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Vol. XXXII No. 10, September 1-15, 2022
As part of a wider goal to tackle inundation during the rainy season, the Greater Chennai Corporation has unveiled plans to establish sponge parks throughout the city. Sponge parks are, as the name suggests, functional public spaces that can absorb water and recharge the groundwater table, thus limiting water stagnation. The GCC proposes to convert 50 parks across the city into sponge parks, elevating them into public spaces that serve the dual functions of recreation and water management. The administration also plans to equip the parks with additional components such as harvesting structures that aid in storing run-off during the rains as well as a percolation system that naturally filters the water before it is absorbed into the ground. There are also plans to build linkages to water bodies in the vicinity of sponge parks where possible. The sponge parks will be funded under the Singara Chennai 2.0 initiative and every zone in the city will have at least two such parks. It has been reported that the CMDA plans to develop a sponge park on a pilot basis in Kilambakkam, near the megalithic burial site that comes under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
Chennai is not alone in exploring the innovation of sponge parks – Mumbai and Kochi are said to be studying the solution in order to develop a city-wide plan that establishes ‘sponginess.’ The concept has been given a warm welcome by most city planning experts and environmentalists, too. Improving the functionality of existing spaces is undoubtedly an efficient urban planning solution; it eliminates the need to create new infrastructure from scratch, helping deliver cost benefits as well as mitigating development stress on the city. Sponge parks are also a tried and tested initiative that seems to deliver manifold benefits – for instance, ‘sponge cities’ in China have not only helped ease the problem of urban flooding but have also enabled the creation of greenery and reduced instances of urban heat deaths. GCC officials are reportedly analyzing such case studies and examples to see how the city’s existing parks can be repurposed for the city. Chennai itself has a couple of examples that the administration is studying – for example the Pallikaranai Eco Park, as some experts point out, is already aligned with the current idea of a sponge park for it has a gradient that helps direct rainwater into a pond.
And so, the question arises – is it a better strategy to develop manmade sponge parks or protect and nurture natural ones? A 2022 report published by the World Economic Form (WEF) says that natural solutions to absorb water are “50 per cent more affordable and deliver 28 per cent more added value.” A sign then, that Chennai would do well to focus on protecting the natural solutions it has even while it devises new age solutions like sponge parks – one can’t help but wonder, at this juncture, of the administration’s mixed signals in funding sponge parks as well as a new airport on a large swathe of wetlands in Parandur.
Another alert that scientists have raised with respect to water management is to caution tropical countries against emulating the systems formulated by European nations. Weather patterns vary, they point out, with tropics receiving a higher amount of precipitation within a limited time. This, of course, does hold good for Chennai – a city that is thirsty for most of the year except during the rainy season, when it drowns. Sponge parks – or sponge cities – are a great concept but one that has to be adapted to our city’s unique landscape and rainfall patterns; forecasting, as experts point out, is a challenge that must be planned for. Further, in order to be efficient, Chennai’s sponge parks must be devised as integrations into current and future water management systems from the very beginning.