“The pandemic has highlighted the importance of urban open spaces for recreation, mental health, and to enhance the liveability of a city,” says Aswathy Dilip, Senior Programme Manager, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. She is part of the team that worked on the T Nagar Pedestrian Plaza in Chennai (conceptualised in 2011 and completed in November 2019, at an approximate cost of ₹38 crore). “As Covid-19 made it challenging for families to come together with almost minimal space for recreation, this street provided a host of opportunities for citizens to use the street as a public space,” adds Dilip.Similarly, the Chandni Chowk Redevelopment Plan in Delhi is the first major commercial development in the city’s bustling shopping hub after 300 years. The plan is to decongest the 1.3-km stretch between Red Fort and Fatehpuri Masjid, facilitate free pedestrian movement, enhance greenery and transform it into a car-free zone. The project, launched in 2004, is nearing completion. Following suit, cities across the country are transforming existing shopping hubs into retail-friendly environments — Church Street in Bengaluru, DP Road and JM Road in Pune, SM Street in Kozhikode, MG Marg in Sikkim, to name a few.New shopping rulesThe pandemic, however, has changed the face of existing shopping areas, like Bengaluru’s Koramangala, where shuttered stores and empty windows are aplenty. In Commercial Street, the Smart Cities Mission, which began in May, is impacting footfalls because the roads are dug up. Mohammed Nazin, VP, Bangalore Commercial Association, says, “Business has been at 25% of what it was pre-pandemic.” In Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village, autos are not crowding around the boom barrier any more, and there are only a few people walking around. Ogaan has left its corner store and there are a several other ‘To let’ boards around. A couple of kilometres away in Shahpur Jat, blingy lehengas adorn shop windows, but there’s hardly anyone inside.
A view of the pedestrian plaza in T. Nagar
| Photo Credit: R_Ragu
But people are adapting. Mahaveer Singh, 72, who has had a 1,000 gaj (yard) property in the Village for several generations, says he is looking at a monthly rent of ₹5 lakh for a 1,200 sq ft property he has culled out. However, he is clear that a boutique will not be able to pay these rates; perhaps a restaurant-bar can. His conditions: “Until December 2020, there will be no rent for whoever takes it now. The first six months of next year, they can pay half; thereafter, they will need to pay in full.”Sarojini Nagar Market, that Mecca of discounts where even fashion editors shop, is crowded enough, but Mukesh Yadav, who has been at the market since 1998, says footfalls is down to 50%. “I am not getting any new stock; most of us are finishing off our old maal. And if I sold something at ₹200, I now have to sell it for ₹150,” says the Uttar Pradesh native, who went home to Jaunpur, with his family of four during lockdown. Down South, at Begum Bazaar in Hyderabad’s Old City, one of the State’s biggest wholesale markets, the pandemic saw a few voluntary lockdowns (since the Charminar area is prone to large crowds). Now, most merchants have migrated to WhatsApp for contactless buying.
Creating a safe bubbleLaila Tyabji, chairperson and founder-member of Dastkar, hopes open spaces will become the norm for shopping. “People usually say [the venue of craft fair] Nature Bazaar is very far [in Chhattarpur, in Delhi’s South West], but this time they said, ‘We realise how nice it is to have this space, where people can socially distance’.”Creating more decentralised shopping areas — like Saket in Delhi or Vashi near Mumbai — should be the norm for open air retail streets, feels Siddhartha Benninger, Project Planner Centre for Development Studies and Activities, Pune. “Essentially, small commercial zones can help the community live relatively normal lives in an extended ‘bio-bubble’. I do not think there is a need for huge malls. Though they might achieve economies of scale for buyers and sellers, they do the same for germs and bacteria,” he concludes.With inputs from Nidhi Adlakha, Sunalini Mathew, Surya Praphulla Kumar, Divya Kala Bhavani and Susanna Myrtle Lazarus