- Aditya Chawande (Architect Urban Designer, Project Associate at Parisar)
The city takes birth from its core where people initially come together to give it the urban form. In the constant pace of development of the city, natural increase in population and the rapid expansion of the city into suburbs leading to peripheral zones and rings that are supported by faster means of communication has turned the original core city into a neglected area. Such transformation of the core city area has made it difficult to provide modern standards of living befitting healthy urban development. These core areas have started facing the dark effects of development by becoming more and more congested and may before long lead to urban decay. Numerous issues of preservation and redevelopment is making the situation even more difficult to respond to needs of planned growth. In spite of such crises the core city continues to remain attractive and interesting on account of its historic quality of old structures including houses, temples and riverside ‘Ghats’ that shows the potential to become a unique environment that if planned wisely can connect the city with its past.
Character of the old core city, through its distinct physical, social, economic, and spatial aspects continues to connect with its cultural past. The mixed use low-rise urban form in the Peth areas has a distinct architectural character through its Wadas and public places like Par and Temples connecting all with narrow safe and comfortable streets on account of small number of auto vehicles in the area, allowing Pedestrians and Cyclist to move around much more freely than in the newly developed areas with its wide roads, fast moving traffic and high levels of pollution. People do visit the old city frequently for many purposes attracted by its unique quality.
One such place in the old core city is the Laxmi Road, which is one of the oldest roads in the city. It features popular street bazaars having a unique association with the Peths of Pune. Citizens of Pune can easily associate Laxmi road with shopping as it caters to almost all the sections of the society. This street has high pedestrian footfall throughout the year especially on weekends and during the festive seasons. However due to its attractive bazaars and central location, Laxmi road is now also occupied by vehicles and adding to the congestion and pollution. Steep rise in motor vehicles over the years has led to greater demand for space for auto vehicles on this road resulting in chronic air pollution and traffic jams.
Thus, Laxmi Road, which has been transformed over the period and responding inadequately to the developmental pressures is now facing survival crises and demanding a FIX on top priority. One way to do this is through promoting sustainable transport by prioritizing non motorize transport and pedestrianization of the core city areas. This will not only decongest the old core city, but it will become a more comfortable and safer environment for the pedestrians to shop, stroll and enjoy its unique quality.
Timeline of the efforts taken for Laxmi road till now. (Graphics composed by author)
Survival Efforts since 2008
For more than a decade, urban local bodies, local NGOs, citizen groups and experts are constantly making efforts to address numerous issues of the core city areasthrough policy making, designs interventions, suggestions, and stakeholder engagements. But so far, no concrete step has been taken for such implementation. The reason could be lack of willingness on part of local authorities and resistance from the stakeholders. Below we will see the highlights of all the efforts taken till now.
Starting from the Comprehensive Mobility Plan for Pune city published in November 2008 with the vision of “Moving people safely and economically by emphasizing public transport and non motorized transport.” It has suggested encouraging and designating pedestrianization infrastructure in the core area on an experimental basis where vehicles will be banned on Laxmi Road and adjoining streets (within 50m to 200m) from 8 am to 8 pm, effectively turning an area of approximately about 0.5 to 1.0 sq. kms. into a vehicle-free zone to ease the chronic air pollution and traffic jams that plague the old city. International experience shows that despite the initial resistance, pedestrianization often improves the businesses and economy of the shops in the area in addition to the social benefits. If these restrictions prove successful, it could become permanent and extend beyond.(Ref pages 8-22)This plan and give everyone an opportunity to think over the issues and address them legally. Since then many local NGOS like Parisar, SPTM (Save Pune Traffic Movement), Pedestrians First, ITDP (Institute for Transportation and Development Policy) and many other experts have supported such measures in many cities successfully.
In 2010, local activist Prashant Inamdar from Pedestrians First proposed a Walking Plaza on Laxmi Road to improve the safety of pedestrians. Due to the high pedestrian’s footfall this is an ideal road to implement pedestrianization. This could also lead to trying out such measures on other the nearby streets. (Ref) It has been observed that during festive seasons such as the Ganesh festival and Diwali, during the peak hours in the evenings and weekends, the speed of the vehicles is reduced as the street naturally becomes a Walking Plaza. From the pedestrians’ and cyclists’ point of view such efforts can benefit a much larger group of the stakeholders, boost the local economy - as pedestrians tend to stroll and explore the area for shopping more than at present. The change will also improve the safety of senior citizens and kids and also reduce air pollution due to lesser vehicular emissions. The plan was agreed to by the PMC (Pune Municipal Corporation) in 2011 and they started working on the process, but the implementation could not happen due to many practical difficultiessuch as lack of support from some stakeholders such as trader groups who feared loss of business with a false belief that only private vehicles bring business to their shops..
In 2011, Parisar with its intern Ms. Saga Wingard, a student from Blekinge Institute of Technology (BTH) in Karlskrona, Sweden conducted a minor field study and prepared a planning proposal for a pedestrian street on part of Laxmi Road, and a concept plan for sustainable transport in the core city.(Ref) She had surveyed and analyzed Pune’s old core city from many theoretical and practical aspects and proposed pedestrianization on part of Laxmi Road to improve the environment for pedestrians by addressing the issues created by private motorized vehicles and benefits of non-motorized transport strategies such as pedestrianization, and promoting public transport.
In 2012, to strengthen the vision of Pune’s Comprehensive Mobility Plan of 2008,its suggestion of encouraging and designating pedestrianization in core areas was incorporated in the Pune Revised City Development Plan for-2041 to declare the old city core streets as vehicle-free zones \which would allow cycles and pedestrians only in this area.(Ref pg. 69) This was another legal document to support the sustainable traffic solutions.
