Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
URBAN SPACES : August 1, 1999
Can we reverse the blight?
The author is an architect and convenor, INTACH, Tamil Nadu chapter, involved in conservation.
The most common references to Chennai are that it is an overgrown village or that it is a city of hoardings. References that imply a lack of urban character and an image as temporary as the graphics on the hoardings. It would come as a surprise to many that the Chennai of the Thirties had strong and impressive urban features comparable to any city anywhere. George Town was an elegant central business district and Park Town with its public buildings and parks was a recognisable city centre. Though colonial in its beginnings, these types of urban spaces were the nucleii around which most modern metropolises of today grew and developed successfully. However, Chennai now has found itself unable to cope with the forces of growth and change and an area like Park Town has disintegrated into chaos and confusion and lost its role as the city centre.
Can this "lost" urban space be revived? Do we not need strong focal points in a city overwhelmed by its numbers and the mundane? To revive this public space we need to know what went wrong here. The physical problems are easy to identify, but it must be realised that these are only manifestations of larger managerial issues which are left unresolved.
Park Town in its heyday was a group of public buildings with strong architectural character, like Ripon Buildings, Old Town Hall (Victoria Public Hall), Moore Market and Central Station located in a park setting. Adjoining this was the Zoological Park and My Ladye's Garden. This mixed use development of commercial, institutional and recreational facilities gave the area the variety and vitality needed to make it a strong focal point of activity.
The area started losing its diversity with the expansion of Central Station, thanks to the demolition of Moore Market which was destroyed in a fire in 1985 and the shifting of the zoo. Moore Market was sacrificed to please the Railways without assessing its social and economic value to the city as a whole, whereas it was a different story with the zoo. It was left to languish without funds and had reached such a stage of dereliction that it saw the railways as a saviour. The shift to Vandalur gave the zoo a new lease of life, but the city was that much the poorer for it.
The traders displaced from Moore Market quickly colonised the public spaces outside the new suburban terminal and the government was a silent spectator as it had no viable plans for their re-settlement. The Lily Pond shopping complex purportedly built for their re-settlement (belatedly completed in 1986 at a cost of Rs. 6.6 crores) is still mostly empty and deserted, while hawkers have established permanent structures on the street and are thriving.
The pedestrian overload caused by the new suburban terminal has added to the chaos, as government agencies act independently to address their own individual problems. The highways have built a pedestrian subway to suit their own convenience without any study of the actual pedestrian movement. Periyar Salai has been widened at the cost of the pedestrian walks, as pedestrians do not figure in the highways equation. They cater only to vehicles. The city police have erected medians to make the traffic flow only in straight lines. The responsibilities of the Railways ends at the exit gate of the station and the problems spill over to the no-man's land of public spaces. Indiscriminately located hoardings hide the facade of the Victoria Public Hall and add to the visual disorder and clutter. This building, which is a city landmark, has itself fallen into disuse because it has been neglected by the Trust which administers it. It now faces the threat of demolition as it occupies prime land ideal for commercial exploitation.
Most critics blame the deterioration of the urban fabric on uncontrolled development attributable to private ownership, but here is an example where a public space has been lost even though it was under government control. This raises several questions regarding the planning and management of public spaces.
1. If all public land belongs to the State and the government only holds it in trust for its citizens it should not have the right to authorise the use of this space for private gain at the expense of greater public good. Unless this point is driven home there will continue to be chaos on our streets and our parks and natural ecosystems will be sacrificed at the altar of commercial opportunism.
The old glory. Moore Market on the left, Victoria Public Hall (Old Town Hall) in the centre, and Ripon Building on the right in a park setting in the 1930s.
2. Why are there large gaps in our planning and why cannot it network? The current crisis facing our public spaces is due to uncoordinated individual efforts creating an environment of conflict in these intervening areas which become spaces left out in planning. If our city planning energies are directed to specific issues related to conservation and management of public spaces instead of looking only at macro development plans based on dubious statistics and priorities we could improve the environmental quality of our cities in quick time.
3. When are we going to give conservation and heritage their rightful place in the planning process? If this was a priority we could have saved Moore Market and the park around Lily Pond; Victoria Public Hall would still have been the Town Hall and the city would still have had a city centre instead of the chaotic backyard that it has become today. Preserving our heritage is necessary for our self-esteem. Landmark buildings representing the city's architectural history should be a source of pride rather than one of embarrassment. The mistaken notion that preservation of the historic fabric of a city somehow restricts modernisation should be dispelled. In fact the old and the new can not only co-exist but can also complement each other creating a variety in the built-form of the city that is vibrant and exciting.
4. When are we going to take a stand on the visual clutter that dogs the image of our cities? If there is one word that could describe this, it is "chaos". While Indian culture prides itself on its diversity and variety, when it comes to our cities it crosses the line that separates variety from chaos. Variety has character and has recognisable patterns and images, but, as Charles Correa once said, "Chaos looks pretty much the same everywhere". Building regulations pay only lip service to visual controls because there is a deep seated feeling that such controls tread on the toes of individual liberties. The answer lies in a closer examination of what constitutes the public realm and where one draws the line separating it from the private realm. A street, for example, is defined by the facades of the buildings and structures on either side of it. The visual image of the street is that of the building facades and not the road surface. Therefore, the facades and other structures that constitute this image are part of the public realm and, therefore, subject to control just like other building characteristics. While this argument has been used to create sterile and monotonous neighhourhoods in the West, it would empower us to restore variety and character in our cities which suffer from an overload of visual inputs. Hoardings which conflict with built form, neon signs which deface heritage buildings and insensitive new construction in close proximity to landmarks can all be legally controlled. A visual layer can be removed exposing the true image of our urban spaces.
By virtue of its location and the fact that its problems are typical of various other neighbourhoods in the city and with the added advantage of the land being mostly under government control, Park Town presents a good opportunity for an urban design exercise incorporating a holistic approach. An urban design group could be set up specifically for this area under the CMDA to draw up such a plan. Given the requisite administrative and political support, tangible results could be produced quickly. The Chennai Corporation should support this project as it would be the major beneficiary of the resulting improvement in environmental quality. It will also enhance the image of this 300-year-old institution as an organisation willing to play a pro-active role on important issues on which the survival of the city hinges.
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