Friday, September 7, 2007

Say A Little Prayer For Me: Panjim’s Parks And The Fate Of Urban Design

Sitting through the release of the memoirs titled From Goa to Patagonia, we were informed that the Panjim Municipal Garden had been lavished with particular attention by Dr. Froilano de Mello while he was Mayor of Panjim city. The man, it appears was responsible for the large number of bandstands that one sees in many parts of Panjim city. Bless his soul, for surely it must now be in need of your prayers given the sad state of urban works he initiated. If you are familiar with Panjim then you know that the bandstand exists no more in the Panjim Municipal Garden, it lies broken and ruined, as does the rest of the park. Lets not get into the blame game however, fact is that it is now only a whisper of its former self.

And despite all of this, I don’t know whether we should rejoice or just sink even further into despair with news that the garden is to be- hold your breath-rejuvenated. There are a great many problems with urban design as we see it evolving around us today. As should be obvious from the concrete monstrosity that is the New Panjim booming all around us, there is in Panjim, no urban design. The lone attempts at urban design seem to be the greening of the circles and road dividers in random locations in the city. These attempts are not only isolated, they are also superficial, attempting to invoke the idea of the tranquility of a garden in an urban space that is fast going cuckoo.

The manner in which the gardens are designed too leaves much to be desired. Rather than recognize that we live in a tropical climate and public spaces would be best served with shade, with plants that require minimal care and water, the designers go in for lawns that demand open spaces and guzzle huge amounts of water. Rather than rely on the garden traditions of this continent that range from the Sanskritic to the Persian pleasure gardens, we attempt to mimic the gardens of the northern climes that flourish with plenty of rain and shade. The result ofcourse is one that pays homage to the stylistic tastes of the great Indian middle class- kitsch.
The Panjim Municipal Garden before it invited the attention of the British-Indian (read independent India) babus who ruined it, ran on a simple plan. A central axis hosting the walk, a monumental column and a bandstand. Benches lay along this axis and the rest of the garden unfolded almost symmetrically around it, echoing the Moorish influence in Iberia. It appears at some point that the garden was marked out for the tree-planting quotas of the Forest Department, beautification programs by the aforementioned British-Indian babus and finally an attempt to make it more Lusitanian than it already was. The rest as they say is history.

The more serious challenge to this garden though is in the proposed plan to build a multi-level car park in the garden. The Goa Heritage Action Group has for sometime now been pointing to the heritage value of the garden. Be sure then that the car park will take that value away, for its heritage value lies not in the fact that it is a garden, but in the design of the garden, but in the relationship of this garden square to the buildings around it. The two constitute a single unit and to divorce the relationship of these built structures from the natural space located at its centre would challenge the whole heritage effort.

And yet heritage and aesthetics is not the most serious issue that challenges the location of a multi-level car park in the garden. This car park is obviously intended to address the lack of parking space within Panjim. Question is however, will it? One can with certainty argue that it will not, since what we will be addressing is the manifestation of the problem and not the problem itself. The problem lies in our equation of development with consumption, and the logic that a higher consumption of cars will lead to greater development. This logic left to run wild will result in an ever higher number of vehicles on the streets of our cities and villages, until we literally drown in a sea of these vehicles and their fumes. While on the issue of fumes, be it known that enclosed parking spaces have been shown to have dangerously high levels of vehicular emissions, allowing us to conclude that the same would apply to this proposed car park.

No sir, the solution to the parking problem in Panjim lies in reducing the number of vehicles moving within the city. And this project is best served by improving the public transport system within the city and the villages that surround it, so that one is not forced to rely on a private vehicle. Public expenditure on an improved transport system would work in fact work to reduce the household budget’s need for a private vehicle, putting that money toward other needs for personal development, which eventually is what development seeks to achieve. As we hammer out a new Master Plan it would be worthwhile if we rethought some of our approaches to development, allowing us in Goa to conceptualize a more organic and holistic model of development that builds on our unique strengths, rather than simply going the British-Indian way.
(published in the Gomantak Times, 3 September 2007)

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