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- A conclave on city design suggests ways to preserve Calcutta’s core character and prevent it from descending further into chaos

Needed for the poor man’s Paris: a space for the earth and heavens. Or else, brace for a life in a chaotic urban jungle.

A recent national conclave on urban design has underlined the need to control Calcutta’s growth if the city’s “core character” has to be preserved.

The conclave, organised by the think tank Centre for Built Environment (CBE), said too many planning agencies had fuelled chaos.

“A singular lack of vision on the part of our city planners has resulted in continuous erosion of Calcutta’s core character. Even today, no one has matched the comprehensive planning the Ford Foundation’s Gordon Cullen did for the city in 1962-63,” said city-based architect and urban designer Partha Ranjan Das, the forum’s convener.

Cullen, who was assisted by Santosh Ghosh, then a young architect and planner and now the president of the CBE, had prepared detailed reports with sketches for six city areas.

These were Burrabazar, New Market, Maidan, Victoria Commons, Dalhousie Square and Shalimar Point.

“Cullen’s reports are still extremely viable,” said the CBE’s Monica Khosla Bhargava, also an architect and urban designer.

For Dalhousie Square, Cullen had proposed a network of precincts, pedestrian ways and landscaped spaces, while the suggestion for the new city centre in Shalimar across the Hooghly was a high-density townscape.

Experts at the seminar said a dedicated urban design and landscaping department should be set up and suggested periodic renovation of decaying structures as well as concerted networking among Asian cities to retain their core character as a three-pronged pill for a better Calcutta.

“Urban design today is largely governed by the dynamics of distribution of settlement in a metropolitan context,” said Joy Sen, a professor in IIT Kharagpur’s department of architecture and regional planning.

He cited the example of Rajarhat to point out how urban sprawl was eating into rural belts, triggering sporadic development.

R. Jagannathan, who heads the school of architecture, Dayananda Sagar College of Engineering, Bangalore, rued that technology was taking people away from nature. A healthy space, he said, shouldn’t cut occupants off from the natural influences of the earth and heavens.

“Instead, it should be the vessel where these energies meet and be transmuted for the benefit of man. A design must keep as much of the original natural radiation of the environment as possible. Humanity has evolved over generations, but modern technology and new housing techniques have deprived us of contact with nature.”

Kate Hornsby, of Duisburg-Essen university in Germany, said European cities had been networking among themselves on areas of common concern like energy, transport, waste management, urban planning and eco-buildings. Asian cities, Hornsby added, should have a similar approach so that the continent’s cultural diversity could be preserved.

Das, whose presentation underlined the need for an integrated riverfront rejuvenation project, said lopsided planning had resulted in Howrah remaining the “step-child”.

“IT majors are clamouring for space in Rajarhat, whereas almost 800 acres are readily available by the river,” he said.

He suggested that the Calcutta side of the Hooghly be developed as an alternative cultural spine, “a second Park Street” that would bring people to the river, while the Howrah side could become a tech town.

Mumbai-based architect and urban designer Harshad Bhatia said urban design was a necessity. “However, we must work keeping the heritage precincts intact. Urban design provides a balanced approach to development. It enables a link between a memorable past and an unseen future, the public realm and a private domain.”

Another Calcutta-based architect and urban planner, Anjan Mitra, emphasised the need for conserving traditional quarters like Bow Barracks, Kumartuli and Kalighat to retain the city’s old urban fabric.

Jasmin Foullon from Stuttgart, Germany, suggested “greening” as a tool to address environmental problems.

“The objective is to transform the roof spaces of industrial, commercial, institutional and residential structures into rooftop gardens, sky gardens or green roofs,” Foullon said.

“They may be designed to grow produce, provide play space, shade and shelter while enhancing aesthetics.”

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