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VIAVOX: Seattle to Chandigarh – A Local/Global Dialogue

Nov 09, 2012

by Katherine Idziorek, Urban Designer, VIA Architecture

Our most recent VIAVOX event, Chandigarh 2.0: A Discussion on Urbanization + Growth inthe Global and Local Context took place last month at Zeitgeist Coffee in Seattle. 

The VIAVOX is a tradition that supports our firm culture of building ideas and seeking to advance dialogue about design beyond the scope of our projects. The idea of the event is to provoke conversation about design and to give a voice to current issues affecting the practice of architecture and urban planning. Past VIAVOXes have focused on topics such as affordable housing partnerships, connected senior urbanism, and the renewal of neglected cities.

At our October event, VIA hosted Professor Vikram Prakash from the University of Washington College of Built Environments, who presented his ongoing work on globalization and urbanization in Chandigarh, India and facilitated a discussion focused on recognizing common issues faced by Seattle and Chandigarh as well as exploring strategies for dealing with rapid growth in a mid-sized city. Colleagues from our Vancouver office as well as area design practitioners and students from the University of Washington joined us in conversation.

Dr. Prakash teaches in the Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Urban Design and Planning programs at UW and is Director of the Chandigarh Urban Lab, a multi-year project and collaboration with the Chandigarh College of Architecture that is dedicated to researching small and mid-size urbanism in globalizing India. The author of several books on non-Western architecture, modernism and culture theory, Dr. Prakash is currently working on the forthcoming Chandigarh 2.0: The Modern City in Neoliberal India and a new textbook the history of Indian architecture.

Chandigarh, a rapidly growing, mid-sized Indian city, is an icon of modern planning and design. Its master plan was developed in 1951 by a team of architects led by le Corbusier, who oversaw the planning of the city as well as the design of many of its institutional buildings. Chandigarh was envisaged as a “new town” that reflected the ideals of a newly independent India and the modernist thinking of the time. The plan’s first phase of 70 square kilometers was mostly built out by 1965 – this area is now regarded as the city’s “historic core” and its organized grid is surrounded by subsequent rings of development of a completely different character.

Over the past 50 years, Chandigarh has become a thriving metropolis and an economic hub of northern India. Originally planned for a population of 500,000, the city is now home to 1.8 million. Once well-defined and contained, the urban area has grown far beyond the boundaries of the initial Corbusian grid. The city is currently working on a new master plan to guide future growth and to help manage the effects of India’s booming population on both Chandigarh’s historic core and the ever-expanding ring of urbanization beyond.

Although the history and genesis of our cities are quite different, the kinds of issues that Chandigarh is grappling with are not unfamiliar to those we face in Seattle as we seek to shape the form of urban development and accommodate increased density within our city.  Chandigarh also shares many characteristics with Seattle. It is a prosperous, well-educated city. High-tech jobs are an important part of the local economy, and its real estate is highly valued. The two cities are comparable in terms of population, and both sit within stunning natural environments. Both are facing challenges of increased urbanization: managing growth, providing access to transit, and guiding new development in a manner that is responsible and sustainable.

These issues became the focus of many of the questions that were raised during our discussion:

  • How do we accommodate urban growth in our cities? What is the role of growth management, and how does is shape the urban periphery?
  • What modes and systems of mass transit are most effective? What are the benefits of a line (underground) system vs. a grid (at-grade) system?
  • What role does urban agriculture play in a globalizing and urbanizing city? What are the concerns about food security and conservation of agricultural land as the urban core expands into areas that were once its hinterlands?
  • How can our cities retain their identities as they develop in an increasingly globalized and commercialized world?
  • What is the nature of the ecological relationship between the city and the outlying urban and natural areas? How can the natural environment be conserved in the face of development pressures?
  • How can we maintain equity in the planning process? How (if at all) are different groups represented? Does everyone have a voice?

Any one of these topics that was touched upon in our conversation could launch a discussion on its own, though talking about them in combination presented a useful overview of the issues affecting both Seattle and Chandigarh and began to churn up some ideas about how we might be able to share strategies and learn from one another’s urban experiences. Expanding the discussion into a global dialogue gave us Pacific Northwesterners an opportunity to think beyond the Seattle paradigm and imagine new ways of perceiving and dealing with the urban issues that we face.

So what’s next? Keep an eye out for a potential future “VIAVOX: Chandigarh 2.1.” In the meantime, let the dialogue continue!