Urban redevelopment

Tuesday, 9 August 2011 00:45 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Those of us who attended the 12th annual Neelan Tiruchelvam Memorial Lecture delivered by Professor Ramachandra Guha, Historian, Biographer, Columnist, Environmentalist and Cricket Writer, were fortunate to have the opportunity to be introduced in an enthralling manner to Patrick Geddes.

A fascinating Scotsman, who between 1914 and 1924 travelled through many parts of British India studying and writing about what he saw, Geddes’s views on urban redevelopment were of special interest to us residents of Colombo, a city which is undergoing accelerated change.

Professor Guha cleverly prefaced his lecture with some comments on Sri Lanka cricket. He referred to an innings of 150 by Dulip Mendis at Feroze Kotla, Stadium which he had witnessed, which he maintained was the best he had ever been fortunate enough to witness.

He also referred to an equally scintillating innings by Sri Lanka’s famed Sathasivam at Madras, which his uncle had been fortunate enough to watch and described to him.

Professor Guha referred to Kumar Sangakkara’s Colin Cowdrey Memorial Spirit of Cricket Oration at the MCC in glowing terms, saying that “no Indian cricketer of the past, neither of the present nor of the future, would be able to emulate that exemplary performance”.

The audience applauded that comment. From that point onwards, the Professor was sailing with the wind, the audience with him all the way.


But this is in no way to undervalue his excellent presentation on Patrick Geddes, who in India worked as a freelance town planner and then as the first Professor of Sociology and Civics of the University of Bombay. Geddes while in India wrote nearly 50 town plans, some commissioned by the maharajas ruling princely states, others written at the request of the colonial administration.

Patrick Geddes was born in Aberdeenshire in Scotland in 1854 and educated at Perth Academy. He studied at the Royal College of Mines in London under Thomas Henry Huxley between 1874 and 1878 and lectured in Zoology at Edinburgh University from 1880 to 1888.

Geddes shared the belief with John Ruskin that social processes and spatial form are related and that by changing the spatial form, it was possible to change the social structure as well.

In 1919 Geddes was commissioned by the British Mandate in Palestine to draw up a master plan for Jerusalem. In 1925 he submitted a master plan for Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is the only known city whose core is entirely built according to Geddes’ plan.

Connections with India

Geddes’ connections with India are well known. He visited India four times between 1914 and 1924, staying for two-and-a-half years between 1916 and 1919. As Professor Guha told us, Geddes’ plan was to visit India to display his exhibition on urban history. He had been invited by the Governor of the Madras Presidency Lord Pentland to hold the exhibition in 1914 in Madras at the time the Indian National Congress was meeting in Madras; Pentland hoped that the exhibit would demonstrate the benefits of British rule.

Although Geddes arrived safely in Madras, the ship carrying his exhibition was sunk near Madras by the German battleship the Emden, which is no stranger to us Sri Lankans. There are allegations that the Emden, while raiding British ships in the Indian Ocean, was secretly victualled by a Boer prisoner of War, Engelbretch, whom the British had appointed to be in charge of the Yala Game Reserve. Geddes however managed to collect new material and exhibited them at the Senate Hall of Madras University in 1915.

Geddes later worked with Indian surveyors and travelled to Bombay and Bengal where Lord Pentland’s political allies Lord Willingdon and Lord Carmichael were governors. Geddes’ interest in India, Guha tells us, was first sparked by a chance encounter in Paris with an Irish spiritualist, Margaret Noble.

Guha reports that Geddes travelled widely in India and interacted closely with all strata of Indian society. Geddes met Mahatma Gandhi twice, knew Annie Besant of the Theosophical Society and befriended great Bengali thinkers Rabindranath Tagore and Jagdish Chandra Bose.

Guha quotes Annie Besant writing to Geddes: “You are only the second Englishman I have met who sees what India means to the world.” Rabindranath Tagore wrote to Geddes: “I have often wished for my mission, the help of men like yourself who not only have a most comprehensive sympathy and imagination but a wide range of knowledge and critical acumen. It was with bewilderment of admiration that I have so often followed the architectural immensity of your vision.”

Jawaharlal Nehru, Guha says, wrote just three years after Geddes’ death in 1932, to Nehru’s daughter Indira, from Almora jail, where the colonial government had imprisoned him during the Quit India campaign, emphasised Geddes’s approach to education and learning, of how “he wanted children to grow up with a firsthand knowledge of the worlds of nature and of man and to develop an unspoiled appreciation of life and the beauty of nature”.

Nehru summarised Geddes’ credo for Indira, in her teens at that time, as consisting of three Hs – Heart, Hand and Head. Nehru described Geddes as a “very great man,” a “genius in many fields”. Nehru wrote that those who followed the Geddesian model developed “what is called a well-integrated personality, something in harmony with life and nature, the very reverse of the quarrelsome, dissatisfied, ever-complaining type that we see often today”.

Three central themes

Professor Guha said three central themes run through Geddes’s town plans: Respect for Nature, Respect for Democracy and Respect for Tradition.

For us, in Colombo today, living in an urban environment, which is undergoing accelerated and rapid redevelopment at the present time, walls and buildings being demolished, traffic being redirected, roads being resurfaced, canals and lakes being dredged and surroundings being beautified, trees, shrubs and lawns being planted, walkways being laid, water fountains being installed, etc. in double quick time, with military precision, Professor Guha’s interpretation of Geddes’ urban planning philosophy was relevant and fascinating. We can certainly do with some ‘Heart, Hand and Head, in that order.

