Walk through Panaji brings up memories and vision for city

How do citizens envision a net-zero Panaji, given today’s realities? What does the future hold? A guided walk serves food for thought.

I’ve lived in Bangalore since 2005; whenever visiting friends want me to take them to Bangalore Palace, I chuckle and confess I haven’t been there myself. We’ve all experienced living in a city whose joys and woes we haven’t fully explored. Guided walks can help us connect more deeply with our cities when familiarity might have bred contempt or, simply, blindness. It was to help residents deepen their understanding of Panaji, Goa’s administrative capital, and to visualise possible futures for Panaji, that Transitions Research, in collaboration with the Travelling Dome, organised guided walks on Friday, 15th March and Sunday, 17th March, 2024.

Imagination Walks: Eliciting citizens’ visions for the future of their cities

For Friday’s Built Environment Walk, Ms. Ashali Bhandari from Transitions set the scene by asking participants to consider their specific visions in the context of Panaji’s ambitious net-zero commitments as a Smart City to preserve its cultural and ecological heritage while fostering equitable and sustainable growth. Given that some emissions, for instance from the built-up environment, are inevitable, how exactly do citizens visualise a net-zero Panaji? 

“Whenever we’ve interviewed people for their visions,” she explained, “they might mention more trees, more public transport, green rooftops… but nobody ever says ‘I want my city to produce zero emissions.’” 

There is a subtle disconnect between immediate outcomes that can be concretely visualised (more trees, for example) versus the larger, ultimate goal (a net-zero city). This highlights the difficulty of linking real but invisible greenhouse gas emissions to concrete realities. Participants of Friday’s walk agreed that, while net zero was core to their visions for Panaji, they had not explicitly linked this outcome to visible elements of the city’s natural or built environment.

The Travelling Dome’s Ms. Tallulah D’Silva has lived in Panaji for five decades, working as a sustainability-oriented architect. Our Nature Walk began at Panaji’s historic Altinho steps. “You’ll find such stairs all over Panaji,” Talullah said. “They were built long ago. They facilitate pedestrian mobility, given that much of the landscape is hilly.” 

But that Friday morning, our guided tour group were the steps’ only users. With its high income and inadequate public transport system, Panaji ranks high in private vehicle ownership. Many cars and two-wheelers whizzed past us, but there were no children hopping up the steps, no readers lounging in the park flanking the steps, no bicyclists coasting down the curving slope.

Participants climb down the steps from posh, leafy Altinho towards one of the fountains and dense buildings of Fontainhas.
Stairs are a common feature in the city, built long ago to facilitate walkability in the hilly terrain. Today, they have few takers. Pic courtesy: Transitions Research

From walking to motor vehicles: Goodbye to a walkable Panaji

“Even when I was a kid,” remarked Ritu, a twenty-something Panjimite pursuing a PhD in Environmental Studies, “we used to play in parks in the evenings.”

“Now with all this fast traffic, parents are afraid to let their kids out,” said Talullah. As a Bangalorean, I reflected on the disappearance of my own city’s public spaces – lakes, parks, playgrounds. It’s only within the gates of private flat-complexes and condo-towers that gardens and playgrounds seem to be safe now. Greenery, too, is becoming privatised, and access to it increasingly inequitable.

Read more: Six ways to make our cities child-friendly

We walked up the Altinho steps. “Women are also afraid to visit deserted places like this,” said Talullah, indicating a sign declaring, ‘This area is under CCTV surveillance,’ presumably intended to reassure lone visitors.

“I’d feel safer if there were other people around,” remarked Vaishali, a twentysomething Community Manager at a cultural centre, “instead of CCTV.”

“But at least,” remarked Mohan, an urban planner in his 50s who relocated to Panaji just before the pandemic, “this neighbourhood has not yet lost its tree cover.”

A hum of agreement rose, with lifelong residents and more recent denizens exchanging notes on Panaji’s rapid and accelerating loss of tree cover. While Goa ranks high in forest area among India’s states and U.T.s, deforestation is rising here too, with national highways and other large ongoing development projects. “In Rajasthan,” said Talullah, “the official deforestation statistic, in terms of historical loss of tree cover or land degradation, is around 74%. In comparison, Goa is already at 52%.”

Trees in the Indian city: Whose trees and whose right to plant?

There was a lull in the conversation, our silence punctuated no longer by the early-morning cacophony of birds, but by the more monotonous sounds of traffic. Then Mohan raised the question: “Even if I wanted to remedy the situation by planting trees, where would I plant them? Can I plant trees in a public park?” His was not a rhetorical question. We walked on, chatting about what rights the public actually has in public spaces, and who is responsible for maintaining a city’s green cover.

The old stone of Altinho’s steps, Talullah pointed out, has since been replaced by concrete. Concrete also dominates the newer or renovated houses in Altinho’s wealthy residential neighbourhood. We stood in a shaded lane, discussing the high environmental costs of concrete, and alternative building methods and materials. Some Altinho residences still have curved Kandani-style clay-tiled roofs, with the tiles’ cowl shape repelling incident heat. We discussed the possibility of bricks made from compacted waste, and whether marketing these as “upcycled” might increase uptake. 

