Urban Renewal in the Regional Context


 
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Urban Renewal in the Regional Context

"Corrective measures" is what we need, rather than "curative measures", in urban renewal and urban planning. By curative measures we mean issuing decrees of 'Dos' and 'Don'ts' to the citizens. For example, an idea of not to allow entry of the citizens who are poor, jobless, land-less, displaced, who seek refuge, because the city is overpopulated or cannot be managed by the rulers. Or deny the entry of migrating citizens, for example, to the city of Chandigarh by floating an idea that it should be "World Heritage City" because Corbu designed it.  There are people around who would say, "Corbu is dead; long live Corbu"; or call for “slum clearance – removal – up-gradation”; or advocate development planning by extending city limits; or an idea of “thinner city, compact city, re-densification of city” etc; or create so-called “metropolitan region development authority”. All such measures are merely “curative measures”.  

     We look for curative measures because we ignore or refuse to identify the cause/s of disease, which situate somewhere else. If slum as a sickness is to be treated then prime necessity is to restore the right to or access to the land and resources of the slum dwellers, either in the city or at home from where they come to the city.

 

      It began with the City of New Delhi. It was built in 1931 in two decades. It was built not for the love of people of India, not in anticipation of success of India’s freedom struggle that would result in the democracy to India neither Sir Edwin Lutyens was a visionary to foresee that the Union Jack was to come down in a few decades on the Indian soil. It is a pompous monument to commemorate supremacy of British Empire, where the sun did never set.

 

    E. B. Havell, a great friend of India, “took leading part in the controversy over the building of New Delhi, seeing this as an ideal opportunity to revive the traditional arts. He organized a petition with signatures ranging from George Bernard Shaw to Coomarswamy, seeking to have the work placed in the hands of Indian Master Builders and that the opportunity was lost was a deep disappointment to him. ...It is not surprising then, that even at the time of his death in 1934; Havell had not been forgiven by many. His obituary in 'The Times' refers to his 'vehement hates and irrational exclusiveness', his ‘zeal that bordered on fanaticism', his vehement and relentless opposition to every trace of European influence, and with constant denunciations of what Havell deemed to be utter ignorance on the part of his fellow countrymen of Indian civilization” (Stephen Cross, 'E. B. Havell and the Art of India', TEMENOS, issue 11, 1989, UK pp. 226-8). His reservations about the new elite class of British educated were equally known. It is important for us to remember Havell, for he said, "Indian art was born in the village and nurtured in the pilgrim's camp". He brought meaning of Indian art and building to the notice of the people here and abroad and his interpretations were accepted in the years to come.

      In the terms of "Environment-Ecology-Energy cost", New Delhi is an enormous bolder (or blunder?) placed on our head. Subsequently this was to be repeated by slavishly following western model of development by the battery of zombies in planning, including city planning. After India's independence in a couple of decades the environmental revolution took off in the West. But the Indian leaders failed to take notice. The world, now, is confronting a new polarization in commercialization versus ecological sustainability. Earlier it was Capitalism versus Communism. Environmental concern, however, is not an alien idea to the Indian mind, but it is a way of life. But where is Indian mind? We are using the term India mind in contrast to western-educated-elitist India mind in this essay. The term land refers also to water, hills and forests.

 

       In India 70% people live in the rural areas and depend upon agriculture, which is labour-intensive with low capital input. In contrast in the Western countries 80% population lives in the urban areas and 20% people follow mechanized agriculture. The planners believe this magic should take place in India. They perhaps do not comprehend the full impact of industrialization and thereby its fall-out as environmental crisis at a global level. This is because they are thinking in a box. But for the present we shall limit our inquiry to urban rural dichotomy in urban renewal context in India.

       The city lives off the land, not with land, unlike the Indian mid that lives and grows in harmony with nature, howsoever; the natural conditions are severe and trying. The urbanites have alienated from the land – the soil – soil that is living entity for the Indian mind – and they call it dirt, or conveniently the land is a commodity for sale and purchase and investment.

