Balancing progress and heritage in Ahmedabad

Much of the character of the city is at risk in the rush of modernisation, writes Matt Smith.

In November 2019 a fifteen-foot-tall red brick gate was quietly demolished while carrying out road maintenance construction of a new bus stand. The gate stood in the locality of Gita Mandir in Ahmedabad, India.

A remnant of the Mughal period, it had stood for 400 years before it was destroyed. The contracted firm was fined  and ordered to rebuild the gate, but the damage had been done.

“The gate was one of many examples in Ahmedabad of the vulnerability of the old city, and the pressure to move aside and accommodate new development,” says Dr Kiran Shinde, a senior lecturer in Urban Planning at La Trobe University. “Many buildings and structures have become  at risk in the rush of modernisation and progress.”

Ahmedabad was founded in the 15th century by Sultan Ahmad Shah as the state capital of Gujarat, a function that it held until 1970. In 2017 it became the first Indian city to be given UNESCO World Heritage City status, an acknowledgement of the extensive cultural and  architectural importance.

“Having a UNESCO World Heritage City status has been both rewarding and challenging for Ahmedabad, and there are real consequences for those living within the historic core,” says Dr Shinde. “While it brings the benefit of prestige and tourism it comes with the burden of conservation and balancing progress. The challenge is how to allow development without compromising preservation.”

Dr Shinde is working with colleagues at La Trobe  University’s Asian Smart Cities Research Innovation Network (ASCRIN) and Professor Utpal Kumar Sharma, Director of the Institute of Architecture and Planning at  Nirma University in Ahmedabad. They aim to develop a knowledge and skills transfer, as well as providing a receptive environment to learn from  the experience of colleagues across India.

“People are proud to know that Ahmedabad has received the UNESCO recognition, but they are apprehensive about many restrictions to their way of life as usual,” says Professor Sharma. “Owners of buildings and structures identified as  “heritage” want to retain their development rights and economic benefits but they need technical guidance as to how to restore the structures. They also think the government is very slow in responding to their aspirations and expectations.”

The status came a year after Ahmedabad had been nominated a ‘Smart City’ by the Government of India. India’s Smart City initiative is a nation-wide program  to make cities more citizen friendly and sustainable through projects that retrofit existing infrastructure and encourage urban renewal. While it has a modern development agenda there is a strong connection to heritage in the criteria.

The urban-renewal program gave it access to ₹98,000 crore ($18.7 million AUD) funding, with the aim of increasing modernisation and sustainability. It initially included 100 cities across the country, with Ahmedabad selected within the first round of announcements. There is an expectation that projects are completed by 2023.

“Being a Smart City in India brings a tremendous  opportunity for Ahmedabad, but also a certain amount of anxiety,” says Dr Shinde. “Balancing the expectations of development and infrastructure with the city’s heritage  status and what makes it unique is an ongoing debate at all levels of society and government, and there are  conflicting views and priorities.”

Ahmedabad has undergone a significant amount of urban renewal in the three years since being awarded heritage city status. A 2019 survey by the heritage department of the 489 listed properties found instances of demolition, adaptation and poor maintenance. 30 percent of the total were classed as compromised or vulnerable, far more  than initially estimated.

“Part of the problem is a lack of awareness as to which structures are listed as heritage protected, what makes them significant, and how to maintain and preserve them,” says Dr Shinde. “While the large, significant structures are more visible there is much of the character of the city that is being overlooked and destroyed.”

“There is also a glimmer of hope and renewed interest  in understanding and preserving of heritage,” says Professor Sharma. “In many traditional pols (neighbourhoods), communities have repaired bird feeders that are considered central to their spatial organisation and a key social interaction space. A children’s museum has been founded. The municipal corporation has commissioned a report on the condition of buildings and have started restoring many gates and the remains of fort walls.”

Ahmedabad is a city of religious significance which developed as a textile city, a trading centre, a centre of  education, and a hub of innovation. This diversity offers  the opportunity for a multidisciplinary approach to academic research, and exploring different processes of producing urban heritage.

“India has traditionally relied on a ‘master plan’ strategy for city development, but that approach is more of a colonial vestige,” says Professor Sharma. “Sustainability in India’s megacities cannot be achieved through conventional master planning, nor the current enthusiasm for technology-driven smart cities.”

Dr Shinde and Professor Sharma aim to complete an extensive survey of heritage structures within the historic core of Ahmedabad to identify those at risk and develop a framework for balancing heritage and development interests.

“Ahmedabad has lost much of what makes it a  historically significant city to the demands of  development,” says Professor Sharma. “We need to  develop new frameworks and strategic land  management, or risk losing our heritage status.”