Riverfront Development- Ahmedabad

  • October 30, 2013
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The other day a student who I do not know wrote me a mail, which is reproduced below. Upon reading it and reflecting upon it, I decided that I needed to write a well thought out response- which I did, and then marked it to a few friends, and the response was immediate and all of the mails in complete agreement with my line of thought; ( my mails to them often are ignored and they only talk about it when we perhaps meet many weeks later -if at all). I wondered why this happened; and  concluded that this was a topic many had thought about , and were uneasy about; but had not gathered their thoughts and this mail allowed them to. Since it was concerned with work in public domain, I thought that posting it here in the blog only made sense.
Aniket Bhagwat
Her mail.
Dear Sir
I am a Final Year student of architecture at  BN COA at Pune. I will be submitting my thesis in April this year. My thesis topic is ‘Riverfront Development’ .
I recently visited the Sabarmati Riverfont as a part of my case study. The immense masses of concrete used as left me aghast, and my guide advised me to have a dialogue with you.
There’s no doubt that the project is a success in the eyes of the government.
However, I was hoping you could direct me as to how to make a riverfront a useable public space, possibly without such a rampant approach. I would be glad to receive any kind of help/comment from you.
Thanks and Regards,
My response.
Dear S
Something that your eyes could discern in a minute, is lost to those who gaze at it every day. Its a bit like the emperors new cloths. We will or are forced to see things that  don’t exist and equally willed to not see what does exist.
So whats wrong with the river front development at Ahmedabad?
a.The river was a dry perennial river and its conversion into an impounded tank, filled with water from another river, changes its essential character. Its a bit like piling a lot of ice in the middle of a sand dessert and hoping it will be a cool , mountain region. When you change the essential in ecology, the question is never if it can be done, ( mans arrogance has always led him to believe that he can change anything) but the question is why is it even needed, and what will we lose, and what will we gain. This is a fine debate and can be answered only partially through long and detailed ecological studies and modelling and a lot by observation of a phenomena over the years, leaving space for correction. Both that has not or cannot happen, because of the severity of the solution.
b.What it hence does is that it destroys an ecology of fauna, avi fauna, of the waters edge, of seasonality, but one is unclear what it replaces it with.
c. The other thing that’s wrong is that it culturally breaks a bond with the city. The river was a theatre of the cities life. In the dry months, the bed was used to house melas, circuses, do agriculture, for children of impoverished families to use it as a play ground….the memories of these activities , made the river what it was;the complete termination of this in full , is its failing.
d. The severity of the concrete aside- we must ask, that even if this was a way forward- and its not; what could have been done? The concrete then has to be seen as a stage, a theatre, on which many activities can be held – but as is apparent from the large 3-d renderings of the development, other than aimlessly sitting, there is no imagination in this theatre. As you well know, the Bal Gandharva in Pune is a theatre that has a sense of atmospherics, a sense of anticipation, and its then the  play that lives up to this anticipation or exceeds it- here the the theater is poor, the stage is un- imaginative, and hence the enactment of the play limited. So without going in long detail , since the point is simple- its this- does the development really imagine many activities and their detailed occurrences, and provide for it- staging of concerts, plays, fairs, living on the water, experiencing the water in many ways, in many seasons , etc. and the answer is no. That such  activities will occur is not by design, but by default. After all in a country starved of open spaces, even traffic islands become public parks,
e. Then we have to ask, what does it do for flora. Does it allow a well constructed thought process about where does a grove occur, where an avenue, where a thicket, where a grassland, where a waters edge planting, and what species are good for insects, butterflies, birds, flower colour etc. and the answer here to is that there is no such thought at all.
f. We then have to ask if its safe for children, convenient for the aged, and a quick look at the gaps in the railings, the lack of ramps or lifts, is another problem.
g. Then we have to look at lighting- since rivers are lovely in the night- and to see a completely unimaginative thinking of hammering poles all over so that its a  landscape of metal pipes, is a bit limited.
h. So then we have to ask what was the way out, even if this was the conception, however poor it is- well , I imagine one would have done a section, completed it , seen how it acted and improved and made corrections- the sheer arrogance to imagine the rightness of the solution with no real and meaningful public participation, and to hammer it along both sides is amazing.
i. The issue of time is important. here the river has been usurped from a entire generation of children and people- for over a decade or so- its become a construction site- and not accessible to people, other than to gaze from bridges- to say that for a long time a public space is barred – seems a bit unfair. There could be more sensitivity about this.
j. I don’t want to talk about the nature of real estate that will come up, nor about the settlement of people who lived along the river- since I don’t know that well enough.
k. So does it do anything right ? Yes it does- it lays intercepting sewers and pipes that don’t allow the cities garbage to come in the river bed, and go straight to a treatment plant- but then all that  was needed were sewers and pipes- that could have been done anyways. But this is its greatest achievement.
l.So finally can it be saved? All things can be- but for it to happen,  it will need the same will that made it to exist,  to save it- and before that we will have to be able to assess it , talk about it fairly and introspect on what needs to be done.
m. So in my mind, for an able and sensitive administrator, what this development shows, is how it should not be done, and other rivers in the country will have space to develop better manners and ways.
Trust helps.
Aniket Bhagwat
To which she wrote.