Based on this in 2012- 2013 with the support from local NGOs and expert groups, students from PVPCOA under the guidance of Architect Urban Designer Prof. Prasanna Desai prepared an urban design study-cum-proposal for Laxmi Road.(Ref)aiming at revitalizing the oldest and the longest market street with its aesthetics and identity intact with a focus to turn the road into pedestrian and shopper-friendly zone without disturbing vehicular movement and encouraging public transport for the benefit of pedestrians, shoppers, hawkers and all other stakeholders. An exhibition - ‘Laxmi Road - Pune’s lifeline on the edge’ (Ref)(Ref) was put up at the Vishram Bagh Wada in June 2013 for stakeholder and public engagement, where many supported the proposal.
Poster of the exhibition conducted on the study cum proposal of Laxmi Road by PVPCOA Student
In 2016, based on the success of MG Road Walking Plaza on weekends by Pune Cantonment Board (2006 -2008) and suggestions from other local NGOs groups, PMC decided to turn 400m stretch of Laxmi Road into a Pedestrian Walking Plaza on weekends and appointed HCP consultant from Ahmedabad to prepare a plan and feasibility report and in early 2017. It was announced for implementation. Laxmi Road Traders’ association had also submitted a plan for Laxmi Road in 2017, for decongesting the street and attracting more visitors to tackle the growing mall culture and e-commerce (Ref).However, due to opposition from a few prominent traders, it could not be implemented.
In 2018, PMC under the Pune Streets Programme using Urban Street Design Guidelines and designed by Urban Designers from the Urban Design Cell of PMC, the design of Laxmi Road was revamped by redesigning the existing street section with wider footpath to give pedestrian friendly shopping experience, and motor vehicular lane with on-street parking allowing vehicles to ply on.(Ref) By this the footpaths have been widened but not enough to cater to the high pedestrian footfall and the issue of congesting the street persists.
Before After of the Laxmi road after redesign by PMC under Pune Street Program.
In 2019, Prashant Inamdar of Pedestrians First suggested that PMC should re-consider the earlier proposal for ‘Vehicle free’ Walking Plaza on Laxmi Road stretch from the City Post to Shagun Chowk at least during weekends and festival seasons such as Ganesh Utsav, Dussehra and Diwali on a strategic basis as shopping on Laxmi road had become unpleasant and tiresome due to the rising number of people and vehicles. (Ref). Also, due to the increase in traffic and unmonitored parking, people had started avoiding Laxmi Road leading to reduction in business. Under such circumstances, pedestrianization of the road with suitable restrictions on vehicles will be the right solution to create safe and pleasant environment for the shoppers attracting more people and thus more business. With mixed reviews of support as well as opposition from the Traders Association of Laxmi Road and the support from Pune Traffic Police, in 2020 PMC Standing Committee accepted the proposal for ‘Rejuvenating the concept of a Walking Plaza on Laxmi Road’ and incorporated it in the civic budget of 2020-21 with an allocation of Rs 50 lakhs for its implementation.(Ref)
Soon after this 2020 started with the COVID19 pandemic which has impacted all sectors of the society due to lockdown conditions and restrictions on movement of people. Pune’s old core city faced high impact due to its compact setting. In such challenging conditions many traders wanted to exit Laxmi Road and Peth areas. In a letter to the authorities these associations appealed for allocation of space for relocation outside the old core city(Ref). Apart from the other regular issues of congestion, parking and traffic jams, the real concern was the feeling of lack of space on the street to follow the safety guidelines of Social/ Physical distancing while shopping. The limitation of five customers per shop and sanitization of the customers added even more to their dilemma. This gave rise to the realization of the importance of space for pedestrians on the street, especially in compact areas where streets are narrow. This might be a fear for a while but if it happens and the traders and shopkeepers leave Laxmi Road and core Peth areasit will be a disaster and lead to Urban Decay. The age-old identity of the city with its hustle and bustle will be lost.
In response to this and based on the COVID-19 Safety Advisory issued by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs in June 2020, Parisar has prepared a tactical intervention with a view to revive the commercial activity on Laxmi Road during COVID-19 pandemic making it safe for people while shopping. The proposal has included and tried to address all the possible stakeholders like pedestrians, cyclists, shopkeepers, hawkers and motorists. This tactical intervention addresses COVID-19 challenge for safer operations of the local retail markets using strategies such as temporal widening of footpaths to maintain social/physical distancing for safer walking and strolling, dedicated waiting space on footpaths for people to wait for their turn, accommodating street hawkers to support the local economy. This can help both the shopkeepers and shoppers to build confidence in them to come and shop safely and give a boost to the economy. If implemented, it will also help preserve Laxmi Road and its identity for many more decades to come. Reviewing its success, the long-term vision of pedestrianizing the Laxmi Road can also be tested.
Proposal for reviving the commerce of Laxmi Road with the challenges of COVID’19 pandemic
In conclusion we understand the aspirations and the changing needs of the residents and stakeholders - ownership of cars, economic activity, association with the place, scarcity of space with growing families and accommodating all these transformations within the existing context. It has been observed that the stakeholders do not find resistance in the contextual sustainable ideas and there is a missing gap of opportunities due to more focus on newer development. A logical solution to answer these needs can be to generate the right opportunities for the present residents and stakeholders within their available resources and assets by genuine improvement of mobility needs of residents and visitors, addressing economic factors such as TDR options for land development, allowing controlled commercialization to boost local economy through home stays valuing the heritage, breakfast options, local lunch/dinner places, shopping destinations, creating places and experience to attract right kind of tourists. With a potential example of Laxmi road and its nearby precinct for pedestrianization it could become a model in the old core city of Pune for being one such opportunity to be an attractive destination for more visitors and business with pleasant environment for all.