Town planners in every city in India should take inspiration from Patrick Geddes, Scottish town planner and biologist, said Ramachandra Guha, writer and historian, at a lecture in the city on Wednesday.
“Geddes' words should be pasted above the office desks of planners working today in Chennai, Hyderabad and a dozen other cities of India,” he said while delivering the Salim Ali Memorial Lecture 2010-11, organised by the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History.
There were three central themes to Geddes' town plans — respect for nature, democracy and tradition.
His town plans were deeply ecological. He saw Indian city as defined by its relation to water. Traditional India considered rivers sacred, which he called the fundamental and central river-factor of human environmentalists. Wherever there were no rivers, he stressed the renewal and revitalisation of tanks.
Geddes was also alert to space, however small. As a skilled botanist, he had a keen eye appropriate species. His plans were filled with meticulously specific recommendations.
Geddes stressed the conservation of resources, to minimise the city's dependence on the hinterland. Particularly noteworthy was what he said about wells. “These, he says, should be regarded as a valuable reserve to the existing water supplies, even if these were efficient. Any and every water system occasionally goes out of order, and is open to accidents and injuries of very many kinds; and in these old wells we inherit an ancient policy, of life insurance, of a very real kind, and one far too valuable to be abandoned.”
The town planner also emphasises the importance of recycling, said Mr. Guha. Sewage could be fruitfully used to manure gardens, converting a fetid and poisonous nuisance into a scene of order and beauty. This might even lead to an elevation in the status of the sweepers, who would be put in charge of using night-soil to raise and cultivate gardens.
The second theme was respect for democracy. This too had several distinct aspects. The first was that of participation, Mr. Guha said: “As the physician must make a diagnosis of the patients' case before prescribing treatment, so with the planner for the city.”
The democratic town planner must pay special attention to the needs of the less-privileged groups. He stressed on the rights and needs of women and children, which tend to be ignored in most plans.
Mr. Guha said another aspect of Geddes' democratic instincts was his opposition to the mindless destruction of buildings to improve the town or to build highways for cars to drive through.
This logically led to the respect for tradition, or Geddes' awareness of what was now called heritage conservation. He offered a five-word motto that those interested in heritage preservation must impress upon every architect and town planner that “To postpone is to conserve”.
Summing up, Mr. Guha said Geddes drew a distinction between what he called the Paleotechnic present and a Neotechnic future. The former was the dominance of man by machine, finance and militarism. But Geddes hoped for a new, Neolithic age based on solar energy and on long-lasting alloys, marked by its better use of resources and population towards the betterment of man and his environment together.