Updated: June 28, 2021 10:19:11 pm
Written by Sujata Kohli, Nidhi Madan, Sri devi Rao
The past few months have seen much discussion over the process of the projected vision of a ‘New India’ and the Central Vista redevelopment. The process implies designing for democracy and putting aside all of the debated points, there is a fundamental need to review, through a landscape lens, the primary underlying issues that the re-imagined development should address, being as it is, a seminal, once-in-a-century project. At the city level, public spaces are linked through a network to the community through various spatial scales and activity. It is in this context that city-level spaces have the potential to achieve much more than other spaces.
The Central Vista is of immense significance to Landscape Architects for other reasons as well. As defined and bounded by central government buildings and various institutions of national importance, it is a setting that is historically and culturally priceless. As a professional body of Landscape Architects, the Indian Society of Landscape Architects (ISOLA), has been sensitive to these issues. The design is an opportunity to retain and enhance those qualities that embody the definition of Central Vista. A review of what that reimagination should look like through the lens of a landscape approach is essential for Central Vista to continue to fulfill its role. This means that the ecological and functional interrelationships between landform, vegetation, water and human activity and mitigating the impact on the environment, a significant impact is evident through public open spaces such as Central Vista.
We are in a time of climate crisis where the focus is on health and wellbeing. The role of open spaces in fulfilling active and passive recreation, preventing disease and thereby health, pollution control, storm water management and disaster management is extensively documented. This is a time where the past has manifested in these public commons, ideals of democracy, equity and access. Therefore, it is important to understand what Central Vista will represent or should represent. The documentation of the landscape heritage of Central Vista and the ecological, spatial and qualitative benefits it provides to citizens is an essential part of any democratic process. The need to showcase sustainability and climate resilience to achieve urban resilience in city-level spaces establishes precedence for urban open spaces in other cities of India in the future. This redevelopment presents a unique opportunity to establish a legacy for the future generations by addressing the importance of the ecosystem and creating an inclusive, cohesive and ecologically-sound public open space.
As opposed to a beautification or horticultural approach, the design should consider a holistic approach. This would not only enhance imageability but substantively increase equitable open spaces for access, play, recreation and imagination. From the perspective of safeguarding intangible values, the public, vendors and tourists are an integral part of the Central Vista, adding to the overall cultural experience at India Gate, Rashtrapati Bhavan, National Museum and thereabouts. Proposed government buildings opening out onto the Central Vista will mandate that security requirements are paramount. With the proposed basement structures, underground connections, ramps and subsurface transit corridors, the increased structural footprint will reduce the available porous ground for water recharge and planting. Consequently, the proposal for the Central Vista needs to start from the vision of its valuable eco-system services.
The ecosystem service benefits, that an enhanced sensitivity to the Central Vista foresees is that this space is a carbon sink offering thermal comfort, mitigating pollution, increasing groundwater recharge, regulating floods, preventing disease and is a biodiversity habitat. These aspects need to be addressed as an essential part of, and not separate from, its landscape “design”.
A comprehensive and collective experience, which accommodates light quality, diurnal and seasonal activities, gathering and vendor interaction, safety of access to and from public transport, car parking, cycle tracks, and pedestrian paths to the Central Vista Avenue, should be incorporated in the design.
The biodiversity value of this area in relation to both flora and fauna and their tangible and intangible values should be looked at more exhaustively. This includes the larger ecological impact of the execution of this project. The construction staging, demolition, tree protection, dismantling, material stockpiling, disposal and its consequent air and noise pollution, debris generation, water requirements, waste management and more importantly, preservation of top soil, do not appear to be addressed since information is lacking even to ISOLA, leave alone the public at large. The documentation of existing trees and the avi-fauna and fauna is also not evident. Furthermore, wind pattern analysis of built proposals and consequent tree planting as shelterbelts and windbreaks for the summer wind and winter cold could be a foundation for user comfort. The use of innovative landscape designs, technologies and solutions for soils, water, and increased root nutrients must be introduced in this proposed “architectural landscape”.
For a progressive urban vision in a time of critical climate action, using renewable materials and minimising the use of non-renewable ones, maximising permeability, nature-based water management and vegetation solutions are critical imperatives. For example, grit or gravel, locally known as bajri, in the current scheme, do require maintenance but are easier to walk on and environmentally sound. A detailed assessment of resource use, reuse and management is required.
The consideration and foundation of the ecosystem services offered by the Central Vista are vital for the health of Delhi and its future generations. The project provides an opportunity to look at the pandemic/ post-pandemic global intent and actions that emphasise their relevance and the vital necessity of public open spaces such as the Central Vista to cities. A broad holistic solution that is sensitive to the environment and responsive to historic landscape would fulfill Sustainable Development Goal 11 and the objectives for 2030.
Kohli is an EC member, Madan a former secretary and Rao a former president of the Landscape Architects, the Indian Society of Landscape Architects (ISOLA)