MPD) states that in all districts except New Delhi, the per capita park space is less than 9.5 sq m, which is the World Health Organization (WHO)-recommended benchmark for per capita green space in urban settings.
The analysis by the National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA), a think tank on urban planning that Delhi Development Authority partnered with to draft MPD-41, explains that in the context of urban settings, the green space as mentioned in the WHO benchmark refers to “accessible” greens that people can visit freely, adding that while most of the greens in Delhi are technically accessible, citizens mostly access parks, biodiversity parks and gardens.
The remaining greens in the forests are perhaps semi-accessible and don’t get many visitors, except for a few exceptions such as Sanjay Van, the report states. “These areas (the forest) no doubt contribute to the physical health of the city (by mitigating pollution and preventing warming) but do not really make a significant contribution to the mental health of the city (by providing an avenue for people to convene and socialise).”
Using the 2011 population census and data provided by Delhi parks and garden society till 2018 and the forest department till 2019, the analysis shows that even if the per capita total greens, which includes green cover and parks, is taken into account, districts of North East, East and West Delhi fall short of the 9.5 sq m benchmark.
While New Delhi boasts 262.74 sq m per capita green, North East Delhi makes do with per capita green of only 3.22 sq m. Similarly, the South district enjoys 42.98 sq m of green space per person, while East Delhi’s share is a modest 8.31 sq m and West Delhi’s just 7.7 sq m.
Too dense to green
The master plan of Delhi provisions for open spaces and parks in a clear hierarchy of size and population they cater to. It starts with city-level parks, going down to districts, communities and neighbourhoods. Consequently, Delhi has got around 18,000 parks and gardens spread across 81 sq km in the planned parts of the city.
But a large part of the national capital has grown outside the ambit of master planning. The unplanned unauthorised colonies, housing an estimated four million people, were built in violation of zoning regulations, mostly on land meant for agricultural use. Exempt from municipal bylaws, urban villages are now equally dense, chaotic and in poor form.
These tightly packed buildings block sunlight and air from coming into the homes. Their occupants are also more exposed to air pollution, heat stress, flooding and all the malaises poor city planning and management bring.
It is common knowledge that greenery mitigates air pollution, absorbs stormwater run-offs locally, has a cooling effect and is important for mental health and social cohesion. Outdoors are the only safe spaces for recreation, physical exercise and socialising during this pandemic. But a park, or even a tree, is a luxury in most of these underserved neighbourhoods.
Out of the 64 municipal wards under East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC), which includes some of the densest residential pockets of the city, 15 wards either don’t have a park or have very few.
While land remains the biggest constraint, experts and officials agree that solutions — both big and small interventions — can be found by taking an innovative approach. EDMC, for example, experimented with placemaking by converting a discarded truck into a mobile play space stationed in underserved neighbourhoods. The recently pedestrianised 1.3-km stretch of Chandni Chowk is gradually being reclaimed by residents of the congested bylanes of old Delhi for strolling, cycling and some free play. Some Gram Sabha (village commons) land has been utilised by South Delhi Municipal Corporation for creating parks with playgrounds and open gyms.
SDMC is also filling up mining pits at Tajpur Pahadi with inert waste from the Okhla landfill to create a 10-acre park. An 885-acre eco-park is being created at the site where the polluting Badarpur Thermal Power stood. This coal-fired plant was shut down in 2018 and the space is now being greened and is to have provisions for a jungle safari, a golf course, boating facilities, and so on. Repurposing wastelands such as closed landfills, ash dykes, abandoned quarries and mines after treating toxicity and unstable nature of the soil is also a suggested strategy in MPD-41 for creating green and blue assets.
Mapping greens and browns
Since no serious efforts at reasonably democratising green spaces across Delhi can be made without proper ground-truthing, the Delhi Parks and Gardens Society (DPGS) is in the process of collecting GIS coordinates of all community parks from municipal agencies, DDA and DUSIB, and mapping them.
“While mapping water bodies of Delhi, we saw huge patches of brown, especially in the north and western parts of the city. As the Wetland Authority doesn’t have the mandate to look into the problem of green space inequity, we decided to address the issue through the parks and gardens society, which is a more appropriate institution to look into the problem,” says K S Jayachandran, chief executive officer, DPGS, and member secretary of the Wetland Authority of Delhi.
While identifying green deficient neighbourhoods across Delhi, DPGS also aims to create a community access index, which would be a first for Delhi.
“We will give priority to deficient areas and will be happy to offer financial assistance to institutions that can identify government land and get a no-objection certificate from the land-owning agency to develop green spaces in these neighbourhoods," he says.
The society gives ₹2.55 lakh per acre annually to resident bodies and NGOs to maintain parks, and additionally R 1 lakh per acre to create new parks.
Bridging green gaps
Once we identify the spatial disparities in the distribution of green and open spaces, how do we bridge the gaps? Experts have wide-ranging suggestions.
Meenakshi Dhote, professor of environmental planning at the School of Planning and Architecture, says it is important to protect the existing spaces and then find new avenues for greening. “Areas with very small per capita open space should be marked as areas of concern and strategies should be devised to protect them. At any cost, no open space here should be taken over by development activity. They should be protected.”
Environmental activist Diwan Singh insists on a moratorium on all new development till the greening requirement of deficient areas is met: “After surveying and identifying all such areas, including unauthorised colonies and villages that are short of green spaces, we must immediately halt all building developments here and conserve any open space still left in that colony or nearby.”
