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A Brief History Of A Possible Future

This is a version of an essay I wrote in the months after the 2015 Chennai Floods for the SAP Chronicle at the request of a few of my students. I’ve expanded it significantly here…

After the rains of 2015, the City Of Chennai wakes up and smells its proverbial coffee. The first thing they do is to collate the different flood maps that were floating around. This work is crowd-sourced to the general public & NGOs; especially those most affected by the flood. Simultaneously, the authorities conduct an audit on drainage of the city. This reveals serious problems as anticipated. A massive project of drain repair is initiated as a direct result of the audit. Once the flood map was finalized, the areas most vulnerable are identified. More importantly, the areas that survived best are studied. A Disaster Management plan is prepared. It is updated every year or perhaps every season… In real time, if necessary.

A new era of Urban Planning and Administration begins as a result of the misery and mistakes that the Flood brought into focus.The Administration goes hunting for ideas and people eagerly respond.After much deliberation and discussion, Someone takes an incredibly bold decision to re-balance the densities of the City, by increasing densities in the safer areas and decreasing them in the more vulnerable spaces. But this isn’t done through some blunt, abstract instrument like boosting the FAR/FSI (Floor Area Ratio / Floor Space Index), but with more subjective metrics. An intense dialogue on increasing density between political representatives, planners, urban designers, architects, civic authorities and (crucially with) local residents begins street by street. As expected, there is resistance; but the prospective financial returns are too attractive. Someone has realised that incentives tend to work better than penalties. That helps…

Then another Wise Person gets rid of the idea of Two Dimensional Zoning, and suggests that it be implemented Three Dimensionally, creating greater efficiency and variety. This includes mandating parks and public spaces in the Sky. Things like FSI (subjectively applied) and building height are made trade-able; allowing some sites to buy the built-up potential of two or three sites and thus preserve historic and important buildings profitably. The increased density, especially along the public transport corridors; drastically reduces pollution and emergency response times. The City then begins to interconnect buildings at different levels, creating a genuine three dimensional system of space and movement; resulting in alternate routes for people when the City floods again, as it must.Our traditional Planar understanding of land and space is challenged by a new Volumetric paradigm, which creates interesting new problems and possibilities. We are still thinking about how to deal with it; but there are already a few good ideas out there and we will get to them in time…

The vulnerable areas, on the lakes and flood plains are slowly depopulated, as a result of the Revitalization of the City Core and the opportunities it affords. The City begins a project of Re-Wilding of its waterbodies and rivers to restore dying ecosystems. As you might expect, this has a significant impact on on the micro-climate of the City as well as the general bio-diversity of the region.  As a consequence of the rising water levels and rejuvenated wetlands, the City can now survive a drought with greater resilience than anticipated.

Artists, writers, entrepreneurs, tradesmen and labourers flock to the City. Thanks to its subjective policy making; the City is able to absorb them without any serious issues of capacity. The public realm is enhanced in its abstract and physical forms as a result of some intelligent and responsible urban design; especially near the water bodies. The Poor, who were the most affected by the First Great Flood; are not treated with heavy handed disdain, but are included in the decisions every step of the way. Housing policies are designed to be more inclusive and people of all economical strata begin to live in proximity; with dissolving barriers and deep integration. This eases lingering, repressed social tension as each group begins to identify and empathize with “The Other”. This  dilution of difference makes some people uncomfortable, but their concerns are listened to with seriousness and they are given the political and physical space to express themselves however they want to. This negates  or at least diffuses the potential resentment that could mar the mental landscape of the City.

These policies need work. A lot of them fail miserably; but that’s okay. We understand that all of this is an experiment; and that sometimes the only way to know what doesn’t work, is to simply try it. But some of these policies do okay and there are others that are wildly successful. There are better ideas out there, waiting to be tested. Then there are some policies that work really well in certain parts of Chennai and don’t quite work in others. However, the City, its administrators and the systems they create, are allowed to be open minded and flexible. As a direct result of their constant engagement with the communities they serve; they can modify the failing policies or replace one that isn’t generating the right outcomes on a case by case basis; without bureaucracy and dogma getting in their way. Most importantly, they are given the space to fail and the opportunity to try new things that may succeed the next time around.

All of this creates a City that is open, wise, clean, beautiful, prosperous and most of all – kind.

Or perhaps nothing changes…
And the haunting images of the last days of 2015 become the first of a series that map the decline of a City By The Sea and pollute it’s many memories with deep regrets..


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