When Nicola and I spent a month in Ahmedabad earlier this year we visited a total of 40 public open spaces including about 28 parks. Amongst these are the well-known parks like the iconic Kankaria Lake in the south east of the city and the more traditional Law and Parimal Gardens in the west – those for which people would make a special trip across the city to visit. But as the map below shows, Ahmedabad is also home to many other smaller, residential parks that we were either encouraged to visit by the people we met, or that we simply came across on our travels.
In terms of how the parks were being used, of course there were the usual things that spring to mind when you think of a park, anywhere. Kids played in equipped play areas (but not for long), groups of youngsters and students played ball games on the lawn and friends chatted on park benches. But there were many more unusual uses we encountered!
Well there’s the jogging track. Nearly every park we visited had an unsurfaced brown track around its perimeter (no matter what size or shape of the park) which featured markers at regular intervals to tell the jogger/walker/runner how far they had travelled.
Compared to many developed countries like the UK, private gardens are not common place in Indian cities. For the privileged living in private colonies there would probably be a shared garden, but for others, parks represent the only real places where one can get close to nature and away from the noise and packed activity of the streets beyond. City streets are not quiet places and there are few pedestrianised areas left in the Indian city that are either without people and/or auto rickshaws rushing around, or that haven’t been encroached upon.
Parks are also the only chance for many (who can’t afford to attend private gymnasiums) to have space to exercise. Most parks can be found packed between 6 and 8am and then again from about 6-8pm – full of joggers and locals exercising. We saw everything from older residents doing hand stretching exercises, to people on outdoor (free!) gym equipment, people dancing, doing yoga and locals swinging their legs from the unusually high benches we kept seeing (it took us a good 3 weeks to identify what they were!). Of course it’s easy to forget that although there are people everywhere in the city, places like Ahmedabad are fairly unwalkable and in order to ‘stretch your legs’ the jogging tracks are vital.
This was particularly true for the aptly named Jogger’s Park. Picture the scene. What looks like your average park, but it’s 8am and there is two-lane traffic using the jogging paths round the perimeter of the park. The young and the old; the walkers, joggers and runners. There are families exercising on the lawn, young women using the outdoor exercise equipment, and a lone young guy dancing enthusiastically to his iPod, wearing his suit and ready to go to work.
In most of the city’s parks, there was always a lawn or two and always ample seating in various different formats. In one park we would come across bench-lined paths, covered seating areas, formal seating areas, benches arranged in groups, concrete seating moulded around trees…there was no end of choice.
Lakes featured in many parks across the city and seemingly have the function of creating space, providing a nice view, a place for wildlife and an amenity to walk around. But from what we saw, the park user rarely has the opportunity to interact with the lake itself.
The only use of a lake as an amenity by people we saw was at Kankaria Lake - a huge man-made lake constructed in the 15th century to be used for bathing by the kings. It was redeveloped in 2008 and is now a major attraction in the city where people go to spend the whole day. You have to pay 10Rp to get in and then can either wander round taking in the sights and sounds as we did, or pay further money to experience the many attractions on offer. You can go on a boat ride, sit in an inflatable on the lake, go on a train ride, buy food from a kiosk or go to the zoo. But don’t forget, this is a park that used to be free to get into and was from all accounts a lovely place to come to ‘get away from it all’.
So with all the mayhem, no wonder then that whatever the time of day and whatever the location, there would always be somebody in a park. Men are more widely seen than women, but then that goes for the street and any other form of public space in the Indian city. Use of a park was dependent on time of day and day of the week. Sunday is the big day to go to the park in Ahmedabad. I think we found ourselves in parks most days and the Sundays definitely felt different. There were more families making use of the parks and in the parks near to the Sunday Market, we saw groups of women sitting enjoying the sun.
It was interesting to find that young couples would frequent a park to have some privacy, away from the prying eyes of their families or people they know.
It was great to see so many people enjoying the city’s parks in a passive way. But this was often controlled by security. We saw slum kids playing football on a lawn in a park – this wasn’t allowed. We saw a father playing on the swings with his child - this wasn’t allowed. So even when you think parks are for the recreation of its users in whatever form they desire (within reason) it isn’t always the case.
But the images below are those that will last with me for the longest. Barefoot kids showing off their breakdancing moves that I’m sure they’ve been practicing for ages in any space they could find; a group of men playing a street game with pebbles and a board made from finger marks in the sand; and a simple birdfeeder attached to a tree. This is what parks are all about.