Thursday, 26 January 2012

Spatial Planning: The Regeneration of Historic Inner Cities

The historic cores of Indian cities, once the driving force of growth and economic, social, cultural and aesthetic development of the city, now face an uncertain future. These areas have started showing a “Ghetto”-isation of the poor, unbearable densities, lack of open spaces, deteriorating living conditions,  disintegrating built heritage and difficulties in securing land for public use/housing. 

The heritage monuments at the heart of the historic core, though officially protected, are usually neglected by the government. Frequently, the structures are occupied by squatters and both the monument and any open land attached to it faces extreme pressure from developers as they are located at the heart of densely populated urban areas.

In a country where a sizeable part of society is still trying to deal with poverty, most people rarely think about cultural heritage and the need to save it. However cultural heritage is potential for tourism and the resultant economic benefits of tourism gives it an importance that supercedes its cultural and historical value. So as more and more monuments and heritage areas start being considered valuable, conservationists and local governments enforce more and more planning and legislative means to protect them.

On the other hand, developers and entrepreneurs see this sort of conservation planning as preventing and inhibiting the natural growth and change of urban areas, considered an essential part of modern life. This is particularly the case where city business centres coincide with historical cores and the conflict then becomes one of whether the historic city is a reserve for heritage, or an area of economic vitality, where the potential of sites is exploited for better economic functioning of the city with minimum impediment to inevitable and desirable change. 

However the real value of historic inner city areas lies in neither its tourism potential nor its value as real estate. It lies in the fact that they are a storehouse for the cultural capital of entire countries. The colonialisation of our cultures is being done by the process of globalisation whereby the cultural values of the economically dominant overwhelm all others, producing sameness the world over.

Herein lies the true necessity for protecting cultural heritage even though protection of historical buildings of redundant function is seen as preventing the development of modern facilities required for a ‘world class city’. In this pursuit of the ubiquitous dream of a ‘world class city’, heritage structures are being razed all over India and cities redeveloped to conform to a ‘modern’ global model devoid of cultural identity.
17th century Jama Masjid, Old Delhi
image source: author
Social Injustice?
Planners have little understanding about how the poor survive. As a result, urban plans and policies generally have little relevance to the situation which the poor face and may well make it far worse. 

It is precisely this lack of understanding that results in Regeneration/ Revitalization schemes that demolish the squatter settlements of the very poor, considered unsightly and detrimental to both tourism and economic redevelopment. Forced evictions in Indian cities, however, rarely provide for re-location and rehabilitation, and when they do, it is badly planned and sometimes never executed at
all. Cities like Delhi, Ahmedabad, Bhopal and Kolkata provide numerous examples of local authorities herding evicted squatters like cattle from the city centre to the edge of the city where they are provided with compensatory land which is too far away from their means of livelihood.

Also, the historic structures in the heart of cities are usually surrounded by street markets, some so old that they have become part of the cultural identity of the city. Growth and development in the historic inner city areas are supposed to be controlled, especially in the vicinity of protected monuments. 

Thus city beautification and clean-up drives regularly target pavement stalls, street hawkers and other informal services and shops that are an integral part of all Indian cities. The people running the informal markets and living in the informal settlements of the historic core endure an uncertain existence, constantly vulnerable to forced evictions, living with the perpetual spectre of loss of shelter and livelihood.

There are other kinds of social disruptions for inhabitants of inner city areas. As revitalization and regeneration gradually start making inner city areas expensive to live in, residents find they are unable to pay the increased rents, taxes and services and are then forced to sell-out. This phenomenon has been termed “Gentrification”. 

This is a commonly observed phenomenon in many European cities undergoing regeneration. However, the gradual forcing out of communities from city centres has now started in India as well, notably in Mumbai. Thus, whether it is for the revitalization of cultural heritage or economic redevelopment – physical planning for historic inner cities may result in traumatic dislocation and changes for local communities, whether they are part of the formal or informal sector.

Author: Shahana Dastidar 

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