The Importance of Parks and Public Space

Tanzeel Merchant
Published: 06, Jun 2013

Follow Tanzeel on twitter: @tanzeelio and via the "+ Follow" option on this page. Tanzeel Merchant relishes complexity. Based in Toronto, Merchant has proven expertise in long-range growth and infrastructure management, strategic planning and implementation, and stakeholder engagement in the private, public, and non-profit sector. Tanzeel is also an architect, urban designer, writer, financial advisor, and flâneur. He was the founding Executive Director of the Ryerson City Building Institute, a multi-disciplinary centre focused on urban issues relevant to city regions globally. Prior to that, he played a key role in working with governments and the energy Industry to plan for a better, more sustainable future in the Athabasca Oil Sands region in Alberta, Canada, home to the world’s third-largest oil reserve. Since 2003, he has also worked on the implementation of Ontario’s award-winning Places to Grow initiatives in Canada's largest province and one of North America's fastest-growing urban regions. Tanzeel has journeyed with his professional, academic and community-building interests through five cities on three continents. He likes that the days in his life have meaning, and no two days are the same.

A yoga club enjoys practicing near the Gateway of India
Getty Images

With every year and every census, data evidences that a greater proportion of people are living in cities than were previously. Urban environments continue to add and attract millions of residents a year. Some are born into these, others come looking for work, or a better life. In 2011, 52% of the world’s population lived in urban areas (towns and cities) compared to 48% in 2003. This share will only keep growing as urban regions become the economic engines of the future.

As new cities emerge, and older ones grow, it is critical that we be thoughtful in planning and designing their futures. Unfortunately, in cities in India, this has not been the case. One of the aspects that has been most neglected, is the planning for parks and public space.

Community is central to the Indian. At every level of interaction and experience, being in urban India is about being with and amongst people. Historically the streets and squares were primarily where people in many cultures, in many parts of the world, engaged each other. In addition to being part of the transportation infrastructure, these were spaces in which people transacted, ate, celebrated, fought, loved and played sports. Diversity was allowed to flourish, and people learned to live with and negotiate each other. These spaces made for greater understanding and civic engagement. Isn’t street cricket the great Indian equaliser? People used, gathered and belonged to a place, and its shared meanings and stories. These spaces were critical spaces for the formation of community of every kind.

The growing popularity of the car, abetted by greater prosperity, has crowded people out of their streets and public spaces. City planning in India has failed in every way in ensuring that such space is protected and supported in existing cities, let alone in the newer neighbourhoods. Instead valuable lands are chopped up and sold, with little effort to protect the public interest in any way.

The Mill Lands and slum redevelopment schemes in Mumbai are a prime example of how little its municipal government and administrators have cared for the City’s future. The Mill Lands were one of the last-remaining, large chunks of land that were primed for redevelopment. Innovative, integrated planning could have ensured that the new neighbourhoods could have large boulevards, and shared parks and open spaces, that could handle cars and generous gatherings and interaction of people, while still providing the same number of units and profit to the developers. Instead these lands were divided thoughtlessly and hocked off. That one chance to do it right was lost. The new neighbourhood is one of walled-in buildings, with small, fragmented, privatised and underused green spaces and an inadequate road system that can barely handle the cars that are already there. This is especially criminal because designers had proposed excellent plans and been asking the City’s municipal administration to use the tools it had at its disposal, to seize this redevelopment opportunity and do a better job.

The slum redevelopment is a similar opportunity missed. Instead of a grand, transformative plan, the lands are being developed piecemeal into vertical ghettoes. The once great strip of maidan running through the southern peninsula of the city has been mercilessly cut, chopped, privatised and divided into pieces that deny the City’s residents access.

In a September 2012 story, the New York Times highlighted the abject poverty of open space in Mumbai. It quoted a Mumbai Metropolitan Region Environment Improvement Society’s study. The Study found that Mumbai offered each resident 0.88 square metres of open space per person, compared to 6 and 2.5 square metres per person in Tokyo and New York respectively. If it weren’t for the ocean and the seafront, which has escaped being sold off so far, there would be no public or open space of any value for a City with over 13 million denizens.

As human beings, we can only live indoors in our homes and offices for so long. At some point, we need space to breathe, to interact, to walk, to gather. Social media and the efficiencies of internet and mobile communication have if anything, made it more important that cities provide physical spaces for their citizens to interact, and to build and sustain community. Cities that do not provide for these basic elements of the human experience are pressure cookers waiting to violently and bloodily, explode.

