Historian Narayani Gupta remembers a Delhi when Vasant Kunj was a carpet of mustard fields, monuments were cleaner, the Buddha Jayanti Park was full of palash flowers, and the jheel inside the Jawaharlal Nehru University welcomed winter birds. Speaking at the launch of Delhi: Hills, Forest and a River recently, an ecological map of the Capital, Gupta shared her childhood memories of the city that has been her home for seven decades. The map is the result of an extensive study by Landscape Foundation India, a research studio started by Delhi-based landscape architects Brijendra S Dua and Geeta Wahi Dua, who edit LA, a journal of landscape architecture.
Spanning the last 12 centuries, the map highlights ecologically significant areas — manmade as well as natural — from tanks and baolis to lakes and forests. With digitally created graphics, hand-drawn maps and sketches, the map lays out the spatial relationship between the city and its inhabitants, its politics, preferences and priorities. It is split into two sections: “Journey So Far” and “Mapping Nature”. Its convenient foldable format (146mm x 193mm) makes it easy to carry around.
From the time that the old city of Lal Kot had its water-harvesting systems, and down to the time when the Commonwealth Games Village came up along the floodplains in 2012, the Yamuna river has seen many twists and turns. The map tells how self-sufficient water systems such as baolis, tanks and barrages fed the river. Along the course of history, when the Mughals left and the British arrived, and when Partition happened, the Yamuna moved from being a supporter of the city to a sewage.
“We need to recognise the value of nature and have balanced strategies of development. Instead of being nostalgic about the past or imagining a bright future for our city’s environment, we believe that the first step towards finding a sustainable solution for environmental issues is to identify and document ‘environment’, ‘culture’ and ‘history’ in spatial terms. The map connects these dots to present a holistic picture on a basic scale,” says one of the architects. The project began in January, and brought together historians, social scientists, architects, Survey of India maps, and handbooks.
While the map is a pilot project in Delhi, available in English and Hindi, there are plans to document Bengaluru, Pune and Bhopal as well. “We feel this perspective of looking at a city has many hidden markers that point towards research on vanishing floodplains, polluting rivers, and depleting groundwater table. We hope this is a beginning of a special knowledge, which will help in formulating sensitive guidelines to make our cities, towns and villages more liveable,” say the makers of the map.