With Talullah’s guidance, participants learned to identify seasonal grasses such as taro and coxcomb, as well as sedges, all species that have been steadily declining. “Panaji has an active citizen body,” said Talullah. “People used to protest when the government came to cut down trees… But recently I’ve noticed a change. Maybe someday a branch falls down and damages someone’s parked car. Some people are becoming afraid of trees, viewing trees almost like intruders. Or sometimes the government comes during the evening and quickly cuts down the trees before citizens can organise… We need to think about what place there is for nature in our cities.”

Read more: India urgently needs urban forests. What’s stopping us from creating more?

While Altinho still maintains reasonable tree cover and groundwater levels, increasing concretisation is affecting both metrics in much of the rest of Panaji. 

“Will incremental changes in our built environment be enough?” Ashali asked participants to consider. “Or do we need to radically reconceptualise what a built structure, a home, should look like?”

We moved on, learning to identify breadfruit and copperpod, sampling the sweet, fleshy, edible pods of apta trees (Bauhinia racemosa) and watching their helicopter-winged seeds spin to the ground like tiny tutu-clad fairies. 

Architecture and land use changes: From tiled cottages to multi-storeyed buildings in Panaji

Questions about Panaji’s future became more poignant as we confronted one of the three horseshoe-shaped community wells that give the Fontainhas neighbourhood its name. This well, linked to an old and still functioning system of interconnected reservoirs, was not entirely clean, and was locked up, presumably to protect it from littering. With water supply, like so many other services, becoming privatised, these wells might well be playing out their fates without evoking much public concern.

In the Fontainhas residential-commercial neighbourhood, buildings originally in the Art Deco style, with wooden shutters, are increasingly giving way to concrete structures shaded by bright plastic tarpaulins. There still remain some of the quaint, narrow lanes, or “setbacks,” running between adjacent buildings and crowded with bicycles, plant-pots, and wildflowers: tiny oases of nature in the city.

Some buildings are still in the old style, with hand-painted signs, and stone “country” tiles overhanging their facades. Wood, tiles, and other old, locally-sourced materials seem to be outlasting much of the concrete that is now taking over. With booming demand and uneven production quality, concrete, despite its high environmental cost, often has a short lifespan.

Abstract mosaics on a wall in Sao Tome.
Abstract mosaics on a wall in Sao Tome. Pic courtesy: Transitions Research

Incremental changes in Panaji’s land use policy have allowed buildings to get taller. Talullah reminisced about the days when her city was mostly two-storeyed. Now, in Patto, for instance, an area entirely reclaimed from the marshes, multi-storeyed commercial and government buildings dominate the cityscape. We discussed the possibility of designating certain neighbourhoods heritage sites, which would allow both nature and culture to thrive in, at least, isolated pockets of a city that’s changing right before residents’ eyes.

We concluded our walk in a little cafe that has stood in Fontainhas for as long as Talullah can remember. Talullah, Vaishali, and Ritu, all Panaji natives, greeted several acquaintances by name. Technically a city, Panaji still feels, Ritu reflected, like a small town. Over tea and batter-fried chillies, our thoughts turned from the past of Panaji’s built-up environment to its future. 

The way forward: Need investments in infrastructure for a greener Panaji

“We definitely need better public transport,” Mohan agreed. “There’s so much fast-moving traffic that the streets are not really walkable at all.” He suggested non-motorised zones. 

Talullah, it turns out, had already organised with other citizens to this end, and the government has in fact designated several residential areas as non-motorised. But those signs stand unheeded, in Sao Tome, for instance, ironically right next to thickets of two-wheelers parked on the street. 

I was to experience firsthand the non-walkability of this neighbourhood, when, dodging car traffic, my foot slipped into a slot in a paving-stone. Hobbling on, I reflected that, vehemently anti-car as I was, I would think twice next time about venturing far on foot. It is a sad reality that, living in high-carbon environments, citizens become pushed, often against their own values, into making high-carbon lifestyle choices themselves.

In the Fontainhas cafe, Ashali talked about the pop-up bicycle lanes that Transitions’ People’s Urban Living Lab (PULL) had organised in 2021 in collaboration with Imagine Panaji Smart City Development Limited (IPCSDL). Uptake was high, with many residents saying they would bicycle regularly to commute, as long as dedicated lanes and law-abiding traffic ensured their safety. This suggests that, even as Indian cities struggle to balance development with sustainability, numerous citizens remain willing and able to do their part – as long as they need not risk their safety to do so. 

We agreed, too, that, while the likely future of Panaji lies in more high-rise buildings and more motorised vehicles, the future we’d all prefer is one where nature coexists with people, where citizens feel safe to walk and cycle, where concrete pavements have yielded ground to well-kept dirt paths that allow groundwater replenishment, and where “net zero” is not just a vague target that keeps slipping ever further into the future.

On this encouraging note, we dispersed.

Note: Names and identifying details of participants have been altered to preserve anonymity.

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