It is clear there is no careful assessment of what the city needs in terms of public spaces. The Corporation is so limited in its vision that all it can think of is the beach. It may defend its decision by citing the example of the additional parks it has created. But numbers expose their limited extent.
Chennai Corporation is like a horse wearing heavy blinkers on a paralysed head. How else can one understand its obsessive attention on one urban space — Marina beach — when the city is starved for more public places. Last week, for the umpteenth time, Corporation decided to beautify Marina and sanctioned Rs. 5 crore.
Let me illustrate the repetitive expenditure on the beach before highlighting what it denies. A major overhauling of the Marina commenced in 1965. Trees were planted, roads were paved, and lawns were created. As a reader of The Hindu pointed out in his letter to the Editor in 1967, even a ‘lovers’ path’ was developed with trees and plants. When this beautification project was on, the government changed. In 1967, when Annadurai was the Chief Minister, the new government mooted proposals to develop Marina to resemble the ancient city of Poompuhar. After his death in 1970, authorities built his memorial on the beach and the area around it was developed. Another beautification scheme was implemented in 1973 at a cost of Rs. 1.6 crore.
Marina beach front development was again taken up in 1983 and the beautification went overboard in 1985. When they evicted fishermen, violent protests followed and many died in the police firing. This however did not stop Marina projects. In 1992, 1993 and 1994 the beach was redone — plants were replanted, pavements were redone, lights were changed, and seats replaced. Madras vision 2000, with an outlay of Rs. 4,000 crore, wanted to substantially redevelop the beach.
After a few years, in 2007, the government once again spent Rs. 25 crore on the Marina. The landscape was altered once more. Hardly three years after the completion of the project, the Corporation announced yet another beautification project. Compare this with a promise made in 1975. The government, through the first master plan, assured that Chennai would get about 1,450 hectares of open spaces by 1995. Even by 2006, it could add only about 360 hectares. In 2008, the government promised open space and recreation areas would be increased to 1,000 hectares by 2026.
It is clear there is no careful and committed assessment of what the city needs in terms of public spaces. The Corporation is so limited in its vision that all it can think of is the beach. It may defend its decision by citing the example of the additional parks it has created. But numbers expose their limited extent. More importantly, parks are not the only kind of urban space the city needs.
Richard Sennett , a well known urban sociologist, through his book The Fall of Public Man, three decades ago, convincingly demonstrated that depletion of urban spaces would erode public life. Planning for both private and public spheres is critical. But Chennai Corporation does not seem to think so. It probably deceives itself into believing that shopping malls are the new urban spaces.
Without lake fronts, cultural arenas, spaces for Sunday markets, large swathe of green areas, or even wild marshlands, Chennai will not be a vibrant city. Spaces for collective gardening and urban farming are not far beyond its urban future. Chennaiites do not want to live in a shopping centre when they are not strolling on the beach. Would the Corporation take note?