 

         Urban development, save for the land as commodity, is motivated to exclude land and water from urban life and physical contact. Soil is imprisoned under tar and concrete pavement; water in the pipeline... and concrete dams. The cities, the town, the modern urban settlement in the “Ghettos of Development” in the remote backward interior rural areas are as alienated from land (and water) as a metropolitan city. For example, take any city, town and their expansions planned by the modern planners and the government planning agencies across the country, and we notice that there is no new reservoir, lake, waterfront, not even a pond, other than perhaps a fountain for aesthetic purpose – to look at – or for the industrial purposes or for drinking water supply, but not as a "public open place".  On the contrary the seas, rivers, lakes, reservoirs are either neglected and polluted or bulldozed and reclaimed by the planners to have more land to build upon.

 

            Through the millennia, the Indian mind built wetlands in the villages and cities alike. They venerated celebrated and worshiped water through traditions, cultures and religions. There is clear urban and rural dichotomy. We, therefore, notice for example, at the aquatic events at the Olympics and other events there are very few Indians. This is in spite of millions of fisher folks live along the thousands of kilometres of seacoast and rivers in India. They sustain by living with sea, rivers, and lakes, bravely facing the dangers of elements and floods. Their work and leisure is entwined with water. They never get access to these events. On the contrary, the modern cities and the development have inflicted pollution and contamination on land (and waters) and communities, and thereby, marginalize the people, as well as other living beings.  Is this alienation from land (and waters) a cause of degeneration of urban areas and leading the urbanite to a progressive loss of feeling, emotion, creative audacity and finally the consciousness" as warned by Lewis Mumford (The City in History, 1961, p.4)?     

 

       Colin Ward ends his sleek and penetrating book, "Welcome, Thinner City: Urban Survival in 1990s" with following words, "I see very few signs of a change of heart or mind. But before we begin to count the huge cost of enabling thousands of modest, sensible ventures to get off the ground in the inner city, let us consider the enormous expenditure we have incurred over the past 40 years in pursuing grand strategies that have not worked for inner city dweller and have all too often done them harm”.  But how to bring about the change of heart, when the planner is on the wrong side of the fence — with numbers instead of people?  What Colin Ward has missed in this valuable study of European and American cities, is the fallout of the modern western development at a global level which goes beyond political boundaries of a city or the State, thousands of kilometres afar. 

        The city has been a symbol of power, centralized power through the ages. In modern times it has brought displacement, disempowerment and impoverishment to millions of people beyond its physical limits. This monstrous octopus through its invisible tentacles consumes and devours the resources of the people, other living beings, the regions near and far and the earth. This is inflicted on people through education, legislation, development projects, mining, market, multi media, tourism etc. The major fruits of the development go back to the city. Hence there is the massive exodus from the countryside to the city in search of means for survival, resulting in massive increase of slums in the cities.

       Planners have indeed made great efforts to study the Third Ecology. But the ecology of biotic and abiotic nature has no place in the theories or in the practice except in the museums of natural history, zoos, reservations, manicured gardens, sanctuaries, aquariums and in print, away from / excluded from daily living.  

       Architects and planners are taught to make two-dimensional images of three-dimensional space as representation of a physical reality of an artefact, and the fourth dimension of time as a linear measure. But for the Indian mind the space is not a concept of a finished product; neither time is linear. Hence "Vastu" – an abode or a city, and "Itihasa" – history, are both timeless, unlike western concepts. The perception of space is a concrete reality, beyond the three dimensions, which is everything from land that is living entity, to the distant galaxies, the biotic and abiotic nature, which is embodiment of "Vastu". Hence they live in harmony with nature. There is no Utopia. Utopia exists for those who are individualistic, divorced from nature and community, in a fragmented society.

      You may call this a Cosmic Space, or whatever you like, which are action in continuum, and not a finished product on an assembly line on he planner's drawing board. Restore this space-time, beginning with land and waters, and our perceptions start changing. Restore the degraded ecology of biotic and abiotic nature, not merely Third Ecology, within the city and our perceptions of community shall start broadening and deepening, and hence bringing the change of heart. And restore the regional balance.

         Since sixties the West is rediscovering Environment–Ecology–Energy and subsequently there was “the Declaration of Soil" by Ivan Illich and friends. There is certainly a beginning of awareness in the West about the missing nature in the urban design, though planners have yet to learn, reorient and change their mindset. And with that all the institutions and the planning strategies will start changing. The Indian mind, however, intuitively knows, understands and lives by the centuries-old unwritten Declaration of Soil.  

 

Figure 1: Hierarchy of Environmental Design Fields

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remigius de Souza 

Architect Planner

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