It’s easy to drive around in Delhi on holidays, but not if you are passing through . One of the largest open stretches in the heart of the national capital, the lawns get more footfall than any other public place, barring the zoo, in Delhi. The crowds often spill over into roads and cause traffic snarls.
Not everyone who visits Delhi’s famous war memorial is an out-of-towner. One finds groups of boys from the walled city playing cricket, children running around their families, couples occupying their slots and many loners just wandering about. For many, this is the only open space accessible to them in the city.
Once, the best part about living in Delhi was the sense of space it provided. Even now, the national capital doesn’t fare badly on the open area to population ratio. The WHO recommends at least nine sqm of unpaved open space for every city inhabitant. Most developed countries have about 20 sqm of open space per capita. Delhi has 22 sqm per person. Yet, residents in many Delhi neighbourhoods complain about the lack of open space.
Blame eco-disparity for that. With 20% forest cover, Delhi is one of the world’s greenest cities. But the green cover is not uniformly distributed. According to a TERI University report, there is 121 sqm of green space available per capita in New Delhi district. In adjoining Central Delhi, it is 35 sqm. It further reduces to 3.05 sqm in the north-east, 2.73 in the east and 2.5 sqm in the west Delhi. Most of the city forests are situated in the north-west and the south-west districts of Delhi. East and north-east Delhi is dense and finding land for plantation, except for the Yamuna riverbank, has been difficult for the government, the report concluded.
The absence of natural greenery can be compensated by trees on streets and neighbourhood parks. Delhi has 14,500 parks, gardens and green areas. But one in three parks is an ornamental garden. Others have been taken away by encroachment, mostly to accommodate cars, build garbage stations, and install power transformers.
In unauthorised colonies, the informal settlements that house one-third of Delhi’s population, buildings are so tightly packed that they block sunlight and air coming into the homes. A tree or a park is an unimaginable luxury in these pockets.
Green space, anyway, comes at a premium in the property market. Some of the greenest neighbourhoods in the national capital — be it Lutyens’ zone or south or central Delhi — are also the most expensive. Less dense and more affluent, these areas can afford space for private lawns, roadside trees and well-maintained parks.
Even in middle-class neighbourhoods, ‘park-facing’ houses and flats are more expensive. New real-estate projects in the national capital region come with an extra cost if they come with a ‘green’ tag.
But greenery can’t be the preserve of the rich. Cities across the world are fighting the problem of eco-gentrification — rise in property values following a large-scale urban greening project that price out original residents. Some, like Curitiba in Brazil, have actually ensured that every citizen gets her slice of green.
Curitiba saw rapid urbanisation in the 1970s when the per capita green space reduced to one sqm. Back then, Brazil didn’t have big money to spend on greening drives. So, Jamie Lerner, the mayor of Curitiba for two terms, thought “small, cheap and participatory”. According to Green Changemakers, he provided 1.5 million tree seedlings to neighbourhoods, including favelas (slums), for them to plant and care for. He hired teenagers to keep the parks clean. In 1971, Curitiba had only one park. Today, it has more than 50 sq metres of green space per person – compared to neighbouring Buenos Aires’s mere two sqm per person.
More space per capita naturally pushes up property costs in leafy neighbourhoods. But reimagining Delhi will require reasonable democratisation of greenery and open space. So next monsoon, when the city goes on a plantation overdrive, authorities could utilise every slice of space available in slums and unauthorised colonies. And every effort at urban renewal should utilise a good chunk of land freed by vertical densification for greening. After all, in the words of Curitiba mayor Lerner, there is little in a city architecture more beautifully designed than a tree.