Why Chennai’s smaller, pocket-sized parks are seeing a burst of post-lockdown activity

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Joggers, dog-walkers, toddlers, grandparents… Chennai’s small neighbourhood parks are busier than ever before as more locals embrace open spaces post-lockdown

Joggers, dog-walkers, toddlers, grandparents… Chennai’s small neighbourhood parks are busier than ever before as more locals embrace open spaces post-lockdown

It is 30 minutes past 4pm. As the brutal afternoon sun dims, ushering in a sultry evening, May Day Park in Chintadripet slowly fills up. A slice of the city is on display: while the older folk run, jog or just sit around and chat, children dominate the play area, as their mothers try to get some exercise in. A typical weekday.

Much has changed since the first two months of 2022 when the city was in the throes of Omicron. Lockdown fatigue led people to seek open green city spaces, albeit cautiously. Now, these spaces are exuberant with families and neighbours, many of whom met and bonded over the two years of the pandemic, when they shared this refuge.

Groups of people chatting at May Day Park, Chintadripet, Chennai
| Photo Credit: R Ragu

Determined to not lose his pace, P Ramasamy agrees to entertain questions provided they do not interrupt his walk. The 87-year-old retired Mathematics professor from Karur (now settled in Chennai) comes to May Day Park every evening. “After three rounds, we sit on the benches to catch up — we talk till around 6pm,” says Ramasamy, adding that he paused during the lockdowns for almost six months. “I really missed coming out then.”

Lending a comparison to how it was before the pandemic, Ramasamy observes that the number of people who frequent parks have increased since the lockdowns. “People have now realised the importance of stepping out,” he says. 

This is true for many other parts of the city as well. Councillor of Chennai Corporation’s Ward 126, Amirtha Varshini, notes. “Public parks are being used again by people from various age groups, at different times of day. There are no new parks in my particular ward, but the old ones are seeing quite a bit of activity.”

A park at Casa Grande Aldea, a housing society in OMR, Chennai

A park at Casa Grande Aldea, a housing society in OMR, Chennai
| Photo Credit: Yamini Vijayaraj

According to the Greater Chennai Corporation website, there are 525 public parks in the city. While larger ones like Semmozhi Poonga on Cathedral Road and Dr Visweshwariah Tower Park in Anna Nagar have always been popular, there are a host of smaller ones, tucked away in narrow lanes or in pockets alongside housing societies, that are often ignored or locked out of reach. These pocket parks are seeing a resurgence, as the city gets more and more comfortable with unlock, and people go in search of open spaces within a short walk from their homes or workspaces.

Flex and the city 

Nageswara Rao Park – Chennai Parkour’s outdoor sessions cover basic and advanced levels. They train at Anna Nagar Tower Park too

Chetpet Eco Park – Fitrock Arena’s rock climbing wall overlooks the lake, and has experts aiding new climbers

Shenoy Nagar Park – The tennis court is open for all on Sundays, besides formal coaching on weekdays

Many use these spaces for exercise, preferring the open air over closed, air-conditioned settings that are also heavy on the pocket. In Haddows Road a small public park, maintained by Apollo Hospitals, is frequented by children practising taek-won-do. Back at May Day Park in Chintadripet, 27-year-old Amala Selvam works out at the monkey bars. Saying that she had a baby last year, she adds, “If I have to go to a gym, I would anyway have to spend a minimum of ₹3,000. Here, it’s free.”

In Tiruvanmiyur’s Journalist Colony, a little park is equipped with just a pair of swings, a slide, some monkey bars and a couple of see-saws: yet it produces enough childlike squeals and cackles of laughter that can be heard from two lanes away.

Toddlers clamber up the wrong end of slides with the help of their fathers, who dutifully carry colourful water bottles slung over their shoulders. Pre-teen cyclists pedal around the plot in circles, racing each other and then pausing to catch up on breath and gossip. A trio of grandmothers let their young ’uns run amok as they sit back and swap stories of the day: this is the mainstay of their social life for two-and-a-half hours every day, they say.

Children playing at the park in Journalist Colony, Tiruvanmiyur, Chennai.

Children playing at the park in Journalist Colony, Tiruvanmiyur, Chennai.
| Photo Credit: M KARUNAKARAN

Four generations, one park

“That little one running about is my grand-daughter’s daughter,” says Kuruvamma, 70, pointing towards a speedy child with close-cropped hair, leading a pack of two more players. Seated next to Kuruvamma on the bench are Vasanthi and Parvathy, both in their 60s, keeping an eye on the boisterous little flock. 

As the grandmothers and great-grandmother chatter, their brood takes the grounds by storm. The only thing with the power to interrupt their game is a plane flying past: all three stop in their tracks, utterly silent, to gape at the sky and impressively whisper “aeroplane”. 

A few feet away from the riotous trio is Mohan Sankaran with his eight-year-old daughter and two-and-a-half-year-old son, testing out the monkey bars for the very first time.

Children at Chennai Rail Museum Park

Children at Chennai Rail Museum Park
| Photo Credit: GV Balasubramanian

“We flew in two weeks ago from California; I noticed this park on my way back from the kids’ dance class. I wish the equipment was better maintained, but it’s still good to get the children out of the house. They haven’t had enough time to make friends yet though,” Mohan barely finishes saying this before turning around to find his daughter in happy conversation with a group of girls she just met by the see-saws.

Families are not the only ones finding respite in these parks. For instance, Egmore’s Ethiraj Lane, clinging to the section of DLF Commander’s Court housing society, is a gated patch of trees that provides shade to many young professionals through the day. At 5pm on a weekday, a string of employees from a nearby coaching class takes their break for the day on one of the many benches within that park.

Weaving in and out of their chatty clusters is a lone dog walker, giving two leashed indie dogs — Imli and Doga — some much-needed exercise.

“I have been coming here since early 2020,” says Muthu Pandian, distracted by Imli straining against his leash to go after a couple of squirrels, “Whenever the lockdowns became strict, we would have to stay away. The dogs have also really missed this haunt.”

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