Relationship to water

Professor Guha further explained and clarified Geddes’ themes of Respect for Nature, Democracy and Tradition, thus: The town plans are deeply ecological in at least three respects.

Firstly, Geddes saw the Indian city defined by its relationship to water. Traditional India saw the river as scared. In this it merely anticipated the science of geography, which also stressed what he called ‘the fundamental and central river-factor of human environment’. Geddes wished to redesign the City of Indore around its rivers. Elsewhere there were no rivers; he stressed the renewal and revitalisation of tanks.

We Sri Lankans, who are heirs to a complex hydraulic civilisation, could really appreciate Geddes’ thinking.

Space for trees

Secondly, Professor Guha pointed out, Geddes was always alert to spaces, however small, that could be claimed by trees. As a skilled botanist, he had a keen eye as to which species went with which aspect.

His plans, Professor Guha pointed, out are meticulously filled with specific recommendations; for a line of cypresses to be plated here, a grove of mangoes there, and a papal planted in one place, banyan in another. As Professor Guha said, as Colombo has managed to conserve some of its tree cover, to us this struck a chord.

Conservation of resources

Thirdly, according to Professor Guha, Geddes stressed the conservation of resources to minimise the city’s dependence on the hinterland. Sri Lanka’s South West Quarter, led by the City of Colombo, has been described as a ‘parasite,’ living off the rest of the island!

In this respect, Geddes’ point really struck home. Particularly noteworthy, Professor Guha pointed out, was what Geddes had to say about wells. Wells, Geddes said, should “be regarded as a valuable reserve to the existing water supplies, even if these be efficient”.

Geddes continued: “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.”

Professor Guha adds that Geddes was here writing about Thane, but that his words should be pasted above the office desks of planners working today in Chennai, Hyderabad and a dozen other cities in India. Readers well know that Colombo and its environs today are dotted with abandoned community and household wells which have been left abandoned, to wither away after household mains water connections were provided. Geddes thoughts are very relevant for us in Colombo today, too.

Importance of recycling

Fourthly, Professor Guha said, Geddes emphasised the importance of recycling. Sewage could be fruitfully used to manure gardens; Guha quotes Geddes, to convert “a fetid and poisonous nuisance into a scene of order and beauty”.

Guha says that the centrality of nature in Geddes’ plan was a means to an end, the harmonising of city and country. Geddes speaks of that ‘return to nature,’ which according to Guha, every adequate plan involves, with pure air, water and cleanliness in surroundings again rural, Guha quotes Ruskin so that “the field gains upon the street, no longer merely the street upon the field”.

Respect for democracy

On the aspect of Geddes’ respect for democracy, Guha said that the most significant feature is respect for participation. Guha pointed out that Geddes emphasised the need for special attention being paid to the rights of less privileged groups. The needs of women and children were considered paramount. Geddes stressed the creation of parks for children to play in and private space for women through courtyards and balconies.

Guha said that Geddes’ democratic instincts were also paramount in his opposition to the mindless destruction of buildings to “improve the town or to build highways for cars to drive through”. The issue here is clearly the ‘democratic deficit’ is urban redevelopment planning.

While rapidly implementing magnificent solutions brilliantly thought up by a coterie of able people may be commendable, since the inability to implement the best made plans is the main problem we face as a nation, it would be also be advisable to have a more dedicated process of consultation, compromise and consensus building, so that society at large, especially the multitude of varied stakeholders, would have an opportunity to buy into the process and participate.

Even simple things like billboards at the locations being developed, indicating what is planned, the cost, the anticipated date of completion, giving a reference to a website on which visuals of the completed proposed project are displayed, providing a contact to whom to speak to in the event of any queries, suggestions, etc. would provide a great opportunity for the public at large to participate.

What is being suggested is certainly not that an Environment Impact Assessment Report be obtained for each and every project planned for Colombo’s renewal, but that at least in limine, that the stakeholders be meaningfully allowed to participate, be consulted, be allowed to contribute, in a transparent, constructive, responsible and mature manner, so that they can take ownership of what is happening, to what is and will always remain to be, their own city.

Respect for tradition

Regarding respect for tradition, Guha said that Geddes described this as heritage preservation. Geddes famously said that “to postpone is to conserve”. Guha quotes Geddes statement from a plan for Dacca: “The town planning movement is on this side a revolt of the peasant and the gardener, as on the other, of the citizen, and these united by the geographer, from their domination by the engineer.”

It is clear that any urban redevelopment process should keep Geddes’ philosophy of town planning clearly in perspective, even in this modern day and age. Geddes’ credo, as summarised by Pandit Nehru to Indira – ‘Heart, Head and Hand’ – would be very relevant to Colombo’s ongoing redevelopment.

The organisers of the 12th Neelan Tiruchelvam Memorial Lecture are to be commended for providing us with this fantastic opportunity to be introduced to Patrick Geddes by Professor Ramachandra Guha. Having the good fortune to have personally known Neelan, I can say that he would have greatly appreciated the experience.

(The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years experience as a CEO in both government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)

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