Where have all the green spaces gone?

Last Updated: Oct 28, 2014, 17:11 PM IST

Rutu Mody-Kamdar

“They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
Then they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see 'em”

In her 1970 hit song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, Joni Mitchell beautifully bemoaned the dwindling green spaces in the big city, and famously sang “They pulled paradise and put up a parking lot”.

The rapid depletion of urban green spaces is something that doesn’t seem to have slowed down in the decades that have passed since the song hit the charts. And nowhere else is this ravaging of our open spaces more evident than in Mumbai city.

As Indian cities go, Mumbai hasn’t traditionally been known for its open spaces. Its rivals Delhi and Bangalore have always had larger, greener parks. Chennai’s Marina Beach is cleaner and longer than Chowpatty or Juhu. Rather, the city’s allure has always been in its grittiness and glamour. And yet even in the megapolis, citizens feel the pinch of eroding open spaces, something the city was reproached for in an IMRB Survey done in association with a leading daily. With a score of 1.8, Mumbai was at the bottom of a list of eight cities for its disappearing greens while Delhi did reasonably better at 2.9.

India’s National Building Code lays down that there should be at least 4 acres of open spaces, accessible to all, per 1,000 population. Mumbai has less than one-hundredth of that: a depressing 0.03 acres. 

What does it mean for a city’s residents, especially its youngest ones, when there are hardly any open green spaces?

Time and again, research has shown that open spaces promote physical and mental well being. In a city that ranks no. 2 all India for childhood obesity, open spaces are critical to getting our children off their backsides, away from the closest television, gaming console or tablet and outside playing. DNA recently reported that 68% of students lead a sedentary lifestyle and are more involved in indoor games than getting into physical activities while 47% played for less than one hour every day.

Albert Einstein once said “Play is the highest form of research”. And indeed, great amount of scholarly research has been done on this seemingly humble past time.  “Free play,” as scientists call it, is critical for becoming socially adept, coping with stress and building cognitive skills such as problem solving says respected journal, The Scientific American. Free, imaginative play is crucial for normal social, emotional and cognitive development.

Things that today’s Helicoptering Tiger Parents are sending their kids to classes to learn.

“What else is a parent to do? I have to drive my two kids 40 minutes in Mumbai traffic to our closest park. The slides are broken, it’s crowded and there’s a ten minute wait to get on the swing. By the end of the evening, all of us are cranky and ready to throw a tantrum. So I send my kids to classes to keep them busy in the evenings,” shares a visibly unhappy suburban mother.

It doesn’t have to be this way though. Every other major city in the world has managed to preserve much of their open spaces even in the face of development. London is reported to have a per capita open space upwards of 50 square metres compared to less than 2 sq mt for Mumbai.

We recently took our two boys on holiday to Kabini and stayed in a charming boutique hotel on the banks of the river. What I remember best about the holiday was my kids running. They ran everywhere, arms and legs flailing about as though their limbs couldn’t get enough of all that wide open space. Our room had no television, and our cell phones had one bar of signal if you stood at the edge of the river bank and held your phone out at a funny angle. And yet they were never bored. They didn’t once ask to watch TV or play on the phone. They followed caterpillars, looked for spiders and spent the afternoon swinging on a hammock spotting shapes in the clouds. My older boy returned from the vacation an amateur entomologist and all he could talk of for weeks afterwards was Catydids and Cicadas. They came back more aware and in tune with the natural world around them than any app could teach them. It would be nice to be able to go down the street for that kind of open space, rather than to another state.

But Mumbai is fighting back. Citizen groups are demanding that their neighbourhood’s parks are saved for future generations. In Borivali West, residents reclaimed an encroached playground, after a long, arduous civic battle. The city is also getting creative, using existing tracts of green like the Maharashtra Nature Park in Dharavi for Farmer’s Markets and child friendly events. EcoKids is a booming children’s resource centre that takes little ones in to city parks and helps them discover their green thumb, sensitising them to the natural world.

So head out there and find that patch of green for your kids to play on. There’s no playroom quite like the outdoors.

(Guest contributor Rutu Mody-Kamdar is an independent strategy consultant and a PhD in children's consumer behaviour)

(Image courtesy: Delhi Tourism)