A calf feeds off one of the vertical gardens. The space has since been covered with green netting

The latest issue of Madras Musings is up at http://www.madrasmusings.com

The lead is on the latest useless activity our city’s administrators have got on to – growing vertical gardens beneath flyovers. Read on to know more –

If at all the present pandemic has a positive side to it, it is its relentless exposure of our shortcomings. Much of our present way of living and managing of the city has been held up as wrong. The congested manner of urban life is probably the first and biggest challenge. And then we have the woefully inadequate health infrastructure. In short there is no dearth of urgent big-ticket reforms in city administration. What is distressing therefore is the way money is spent on cosmetics such as beach beautification, putting up of selfie spots and so-called footpath widening schemes which in the absence of subsequent maintenance become spaces for vagrants and illegal occupation. The latest in this list of wasteful expenditure are the so-called vertical gardens beneath flyovers. 

The pillars were admittedly eyesores. Posters had aggrandised the entire space made available and what was not within reach had been taken over by political graffiti. The Corporation then put up appeals to the general public – ‘these are your spaces built with your money,’ they said. ‘Do not disfigure them.’ This did appear to have some effect for there was a marked decrease in the poster menace. But that the administration itself was complicit in the disfiguring was evident when in its drive to remove political graffiti it very carefully allowed the ruling dispensation’s handiwork to remain while all others were painted over! It was only when the polls were announced and the Election Commission took over that these last too were whitewashed, no doubt in preparation for the new party in power to paint its messages. 

Be that as it may, someone in the administration clearly thought that covering these spaces with plants may be the best answer. Fourteen flyovers were identified to ‘benefit’ from this scheme, at a cost of Rs 8.14 crores! The benefits touted were that they reduced noise and air pollution and also had a cooling effect on the immediate environment. Plants that could survive in shade were identified and work began, after an experimental attempt on the G.N. Chetty Road flyover. Since then, many of the city’s grade separators have seen their pillars covered with plastic planters having green shoots placed in them. 

The example of Singapore (where else?) has been quoted as an instance of prior success of such schemes. What is forgotten is that in Singapore it rains every afternoon the year round and so watering the plants is not required. In Chennai, the authorities plan to use treated sewage water ‘from nearby sources’ – as to what these are nobody has a clear idea. Maintenance of these vertical gardens is not easy. The MRTS tried this at its remarkably ugly stations and failed miserably. It is not just a question of watering the plants. The soil has to be turned and diseases if any need to be attended to. Moreover, the corrosion of the stands on which the plants grow can eventually affect the concrete of the flyover and this needs to be watched out for. 

That the most basic of threats was overlooked when this scheme was conceptualised became evident when goats and cattle began to snack off the leaves. Singapore unlike Chennai, is free of wandering stray animals. To protect the plants, a green netting has now been stretched across the pillars, at added expense. And this will clearly not be the end of the story. More money will be thrown into the enterprise. 

The Corporation would have been much better off policing the pillars against posters. Those violating (they are after all clearly identifiable commercial entities or political parties) could have been sent legal notices and claims for damages. That by itself would have been a sufficient deterrent rather than focusing on useless cosmetic coverups.