Some parks in the city with their improved pathways and play areas are attracting crowds, says MEERA MOHANTY
A young man plods along, helmet in hand, laptop hanging from his shoulder. He is soon overtaken by an elderly woman whose crisp Bengal handloom sari is worn an inch above a pair of Nikes. She in turn, is beaten by a sweat-drenched thirty-something, slogging it out in rhythm to whatever is playing on his iPod. Elsewhere, weaving through coochie-cooing young couples and old grandparents shuffling by, little ones whiz past like rogue missiles. A year since the Corporation revamped and revived many of the city's parks, there's new vigour in these pockets of green. For many it's their first visit to city parks, their first fitness walk. They may be small blessings to a city that is sadly deprived of large green areas, but these parks have nonetheless changed life for many. Sixty-nine-year-old Gomathi Ramnathan says her doctor is a happy man. "My sugar level has come down because of the extra exercise. Earlier, I would walk once a day but that was on the streets. Now I manage up to six laps twice a day, after that my knees need rest," she says. Getting off the roads has been great, agrees Prema U., who visits the same park at Nungambakkam regularly. "You go up on to the pavement to avoid traffic, then down to avoid the broken stretches. Then up again when an auto comes straight at you. Walking in the park is a lot safer. It's also a lot more stress-free."
Play area for children
"These open spaces are great for children, not only to play in but also to meet other children, particularly when you live in a nuclear family," says a young mother, her eyes never leaving her one-year-old son, who has very bravely tottered into the war zone. A tennis ball whizzes past as a young boy swings his cricket bat. But you can count on nine-year-old Arunima in a pink Barbie T-shirt, to come to the rescue. She clenches her fists and hollers out to the boys to watch out. Since they've moved out from playing in the apartment block's car park, the gang, which includes Vaishnavi and Aaradhya, has taken up more exhilarating games. There're football, cricket and throwball - and at no risk to the neighbour's windows. Three-year-old Joe's mother says she's glad for the park. "I want him to develop a love for the kind of outdoor activities we grew up with. Otherwise, there're just computer games and the TV. And I don't want him to be a bookworm either," she says. The parks are the new Marina, thronged by thousands every weekend. According to G. Natarajan, one of the keepers at the Independence Day Park at Valluvar Kottam, which sees between 150 and 200 walkers on any given weekday, the crowds surge to 5,000 during the weekends. The atmosphere is festive with a balloon vendor, a woman crouched next to her sundal basket, an ice cream cart at the entrance, the buzzing of the popcorn vendor's bright lamp and the bell in the hand of the cotton candy boy. The teeming crowds are great for the hawkers, not too great for the park's cleanliness. It takes seven people - five cleaners, a supervisor and a watchman - to maintain the Independence Day Park. But no one's complaining, not even those who have to clean up the mess left behind. "You know this place was a haven for drunkards who would come here to sleep off their alcohol, the ganja and joint rolling guys and drug peddlers. And frankly, it was scary just walking past this place. But now look at the crowds!" says a proud Natarajan. A great start indeed, says M. G. Devasahayam of the Citizens' Alliance for Sustainable Living (Sustain). "But these are just pretty patches and haven't really done much to change the overall sanitation or cleanliness, or even the general character of the city, " he says. He also points out to the liberal use of concrete in some of these parks. Concrete is not the most climate-friendly material. It isn't easy on the knees either if you slip or fall. Although many of the parks have a small playground, children cannot be confined to one place. The idea of a central water body planned for the Haddows Road Park for one worries a few mothers. Then there is the question of rusting play equipment and lack of supervision of children.
G. Dattatri, former Chief Urban Planner, MMDA, suggests that the beneficiaries be the stakeholders. "It's important that the community be involved in the maintenance of the park. In fact, we must find a way to make it a private-public property. Initial investment can be kept to a minimum and more money should be earmarked for maintenance instead." Ideally every neighbourhood should set aside a small area, says Dattatri. By `small' he means at least an acre, and public spaces should not be turned into theme parks. "It isn't enough to have pathways to walk on, the parks have to be a centre for all kinds of activities." The popularity of these public spaces is marked by the long lines of vehicles parked outside. It wouldn't be cynical to point out that parking space, if it ever had been considered in the original blueprint, has not been provided. With namba Chennai growing at the rate at which it is, city planners must have the foresight to ensure that when the residents descend from their high-rises and swanky offices, there's more than just a little green patch of earth to step on to. And as experts point out, there's a need for holistic planning of public spaces so that the city's quality of life is not judged solely by the number of MNCs and pubs, the engineering acumen or the swishiest of designer brands.