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In her 1970 hit song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, Joni Mitchell beautifully bemoaned the dwindling green spaces and famously sang “They pulled paradise and put up a parking lot”.
The rapid depletion of urban green spaces is something that hasn’t slowed down since the song hit the charts. The ravaging of open spaces is particularly evident in Mumbai city. With a score of 1.8, Mumbai was at the bottom of a list of eight cities for its disappearing greens in the IMRB survey byTimes of India.
What does the lack of green spaces mean, especially for a city’s youngest residents?
Research has repeatedly shown that open spaces promote physical and mental well-being. In a city that ranks secondin India for childhood obesity, open spaces are critical to lead children away from the television and electronic tablets and encourage outdoor activity.
Scholarly research published on the subject in The Scientific American journal suggests“free play,” as scientists call it, is critical for becoming socially adept, coping with stress and building cognitive skills like problem solving.
Busy lifestyles and lack of green spaces has lead parents to send their children to evening classes instead of parks. “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. 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 square meters 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 cell phones had no signal, yet they weren’t bored. 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. The city is getting creative in using existing tracts of green like the Maharashtra Nature Park in Dharavi, for Farmer’s Markets and child friendly events while resource centres like EcoKids takes children to city parks and helps them discover their green thumb, sensitising them to the natural world.
Some developers in the city are also focusing on constructing dedicated spaces for children in their projects. Mr Percy Chowdhry, Director, Rustomjee believes parents should spend more time with their children, “city dwellers need to make the most of what their city has to offer. Parents need to take their children to parks, go trekking, garden with them and find those spaces where they can spend quality time together.”
So head out there and find that patch of green for your kids to play on. There’s no playroom quite like the outdoors.
(This article has been co-authored by Rutu Mody-Kamdar).