Sewers as Sidewalks: Delhi Ups the Urban Reuse Ante

delhi india nullah bike path image

An artist's rendition of a revamped "nullah." Image via Delhi Nullahs.

Urban planner and architect Manit Rastogi has an idea that makes the High Line look like child's play: turning the 350 kilometers of storm water drains -- now mostly filled with untreated sewage -- in Delhi into a network of landscaped paths for pedestrians and cyclists. If he can pull it off, India's capital will be greener, cleaner, and safer for its 17 million residents.

Created some 700 years ago, Delhi's 18 major "nullahs," or storm drains, and their 15,000 sub-branches originally provided a drainage system for excess rainwater, The City Fix reports. Now, most carry household sewage into the heavily polluted Yamuna River. Cleaning them up won't be easy, but Rastogi says his Delhi Nullahs revitalization project would have extensive environmental, cultural, and transportation benefits:

It would improve public health and restore ancient aquifers by installing small-scale equipment to treat Delhi's sewage at its source, relying on organic compounds like weeds and algae to clean the waste before it flows into the nullah network. It would boost activities related to everything from tourism to sports, as people explore the city's various monuments, museums, theaters, and other cultural and historical assets along the River Yamuna. And finally, it would ease the city's traffic congestion by encouraging more commuters to bike and walk on paths along the waterways.

delhi barapulla nullah before after image

'Before and after' renditions of the Barapulla Nullah. Images via Delhi Nullahs

Currently, life in Delhi is dangerous for those who dare to walk or ride. The City Fix cites statistics showing that pedestrians account for 47 percent of road deaths in the capital and that cyclists have dropped to 4 percent of traffic flow -- from 60 percent in 1985 -- as Delhi adds 1,100 private vehicles to its roads each day.

The bureaucratic obstacles to implementation of his idea are serious -- "there is no one person accountable for the city of Delhi," Rastogi says -- but the urban planner has recruited support from 69 other architects and received the go-ahead from the city's lieutenant-governor to transform a 1-kilometer stretch of one of the nullahs as a pilot project.

A Cool, Green Network Through India's Capital
Despite their current stinky condition, the nullahs are in many ways ideal for such a transformation, having been built close to key sites in the city and being generally lined by lush, cooling vegetation.

In an article about Rastogi's concept of a "criss-crossed mesh of waterways, with boats plying and walkways, cycling paths, and parks on either side," the Indian daily Business Standard wrote that the system of canals and drains "connects most parts of Delhi so well that one could actually walk along a nullah from one point to any other distant part of the city without ever leaving the network."

More about Delhi and the environment:
Excess Weight, Slow Charging Pulls Delhi's Solar-Powered Rickshaws Off the Road
Walking: An Equal-Opportunity Answer to Traffic Congestion, From New York to New Delhi
Inside the Indian Building Hillary Clinton Calls a Green Taj Mahal
Delhi Metro Rail's Green Efforts Expand: Solar Power System Installed, Emissions Reductions Certified
Delhi to Ban Plastic Bags
Dubious Waste-to-Energy Incinerator Project to Put Delhi Waste Pickers out of Business
Delhi Calling: NYC's SHoP Architects To Design New Green Development

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