In the UK, we are spoilt with the openness of our parks and gardens. Think of your local park... it probably isn’t fenced all the way round, isn’t closed during the day, and it’s likely you can simply drift off the roadside into it, or through an obvious and clear gateway. Well, many of the parks and gardens that we visited in Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujarat in India are enclosed by fences or compound walls. Where the spaces are located directly next to apartments, an 8-foot wall can often be found separating the two, without any direct access. So why the compound walls and fences? Because without them, it’s likely that families will encroach on the space and start to make the park their home.
Many of the Amdavadis that Nicola and I spoke to on our trip kept saying “But there aren’t any parks in Ahmedabad!” Well we found that there were many parks, but most were hard to spot. Gates were closed, even sometimes locked, and with a lot of parks shut daily between 12 and 2 for maintenance, we found ourselves wondering – “Is it open, can we go in, what’s going on?”
And then there’s the security presence at the parks. I don’t think there was one park that we went to where there wasn’t a security guard (or someone acting in this role) either on the gate or wandering around the park. And more often than not, they could be found wielding some sort of stick! Other security measures included metal detector gates on entrance to malls and once at a temple! Not very welcoming.
So where do people go? Well we discovered that those who can afford it have the option of going to private sports/leisure clubs in the city for exercising and playing sport. Some might have access to open space belonging to some of Ahmedabad’s large institutions. For everyone else at a more local scale, it’s a matter of using a park that you feel comfortable visiting (and that can depend on your religion, gender and/or economic status). Other Amdavadis who can afford it might have access to a shared colony-scale park. There are certainly very few private gardens belonging to individual residences – only really in middle class housing colonies. And what about all those who don’t want/use a park?
But where are the truly accessible spaces in Ahmedabad? The streets – that’s where!
Then there’s the Sunday Market. Located on the side of the Sabarmati River, Amdavadis come here to carry out their age-old traditions of weekend trading. Wow, what an amazing place! Like the city’s streets, it is lively, interesting and colourful, with thousands of people selling their wares and buying all sorts of things. And what a great location under a bridge!
So we saw many parks, lakes and streets. But what about access to nature? Academics and practitioners that we met kept mentioning this place called Atira. “It’s lovely, you can get away from it all”. Atira (Ahmedabad Textile Industry's Research Association) opens its gates for 2 hours in the morning and in the early evening – outside business hours – when people can use the main jogging path and the wooded areas.
So hearing this, we had high expectations! But I was slightly disappointed to discover it was simply a tarmac track through a privately-owned site, edged by woodland scrub. Yes you could wander off into the wilderness, but there weren’t exactly any easily defined paths, benches or scenic views to enjoy.
One of the city’s latest designed greenspaces is the Riverfront Park, opened in October 2013 with a vision (according to project lead HCP Design, Planning and Management Ltd) for ‘environmental improvement, social upliftment and urban rejuvenation’. So what about accessibility? Firstly, alongside Kankaria Lake, Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation have introduced an entrance fee here in a bid to ‘avoid nuisance’ and help pay for the maintenance of parks and gardens. 10 rupees may seem to be a ‘nominal’ amount but that may still be unaffordable for some. Secondly, compare the visualisation below with the photo I took in January. Not only is there a lack of connect between the park and the water, there is a distinct lack of people. The steps to the park from the riverside walk aren’t exactly inviting. There was a guard at every set of steps making you feel like your every move was being watched – even though, yes of course, we were highly conspicuous!
The result of the project (so far) is a harsh concrete riverside with limited connection to the river - when you can get close enough to the 10m+ high wall to be able to see over it to the river, that is!
So were there any parks in Ahmedabad we considered well-connected to their surrounding communities? One example of a greenspace with good physical and visual access was the Canal garden on the east side of Ahmedabad, adjacent to Chandola Lake. A linear greenspace stretching through several lower class colonies, the park has good accessibility on both sides, was well-used as a cut-through, with fences low enough to allow conversations to happen across them. Even though there were roads between the apartments and the park, you got a real sense that kids were playing close to home – as near to a back garden as they could hope for really.