Planning perfect towns

AT THE release function of the book, Madras - The Architectural Heritage (by K. Kalpana and Frank Schiffer), historian Ramachandra Guha spoke on "Patrick Geddes and Ecological Town Planning in India".

Guha said the Chipko Movement, which began in 1973 in the Garhwal Himalayas, was reckoned to be the initiative that signalled the beginning of modern environmentalism in India. "But, there is an unacknowledged prehistory to environmentalism (in India). It started in the early decades of the century with a group of unusual thinkers who had anticipated current environmental problems. These were the early environmentalists, and I regard three among them as outstanding. They are J.C. Kumarappa, M. Krishnan and Patrick Geddes."

Patrick Geddes was born in 1854, "on the same day as Mahatma Gandhi - October 2". He was "the oxymoron - Scottish internationalist". He travelled widely in Europe and America. "Geddes made important contributions to scientific debates on economics, sociology, zoology, botany and geography. Despite all these varied interests, his most enduring work was in the theory and practice of town planning. He took a historical and ecological approach to town planning, studied the rise of modern cities and their impact on natural environment," said Guha. "Geddes was part of that group of men and women who came to India not to exploit, nor to rule, but to serve and understand." Geddes stayed off and on in India from 1914 to 1924. "During his stay in India, he wrote nearly 50 town plans - some commissioned by maharajas and some written at the behest of government administrators. The towns that he wrote about range from Dhaka in the East to Ahmedabad in the West, from Lahore in the North to Thanjavur in the South. Published in limited editions by obscure presses, now available only in Scotland, Geddes' Indian town plans deserve to be resurrected."

One of the themes close to Geddes' heart was respect for Nature. "Geddes saw the Indian city as defined by its relationship to water. Traditional India saw the river as sacred. For example, Geddes wished to redesign the city of Indore around rivers. Where places which did not have rivers were concerned, he stressed the renewal and revitalisation of tanks and lakes. He was always alert to spaces, however, small, that can be claimed by trees."

Another theme integral to Geddesian town planning was respect for democracy. Said Guha: "In one of the two volumes he penned for the city of Indore in 1919, Geddes writes, `As the physician makes a diagnosis of the patient's case before prescribing treatment, so with the planner of a city. He looks closely into the city as it is and enquires into how it has grown and how it has suffered. As the physician associates the patient with his own cure, so must the planner appeal to the citizen'. Geddes felt that the democratic town planner must pay special attention to the needs of underprivileged groups. He also stressed the importance of the rights and needs of women and children. He appreciated creation of courtyards and balconies where women could have their own private space." Geddes was against unnecessary demolitions ostensibly meant to improve the town. In 1918, for instance, he opposed the "sweeping clearances and vigorous demolitions that were coming into fashion" in Barauch, said Guha.

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