Striking a balance between heritage conservation and urbanisation

Experts discuss how to create more space for people and vehicles in the city without ruining the special character of a place

July 20, 2017 12:20 am | Updated 12:20 am IST - mUMBAI

Mumbai, Maharashtra,  10/04/2015:  Picture for Sunday Anchor,  to go with Madhumita Srinivasan's story on Museums.  Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly Prince of Wales Museum), in Mumbai.  Photo:  Vivek Bendre

Mumbai, Maharashtra, 10/04/2015: Picture for Sunday Anchor, to go with Madhumita Srinivasan's story on Museums. Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly Prince of Wales Museum), in Mumbai. Photo: Vivek Bendre

In an era where the pace of the city’s development seems to speed up every year, and each new government policy spells out a vision for Mumbai as a ‘smart’ city of the future, what is the impact of this rapid urbanisation on the city’s heritage structures?

A panel discussion on July 18, organised jointly by the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai Metropolitan Region Heritage Conservation Society and the Sir JJ College of Architecture, took up this vital discussion. The event was organised as part of the convocation ceremony of the Capacity Development Programme in Built Heritage Studies and Conservation run by the CSMVS and was moderated by Professor Mustansir Dalvi of JJ School of Architecture. The speakers on the panel were D.M. Sukthankar, former chief secretary to the government of Maharashtra and former head of the of Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee (MHCC); and Shirish Patel, Chairman Emeritus of Shirish Patel and Associates.

Opening the discussion Mr. Dalvi said that the city has seen so much development that has taken place as a top down imposition on an already existing older city that has substantial built up material. He said that we should consider what is the manner of change that we want to see in a historic city like Mumbai and to what extent ideas of a newer city can be superimposed on one that is already existing.

“Do we look at Mumbai as a historic city or do we look at it only as a future city or smart city?” he asked. “If we accept that conservation is important then we also have to consider what is the built material that is important to us,” he added. Mr. Dalvi argued that while efforts have been taken to preserve colonial architecture in the city, more should also be done to preserve 20th century buildings that were built not only by the British but also by the locals.

Mr. Sukthankar recalled his time heading the MHCC when it was first set up under the 1991 Development Control Regulations. Prior to these regulations being enacted, he said there was a lot of debate on how the the city should conserve the structures and buildings that lent it a special identity. Development, he said, brings pressure on land use and old structures get reconstructed to accommodate more people and more amenities. While this process is inherent, he said it cannot be wholly allowed to obliterate cultural and natural heritage.

Mumbai, he said, does not have a lot of historical monuments like other cities but in his time with the MHCC, there were debates about preserving other structures like the chawls that were built to house workers and later came to accommodate families. These, he said, reflected the special character of the city, it’s communities and it’s way of life. At the same time, he said there had to be a balance and not every structure could be classified as a heritage one. He pointed that in many old neighbourhoods and locales in Mumbai there was always likely to be a debate every time there was a plan to widen roads or to create more space for people to park their vehicles that such plans may come at the cost of ruining the special character of that place. “How do we create a balance between these aspects?” he asked.

Mr. Patel, who was also a member of the MHCC from 1996 to 1999, pointed to the fact that regional plans for the city do not do a proper identification of heritage sites. “The first thing we have to do is map heritage sites and then it is important to see who is doing the mapping. Heritage cannot be an elite selection and when we look at the region as a whole the mapping should be done by asking everyone what they feel is important to preserve,” he said.

Use value, exchange value

With cultural artefacts, as with land, he said, there is both a use value and an exchange value. Political leadership, he said, is often more concerned with the exchange value and the people who are concerned with use value, that is the cultural value of these sites, are often not as organised and not as persistent. “We need to recognise that we need to organise better and we have to make more and more people aware of our cultural history and what needs to be preserved,” he said.

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