Others say that redevelopment is the way forward to overcome land constraints in dense neighbourhoods.
“Since most of the green-deficient areas are already built up, it is difficult to provide for parks. So, whenever these areas come up for redevelopment, and they will soon because many of them are in poor condition, we should factor in green space,” says Victor Shinde, who leads the water and environment division at NIUA and was involved in the baseline analysis for draft MPD-41.
Under composite redevelopment projects, whether in unauthorised colonies or in planned neighbourhoods, property owners can be offered a higher Floor Area Ratio if they go for group housing, adds DDA’s former planning commissioner A K Jain. “One-third of the space can be kept as private green, parking and other common facilities. This space will remain with the owners but give some breathing space to the neighbourhood. Composite redevelopment will also address the critical concern of structural safety of buildings.”
Reimagining existing areas is integral to modern city planning. But to roll out any redevelopment plan, mechanisms have to be detailed out and responsibilities have to be fixed. A DDA official said that the existing master plan (2021) spelt out a simple redevelopment strategy, which was never followed up by detailed regulations, but MPD-41, which is the process of being finalised, will give specifics for regeneration in different types of existing developments such as unauthorised colonies, slums, regular plotted areas and also the new Transit Oriented Development nodes. One of the mandatory conditions would be to leave a certain percentage of land open.
The draft MPD-41 acknowledges that the distribution of green assets is uneven across Delhi, resulting in inequitable access in different areas and that greenfield, as well as brownfield areas, must factor in open spaces. It calls for repurposing of grounds within schools or other public institutions as community parks after school hours, earmarking land or retrofitting existing parks to create all-abilities parks, promoting privately-owned public spaces, creating greenways along natural drains, and using underutilised sites and wastelands, wherever feasible, as green-blue assets
Reclaiming natural spaces in the degraded parts of Delhi has been best demonstrated in the seven DDA biodiversity parks of the city. The development of these parks has been a welcome break from the earlier efforts to turn any open space into a manicured garden.
The purpose of the biodiversity parks is conservation, education and recreation, says Fayaz Khudsar, scientist-in-charge of biodiversity parks. The parks serve that purpose by catering to residents of some of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in the vicinity.
The Yamuna Biodiversity Park gets 2,000-2,500 visitors every day, mostly from Jagatpur, Wazirabad and Jharoda. The Aravalli Biodiversity Park gets 1,500-2,000 visitors, many of whom come from Vasant Vihar, Vasant Kunj and Vasant Gaon. The Northern Ridge sees a footfall of 3,000-3,500 and the Tughlaqabad park gets 1,000-1,500 visitors every day.
“Biodiversity parks must not be seen as playgrounds but they should be appreciated for the peace and tranquillity they offer. They provide nature-based recreation where local communities come for morning and evening walks, to sit, relax, socialise and enjoy the biodiversity,” Khudsar says.
As a way forward for the city, he suggests “scientifically restoring” the Yamuna riverfront as a biodiversity habitat, which would not only benefit the riverine ecology but also the public and act as a natural defence against air pollution, water stress and rising heat waves.
DDA is working on making the Yamuna riverfront accessible to the public by making cycling tracks, walkways, eco-trails to wetlands and a forest along the 22 km stretch of the floodplain. However, such restoration work must respect the natural ecology and should avoid concretising floodplain areas or converting riverfronts to manicured gardens.
“We have a good model in the Yamuna Biodiversity Park and even the National Green Tribunal has endorsed it as a template for floodplain restoration and river rejuvenation,” assures Khudsar.
Similarly, Delhi’s water bodies, many of which have been sacrificed to garbage dumping and development, can be restored to their natural functionality. The wetland authority has geo-tagged 1,043 water bodies with a unique identification number. If notified, they will not only get legal protection but also help authorities seek government funds for restoration.
Many of these water bodies are situated in Delhi villages. “Considering the density of population, these will not only serve as the green lung but the open spaces around them can be reclaimed as recreational places as they traditionally used to be,” says Dhote.
Maintaining the ecological balance in creating any green space is important. Apart from play spaces, parks should retain woodlands to conserve local ecology. This will help in mitigating air pollution and also offer therapeutic benefits to the local community, says Diwan Singh.
Experts say local settings and context is important while finding solutions to the inequitable distribution of green spaces in the city. Dhote suggests finding incidental open spaces offered by the diversity of Delhi’s “built fabric” and “treating them with more respect”.
There are numerous examples from cities across the world to show that often unnoticed or neglected open spaces could be reclaimed as recreational facilities without requiring big makeover budgets.
In Beijing, the 15th century Temple of Heaven, a World Heritage site, is now also a bustling playground and recreational space. A part of its large green space has been set aside for people to exercise. New York City’s High Line, an elevated railroad built in the 1930s to feed warehouses in the meat-packing district, went out of use by 1980. It was all set to be demolished in 2001 when local community groups convinced authorities to turn it into a linear park, which now stands 25 feet above the ground.
In Delhi, recent interventions such as the “waste to art” parks at Sarai Kale Khan and Punjabi Bagh are attracting good footfalls. Enthused by the ticket collections, the municipalities have three more in the offing.
But to truly democratise access to green outdoors, we also need to think micro and local, and make the most of every redevelopment opportunity in the densest quarters. Meanwhile, let government policies and voices of the people agree that no open space, however small, can be expendable in Delhi.
Shivani Singh is HT's metro editor. Metro Matters, a fortnightly, gives readers a flavour of Delhi in all its complexity.