LSE Cities MSc. Research Project

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During March 2012, the 2011/12 MSc. City Design and Social Science students at the LSE embarked on their annual research trip. Ahmedabad in Gujarat, India was selected as the destination for this class. The focus of the class's research was to prepare a report on a river upgrade scheme, and its effect on surrounding communities. I prepared this extract for the LSE Cities website on the excursion:

“At the end of March 2012, the LSE's MSc City Design and Social Science students spent a whirlwind week in rapidly expanding Ahmedabad - India's seventh largest city. After landing in the city, and adjusting to the close on 30 degree temperature change, we set about trying to get to know and understand Ahmedabad, a metropolis that thrives on complex informal networks and exchanges.

Our programme was organised by CEPT University, a leading design-oriented university with an incredibly open attitude and campus, with students who proved to be knowledgeable guides with sharp minds, kind spirits and nimble motorbike skills. The programme consisted of visits to important Ahmedabad sites including the very public and architecturally intriguing Sarkej Roza, the introspective Gandhi Ashram designed by Charles Correa (image right by Jorge Martin), Le Corbusier's iconic Mill Owners Association building and the highly detailed yet very solemn Adalaj Step Well.

The main focus of the visit was the Sabarmati Riverfront Development, an ambitious infrastructure project that has already seen over 11.25km of concrete embankment built on both sides of Ahmedabad's main river. The development includes a large-scale sewer system along the river, two tiers of promenade, new bridges and the reclamation of around 158ha of land that will be developed into public open space, with 20% earmarked for institutions and private developers.

The project is contentious in Ahmedabad, mainly due to the lack of a broad based, public-participation process and a disastrous relocation process, which has sought to displace the residents of informal settlements on the riverfront. The balanced programme curated by CEPT exposed us and our CEPT colleagues to both sides of the riverfront debate. Proponents such as Bimal Patel, the project's architect, argued that the new riverfront was essential for a future Ahmedabad actively competing with other global cities for investment, and thus a centre modelled on the likes of London, Paris or Singapore was necessary. Opponents such as CEPT academic Renu Desai, argued that the riverfront ruined the pragmatic relationship between city residents and the river, that it denied the rights of informal settlement dwellers to live on the river and might not, on completion, be an inclusionary public belt, available to all.

The debate was rich, and highly relevant in a world where developing economies are expanding at such a rate, so much so that countries forget what makes them significant and different in a sea of homogeneity. We visited the project multiple times, documenting its relationship with the surrounding community, and marvelling at the significant paradoxes the riverfront development presented, while attempting to understand the need for investment and large-scale infrastructural improvement. After working in groups with CEPT students for part of the week, our better-framed analysis formed the basis of city design briefs that explored ways of potentially intervening or improving on either an aspect of or the whole project.

Ahmedabad was an electric experience, from high-energy auto-rickshaw races, to swirling dust clouds, Rajasthani dancing, roadside chai, decadent dhal feasts, cool morning breezes and challenging debates. The LSE group grew stronger, and the bond with our CEPT friends, closer. The opportunity to engage with a city, and project which sits so precariously at the front of economic versus social development debates in rapidly expanding, developing city contexts was invaluable to all of us.”