Managing historic cities

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M Saleem Beg
The rapid urbanization witnessed in recent times has accelerated the pace of change in all aspects of life, particularly in urban environments. A majority of Asian cities and towns are exposed to strong extraneous and fast-growing agents of change that disturb the delicate balance that exists between the physical, social, cultural and ecological aspects of the urban settlements. In order to strengthen Indian cities and towns to cope with these changes that threaten to destroy the diverse heritage, UNESCO took the initiative to form a national Network.

The UNESCO led Indian Heritage Cities Network was formally established as a trust in 2009 with five founding trustees. The trustees include Director UNESCO, India Bhutan and Nepal, Director School of Planning and architecture Delhi. I am also one of the five trustees.  More than any specific achievement or claim to expertise, it was due to historic and cultural importance of Srinagar city that I got a place on the Apex body of the trust. The trust has been expanding and setting up benchmarks for heritage resource based development in different India cities and in a matter of a year, 22 cities have enrolled as members. Srinagar has also signed in as a member of the Network.

The trust has partnered with many national and international agencies for taking further its charter. The main strength of the trust has been its ability to rope in international partners where heritage conservation has been an essential part of urban planning.

France, as all of us know, is way ahead of other countries in the continent in evolving a successful planning model for city development that ensures preservation of heritage and heritage based development. The nodal organization in France, Association Nationale des Villes et Pays d’Art et d’Histoire (French Association for Historic Cities) (ANVPAH) is the lead partner in IHCN international network.

The trust has enrolled seven French cities as its international partners. In October, a delegation of mayors of 11 Indian cities from Rajasthan, MP and Karnataka visited four French cities. I accompanied the delegation as a UNESCO expert. The visit exposed the mayors to the strategies and planning tools adopted by the French cities for mainstreaming heritage based resources in the development process. Transport and urban mobility is one of the prime concerns in French cities.

It has been flagged as the key to restore and uplift the urban experience and improve the quality of city life. Urban mobility is also linked to the air quality and pollution in the cities and therefore reduction of vehicular traffic is an essential part of this program. The urban planners explained to the delegation how they gave up sole reliance on widening of roads and construction of flyovers as an answer to problems of urban mobility. They have instead been propagating pedestrianisation and pushing for public transport as viable and more lasting solution. Their experience with this mode of urban planning has given handsome results and the city councils in France spent session after session to explain how they have been able to achieve phenomenal relief for the cities.

It was interesting to find that such concepts and strategies are simply not known to Indian cities where road widening, new roads and flyovers are the only available solution. Our internal assessment and discussions revealed that the historic cities like Srinagar, Jaipur, Udaipur, Indore etc can, with firm resolve and effort, introduce these two measures which will have a demonstrative impact with least investment of time and money. Looking at Srinagar it is perhaps the most critical planning exercise that the Urban Development authorities should initiate with a sense of urgency.

Srinagar is craving for decongestion of roads. The residents and visitors are gasping for a breath in the historic urban space. The impact of pedestrianisation of some of the road accesses in civil lines and down town mohallas will be phenomenal. It will give this city the privilege of leading the urban revolution and become a torch bearer for the historic cities.

(The writer is a former DG tourism and heads INTACH’s Kashmir chapter.)

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About Author

A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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