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Last Updated Tuesday May 23 2017 08:18 PM IST

Transform our cities, reclaim the outdoors for urban dwellers

Shalini Anna Dominic
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Fort Kochi Rain clouds shroud over Fort Kochi. File photo

The crowds at the new Streetscape Park in Kochi show how much we need open and green spaces. India’s urban planners should give priority to this need.

A friend who lived in Kochi many years ago remembers it as a charming coastal town lined with beautiful bungalows and houses, each with its own little garden boasting more than a few mango and coconut trees. Lush and green, it embodied everything that made Kerala God’s Own Country though that popular appellation had not been coined at the time.

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With the passage of time, things have of course changed. Today, Kochi is a bustling metropolis, one among many vying for the title of a smart city. Capital and manpower, the twin engines of growth, have flooded the city and boosted its credentials as the commercial capital of Kerala. But handicapped by a lack of space to meet this growing influx, Kochi’s growth has of necessity turned vertical.

Houses have given way to high-rises, trees chopped down, and gardens paved over to become car parks. Concrete and asphalt have replaced the greenery that once surrounded us and noxious fumes now overpower the salt-laden breeze that blows in from the sea. This story is not unique to Kochi; dozens of rapidly growing towns and cities across India are seeing the same decline in green cover, air quality and open spaces.

And it is in this context of disappearing private green spaces that public greens -- parks, gardens and playing fields -- play an increasingly vital role. Not only do they serve as a much-needed green lung for our choked cities but they also serve as places of outdoor recreation for city dwellers who are otherwise forced to remain cooped up in their high-rises or in shopping malls.

The crowds that throng our few existing parks, the mind-boggling number of cricket and football games that are played simultaneously on whatever patch of open ground is available, the hordes of walkers and cyclists jostling for space on the busy roads, the wall of recreational fisherman who line the sidewalks of our bridges … all speak of our abiding need and love for being out of doors.

And so, as we attempt to grow our cities in a planned manner and meet our housing and transportation needs effectively, it is important that we do not neglect this crucial aspect of urban development -- the need for outdoor recreational and green spaces.

The new Streetscape Park, a walkway and cycling path developed and maintained by Kochi Metro Rail in Panampilly Nagar, is a wonderful example of how a small but well-thought-out and executed development can become the focal point for surrounding neighborhoods, providing a space where young and old, families and friends gather for some much-needed exercise or relaxation.

Replicating such an endeavor across our cities would indeed be transformational. Studies show that young people who maintain an active and outdoor lifestyle are more likely to keep away from making poor lifestyle choices. And that older people who are less sedentary and have a greater interaction with the outdoors and each other enjoy a better quality of life. In other words, an investment in public parks and playing fields in our cities would pay rich dividends for all citizens in terms of their physical and mental well-being.

Of course developing such spaces aesthetically and economically brings with it many challenges, but the greatest challenge is the upkeep and maintenance of the same. We have a tendency toward being careless with public property and it is this attitude that often hinders the enthusiasm of those involved in formulating these developments.

But I believe people and attitudes can change and that as more people come to experience the benefits of being active and outdoors, their sense of responsibility and ownership toward public green areas will increase. For, after all, going green will bring us back full circle to a Kochi, as well as other rapidly urbanising towns and cities, that are charming and offer a high quality of life. And which of its residents would not want that?!

(The author is a writer based in Kochi. This column will appear every alternate Wednesday)

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