There are ways to stem the rot. As large parts of the older cities decay and become ripe for redevelopment, comprehensive, neighbourhood-based plans should be put into place with land-consolidation and cost-share mechanisms that would allow developers to build within clear criteria and built-form, without losing profit, and also allow the municipality to assemble land and the resources to create parks, better pedestrian-friendly streets, and public, open spaces. Such initiatives have been incredibly successful in so many parts of the world. In newer communities, municipalities should set clear goals of a minimum amount of public, opens pace per resident. This will ensure that when people move into their new homes, they will have every opportunity to build better, healthier and more engaged communities.

  • tejaniruddha

    Lets accept that we can not repair things beyond a point in a over populated city, understaffed government and over-exploited natural resources habitat. The efforts will eat-out a lot of energy and still may not yield anything sustainable. To stay in existing mega-cities will have extremes of trade-offs. Hereafter mega-city dwellers will have to pay a huge cost for their fetish. It is better if people start migrating to tier-2 cities and small towns. And off-course they should take their learnings there and make arrangements to secure and offer good-life to that growing habitat.

    on Jun 4, 2015
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  • Beena George

    Dear Tanzil, Thank you so much for your thought provoking article, such a delight to see such an article in this line. I can relate with the article so much, as I am working in the field of “ Revitalising parks and making inclusive play spaces from 2008 onwards in three Indian cities Nagpur, Bangalore and Thrissur. To give you a gist of our programme: I work with an NGO called ESAF, Starting in 1992, ESAF is working in seven states of India. We are working on “Livable and Child Friendly cities program since 2008. Started in Nagpur in Maharashtra state, and later joined by Bangalore in Karnataka and Thrissur in Kerala, in the following years with different program under three categories: • Parks and Public space Program • Pedestrian Rights Program • Safe Route to School Program As you know last few decades witnessed India’s rapid socio- economic growth on the positive side. But it also witnessed an alarming increase and burden on the No communicable Diseases(NCDs) on the country. Growing space crunch in public arena and lack of safe pedestrian infrastructures compelled to choose inactive lifestyle as a matter of option available for many of them. The obesity among children are on the higher end. Most of the neighbourhoods do not have parks, and the existing parks are not usable in many cities. One of the easiest way to mitigate the fast rising incidents of obesity and NCDs among children in India is the promotion of Parks&Public Spaces, promotion of an active transportation to school. This is the context of our Livable city Initiative and we envisage to achieve this vision: “We want happy and healthy children and families in every neighborhood who have safe streets, free access to parks, playgrounds, open space and fun places to play around”, through a lot of research and advocacy efforts. You may watch a small documentary (very amateur one) on our work in Nagpur here- I was just trying to reach you with what we are doing, and letting you know our deep appreciation for the article. Hope you get why I was so excited reading your article! Sincere regards, Beena George Asst.General Manager –Programmes ESAF

    on Nov 26, 2014
    • tejaniruddha

      No video is available on the documentary link provided in your reply

      on Jun 4, 2015
      • Beena

        Hi, please find the link here Thank you!

        on Jun 5, 2015
  • Nishant

    Dear Tanzeel, i appreciate your concerns and the point you raised has an important significance even in social & environmental fabric of a city. In India this is not the problem of merely the Mumbai but almost all Indian cities except for a few planned. I am interested to carry this perspective forward as my master's thesis. Can you help me providing some related data for any other city like Delhi, Ahmedabad or Agra as this is already well established relation in case of Mumbai. I wish to picturise this in any other north indian city context.

    on Aug 30, 2013
    • Tanzeel Merchant

      Thank you for sharing your perspective and feedback Nishant. Unfortunately I don't have any data for you on these other cities, but I'd be interested in what you find through your research. I've identified some sources in my article from which I found data for Mumbai and other global cities. You may be able to contact them to see if they have sources for you. - @tanzeelio

      on Sep 3, 2013
  • Ebrahim

    I am surprised, that you dont have many followers. this blog is very thoughtful, i back you, Mumbai needs more parks, open spaces rather then gardens in tall buildings

    on Jul 16, 2013
    • Tanzeel Merchant

      Thank you for the comment Ebrahim. It is much appreciated. Old Mumbai's/Bombay's declining population offers some opportunity to reclaim some badly-needed open space. I'd welcome you following me, and thoughts you might have on pieces in the future. -tanzeelio

      on Jul 23, 2013
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