Want to take a walk in Central Delhi? Snack, window shop or even indulge in a bit of retail therapy? Come February, Connaught Place seems a promising option. The heart of India’s capital will become a no-vehicle zone. On Wednesday, Union Urban Development Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu announced plans to pedestrianise Delhi’s central business district. There are plans to start shuttle services for people to commute from parking lots outside CP to the inner circle.
Built in classical Georgian style and designed on the lines of the Royal Crescent in Bath in England to resemble two concentric circles, which in turn were divided into the Inner Circle, the Middle Circle and the Outer Circle, and comprising seven radial roads, CP, was built in 1933 to house offices, theatres, shops and eateries. Though a few dozen families lived here, CP was for long, New Delhi’s only business district. Some of the country’s top entrepreneurs — the Shrirams, the Dalmias, Ranbaxy — operated out of CP. Coffee shops and restaurants in the area were popular hangouts. But things began to change in the 1990s. Expanding commercial establishments began to move out to Noida and Gurgaon that offered more real estate. CP also lost out to air-conditioned shopping malls that mushroomed in various parts of the city in the next 15 years — and continue to do so. But for anyone looking for an experience that combines Delhi’s old world charm with the pizaz of modern-day retail, CP remains an attractive destination. The arrival of the metro railway in 2005 saw the regeneration of CP as a public place. But the plaza still loses out because at most times of the day it is a traffic nightmare.
The decline of places like CP, however, is more than a matter of nostalgia for old worldly charm or the need for retail therapy. People require places to meet, talk, sit, play, eat, gallivant, hold hands, canoodle and feel part of a community. Town planners all over the world are learning that making people rub shoulders in markets or enabling them to walk or cycle to workplaces, without being boxed in by automobiles, adds vitality and variety to an area. Madrid, Venice, London, Paris, Copenhagen, Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai and Montreal are a few of the cities that have experimented with car-free zones in recent times. The decision to pedestrianise CP should be seen in the light of this growing movement to reclaim urban places from the automobiles.
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