Salvaging our city’s public spaces

Pinned on soft boards lining the auditorium of the School of Planning and Architecture were 114 project reports. These entries, part

of a compelling contest organised by a landscape architecture journal were the blueprints for a much-neglected domain public spaces. The contest, which would definitely strike a chord among Delhiites, involved picking a public site and redesigning it within its social context to turn it into an energetic and safe spot for social intersection. Unlike other international cities, Delhi scores very badly on this count.

Pradeep Sachdev, architect of the Garden of Five Senses and Dilli Haat, while scrutinizing the entries for freshness and relevance, said: “Imported cut-and-paste ideas don’t work here.” Each idea, however, was unique to India’s chaos.


Mean streets

Elaborating on the multi-purpose Indian street, which serves as a carrier of vehicles, electricity, telecom and sewage, Pradeep said, “The street is also the domain of the municipality terribly hostile to pedestrians.” Recalling a project that involved converting a stretch between Delhi University’s arts faculty and the main library on north campus into a pedestrian precinct, he said, “The project should’ve led to many other pedestrian-only zones, but it didn’t.”

On the waterfront

Of the 114 entries, 17 were about water bodies. A plan for a riverfront that stretches itself beyond the basic functions of a religious ghat caught the attention of the jury. An extravagant design for the Mula Mutha river in Pune that juxtaposed a storyboard wall, nature observation deck, joggers’ track and shopping street with the traditional ghat was, according to the jury, a seamless integration of an ancient space into a modern context.
Bustling bazaars

The proliferation of commercial complexes and organized retail spaces has not, as yet, wiped out traditional bazaars. The city’s Meena Bazaar, seeped in history and disoriented by its own antiquity, was the subject of a plan to reinstate it into the hub of urban life. The project, which detailed the bazaar’s unique problems an isolating otherness, ad-hoc commercial activity, lack of parking space suggested redesigning the bazaar to create a modern retail hub while retaining its old-world charm.

In sharp contrast to the quaint bazaar is Nehru Place. Built in the 1960s, the area is bursting at the seams with offices in dilapidated buildings, old eateries and newer coffee shops. Despite the variety of restaurants and the presence of two cinema halls one traditional and the other, a multiplex the area is almost deserted once the offices shut for the day. A meticulous plan brought the complex to life after dark, with a thriving but safe nightlife more clubs, better lighting and a convenient commute via the Metro.

Park life

M Shaheer, landscape architect and designer of Vir Bhumi as well as several gardens in Lucknow, spoke of a predatory attitude to public spaces: “We should curb the tendency of making public space our own by building clubs and community centres inside parks. Good civic practice is to make amenities available to the public and not merely a small group of people.”
Dangling on the soft board was a project that reflected his ideals. The Coronation Memorial Park, the erstwhile venue of grand durbars in 1887, 1903 and 1911 is 70,800 sq mts of haphazard activity. Random pedestals without statues, a wilderness of weeds and shrubs, a green used for incompatible activities like cricket and people learning to drive make the park an ill-defined patch. The students’ plan envisioned a park with three broad zones. Its inner core, rich with history, was designed as a time walk to bring alive the pageantry the park was famed for. The outer area was defined as a recreational zone. A continuous circular loop seamlessly connected the various experiences of the park.

While there were only four winners and six special mentions, each entry represented a clear vision for leftover spaces.