Setting the Context

My sojourn with Delhi began about 6 months ago. Prior to this I was based out of my home-city Bengaluru. Delhi was new to me and I was still in the process of fully understanding it let alone unpacking its various layers. My initial rendezvous with the city included short weekend trips to historic sites, architectural master pieces and of course the food! William Dalrymple’s and Sam Miller’s books also helped. What blew my mind coming from the south of India was of course the harsh climate (in Bengaluru we are blessed with a salubrious climate throughout the year), the somewhat rude people and the lack of coconut or banana embedded into the local diet (many would be particularly amused by this reason). But what immediately drew me to the city was firstly the opportunity to step foot everyday into the magnificent India Habitat Center (designed by American architect Allen Stein during the early 90’s), the opportunity to work for a large urban agglomeration such as Delhi and of course the kind people I had met at work. Both organising and taking part in the IGLUS Delhi module was my trawl into the city and an opportunity to build a more nuanced understanding of it. During the planning of the IGLUS module, the organising team (Anand, Kanak, Nilesh and Myself) strongly felt shorter lectures and regular site visits would add immense value in building an experience of the city and its complex governance structures over the two week period.

And what an experience it was, from learning about this great metropolise from its very origins at Mehrauli, to witnessing redevelopment sites at Kidwai Nagar, Karol Bagh and Hauz Khaz and also learning about the pivotal role of bio diversity from a great teacher along the Yamuna to even witnessing an exorcism at the Nizamuddin Dargah. The two weeks that dawned at NIUA between 16th and 27th of September was memorable, and one of immense learning and reflection. The program brought together limited but diverse professionals representing geographies from Europe, South America and the Far East. The diversity in thought helped build interesting discourses during the 2 week program.

Today, many of the Delhi’s urban issues, does not really emerge from within the city but from its regional metabolism. This can be attributed to Delhi’s primacy to the north of India and its unique geography. Delhi over time has come to dawn many negative world views, one of a Polluted City, a Car-centric City and even an Unsafe City. During the IGUS program we visited and learned about 3 projects which completely busts these 3 generic world views and showed that it is possible to craft a sustainable as well as collective urban future. I will try and articulate my understanding of these 3 innovate urban projects and how bottom-up planning needs to be adopted to solve many of our chronic urban issues.    

Biodiversity in the Polluted City

Visiting the Yamuna Biodiversity park was a truly a unique experience. The opportunity to witness close to 450 acres of pristine urban landscape in a city like Delhi was breath taking in itself. Located in the north of Delhi near Wazirabad, the biodiversity park is a haven for unique biodiversity, wetlands and grassland communities. The biodiversity park is located on land that is owned by the DDA and they are the primary stakeholders for the project. The project is divided into 2 phases, phase 1 which includes 150 acres of inactive floodplains and phase 2 includes 300 acres of active floodplains.  The project was conceptualised during the early 2000’s by renowned ecologist Prof. CR Babu and Dr. Faiyaz Khudsar. During the site visit, Dr. Faiyaz first gave a short lecture followed by a guided walk through the park. During the lecture Dr. Faiyaz spoke very passionately about the challenges in implementing the constructed wetland. He remembered an early experience were number of plant species had died and what doomed upon them was the fear of the project failing. He also fondly remembered his guru Prof. Babu who assured him about the proof of concept and asked him to give nature its due time. The biodiversity park is manmade and took a period of close to 15 years to reach its current state. It is home to 2000 plant and animal species living in about 30 biotic communities. What is most interesting is the use of hydrophytes in creation and protection of the wetland. After the creation of the wetland, lots of migratory birds started coming in and one fine day even a Chettah was spotted. Dr. Khudsar exclaimed, we realised that we had done our job and that natures balance had been restored with the top of the hierarchy coming in. The project has also had a positive effect on the low income communities surrounding the biodiversity park, in terms of rehabilitation and providing much needed physical infrastructure.

The city needs more Prof. Babus and Dr. Khudsars, their sheer passion for biodiversity and tenacity in looking failure in the eye and overcoming it is inspiring. They have shown that wetlands can be created in a so called polluted city like Delhi and in the long run more biodiversity parks like this will help in mitigating pollution.

Hydrophytes planted all along the periphery of the lake. Photo credits: Madhukar

Walking in the Car-centric City

Over many decades Delhi’s answer to solving its transport issues has revolved around building flyovers and widening roads. We are at a critical juncture in our planning history where paradigm shifts are being made. The Karol Bagh pedestrinisation project sits in this juncture, in questioning the status quo and being successful at that. Karol Bagh is a neighbourhood which was planned as an extension to the over-crowded Old Delhi post-independence. Over time it has developed into a major commercial center of Central Delhi characterised by vehicular congestion and parking. It had become overly difficult for a pedestrian to manoeuvre the streets. Karol Bagh today is mixed use in nature with commerce on the ground floor and living spaces on the top floor. The Karol Bagh pedestrinisation project was envisioned by UTTIPEC and its many budding designers. Ajmal Khan street was taken as a pilot and if the pilot worked it would get scaled to other streets. Anuj Malhotra who was part of UTTIPEC for a long time and spearheaded this particular project ran us through the entire process of implementation. Any urban project of this scale will have winners and losers, successful implementation of such urban projects lies in making sure there are more winners than losers. The sheer number of stakeholders adds to the complexity of intervening at such a site such. An extensive process of engagement took place with the stakeholders of Ajmal Khan street in order for the project to reach fruition. The project sought to balance the needs of the shopkeepers, customers, auto rickshaw drivers, but not faltering from the main vision- pedestrinisation of Ajmal Khan street. Parking management plans were prepared with an understanding of the existing demand for parking, identifying defunct sites nearby and allocating parking within these sites. The stakeholders were involved in the entire process and taken into confidence while taking major decisions. To me this is the key lesson, make people part of the planning process thereby making them responsible for their space. The passion and hard work by Anuj and his team is testimonial to the change that is seen on ground. It was pure joy walking down Ajmal Khan street, not worrying about being run over by cars and of course the window shopping.

The IGLUS-NIUA team at Ajmal Khan street. Photo credits: Jerry Kollo

Social Change in the Unsafe City

Nizamuddin Basti is a historic settlement in Delhi which dates back to the 12th century (Yes 700 years old!) founded by Sufi Saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. The saints tomb is located in the basti and attracts millions of devotees every year in the search of spirituality. The basti was also home to multiple intellects including poets, musicians and saints, most notably the poet Ghalib (whose tomb is also located here). During much of the 90’s and 2000’s the Basti had gone into a state of depletion with many of its heritage structures in a dilapidated condition, ghettoisation that had taken place coupled with rising poverty. Poverty manifested in increased crime rates and even children dropping out from school. The Aga Khan Trust (AKT) adopted Nizamuddin in 2007 and initiated the Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Mission which focused on heritage conservation and protection as a tool to bring social change. On visiting the Basti during the IGLUS program and walking through its narrow streets, there seemed to be a sense of collective action that the program was able to foster within the basti. More children were in school, the local community was employed in restoring many of its heritage structures and also in managing the Basti’s many institutions (schools, food catering services etc). The community was also using their schools in the evening for skill upgradation classes for working adults (thus using institutional space in the most effective manner). It also seemed the community had begun to take pride in their 700-year-old Basti and show case it to the rest of the city. The Basti had opened up, made more accessible to people from other parts of the city. People today throng the Basti for its food, its Sufi Qawali nights and of course to get a glimpse of Ghalibs tomb. Much of the funding for the project was from the AKT and some from the local municipality.

Inside the Nizamuddin Dargah. Photo credits: Raman Kumar

These three projects clearly demonstrate that bottom-up planning is the way forward and that there is a need to demystify top-down planning. There also emerges a need to question the fundamental conceptual frameworks of top down planning as it is colonial, meant to segregate and has really not worked in the Indian context.

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