Dear Sir,
Thank you so much for your much detailed reply. I had to read up further before I could reply to you.
Please forgive my lack of knowledge about the technical ecological aspects of the project. I term these concerns as technical, because unlike a building which may, or may not be liked by the public, the ecology of a place should be anything but subjective.
From what I have read, the Riverfront Development Project was initiated in 1997. How is it that the ecological impact has never been published along with the conceptual images?
In your response, you have stated that the concrete is to be seen as a stage. I honestly thought that the Manek Chowk area is a greater success in terms of ‘drama’ happening on the stage. The evolution of the food and shopping activities in this area over decades, is evident. Would it be naive to propose such development along the river edges ? Is the lack of activities – cultural or/and commercial a major reason as to why the Sabarmati Riverfront is a not as vibrant ?
I feel quite disoriented after studying this project, and before I start with my Design proposal, I would really love to look at a successful project. Could you be kind enough to suggest one ?
Thanks and Regards,

To which I replied.
Dear S
I can quite appreciate your disorientation;rather so often when a design response or a spatial response is not in consonance with what can be considered as being derived from the appreciation of a sense of place, the resulting entity can be a bit confusing.
This has started to happen increasingly in our cities which seem to be rather carelessly breaking all cultural and ecological connections even where greatly possible.
One must then learn to make sense of such things and not get too worried about what is, but really start as a designer by thinking what could be.
To this , its always a good idea to begin with first principles.
In this case if I were in your predicament, and as confused, i would start by asking and then researching some simple questions:
a. What kind or river am I dealing with? What is its behavior ?
b.Historically, what have been the ways that river edges have been dealt with ? And in specific how do they deal with the ebb and flow of the high flood levels and the normal levels?
c. What kind of spaces have been possible to create along its edge? How are they used?
d. What is this learning of riverine ecology ? Why is the ecology of the space where the water meets the land so important ? What happens here? What kinds of plants grow? And birds breed ?And what about insects and fish life?
e. Can the river allow , people to use it as a mode of transport ? Or even live on the river ?
f. What is the cultural connection of the river with the town/inhabitants? How can this be enforced and not defaced?
g.How can be river be kept clean?
h. What is the river ? It is not just a little section that flows in your town- but one that starts some where in the hills, and finally meets another river or the sea? Do understand all of it ecologically and see what this means in the section you are working on? ( Do see on our website a LEAF document on the Sabarmati river)
i. What about the river bed ? Its not a saucer of water, but a dynamic space where water flows, dries ,sometimes full, sometimes the bed  exposed. What can happen here ?
These and such are fundamental questions. One can then go on and start asking many others such as:
a. How does one approach the river?
b. What kind of other related development is needed for such a project ?
c. What does the development mean in terms of the cities open space network?
d. What does this development mean to the fabric of the over all city’s development?
etc. One can go one, and the more you ask possible questions and the more you think about them and answer them will you be clearer.
Always look for examples and I for one would ofcourse suggest that you must see the many ghats in the country. Benaras/Ujjain/Maheshwar etc. and in these are really all the lessons you really need.The Holkar Ghats if I remember the name correctly ,in Pune though small are a wonderful example too.The ghats in Nashik, before the new horrendous improvement were lovely too. But over and above the built edges , you must see the more gentler edges where earth meets water, and a new world is created.
Internationally ofcourse there are many different and good examples. The waters edge at Sydney, or on the Yarra River in Melbourne are lovely, as is the more built and not so vibrant edge at Singapore, and the many parts of the River Seine in Paris offer rich learning’s. The one at Ahmedabad was meant to be modeled after this, but clearly a lot got lost in translation.

Do also see the 200 plus mile story of the Thames, in England,to understand the many different moods and meanings it has along its way, at many locations, how the ecology has been understood, what is the cultural relation etc.
And do make sure that your work is a gracious, mature,and evolved result of all this thinking.
All the very best and Happy Diwali
Aniket Bhagwat

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Recent Comments

  • Brilliant detailing!
    Heart sinks – that’s another point.
    Very curious to know… why wouldn’t civic authorities involve experts and create an advisory board for a project this critical?

    • Well. the truth is that most often such boards are created and filled with people with no voice or vision- their job , usually is to not cause any ripples, and agree with whatever is being suggested. The idea of public consultation in our country remains a poorly constructed one too- as does the fact that bureaucrats and politicians assume supreme power and knowledge, as a divine right, and usually work with convenient cronies. We have a long way to go…..Thanks for the input. Aniket Bhagwat

      • E.mail posted with permission.
        Dear Aniket,
        This critique deserves to be heard before our administrators tout it as a Gujarat Shining success story. Mohan’s oblique criticism in the JLA was not enough, and anyway JLA is not a popular magazine.
        This development is clearly a China-style success, and in China too this kind of success hides a lot of issues under the bright banners.
        The last time India did a major public project like this might have been Chandigarh. By the 1970s, it had become a basket case of a city. Children in each sector were perceived to walk to their sector school, but actually ended up crossing sector borders because there were Bengali schools for Bengali children and Sikh ones for Sikh kids…
        You said:
        So finally can it be saved? All things can be – but for it to happen, it will need the same will that made it to exist, to save it – and before that we will have to be able to assess it, talk about it fairly and introspect on what needs to be done.
        That strikes a chord. Time is a great healer. Sometimes it can save a basket case without strong willed people to make it happen. Just as Chandigarh is at last becoming a vibrant community, maybe this riverfront too will become a useful lung of Ahmedabad after 40 years.
        — Sanjay Prakash
        SHiFt: Studio for Habitat Futures
        E-31, Third Floor, Hauz Khas Market,
        New Delhi 110 016
        Tel: +91-11 45633125, 41016916

  • Wow, Thats really great thought……….

    I visited river fronts couple of times to check out the special feature, which can welcome to citizens of Abad…. Inever felt special during my visits but still I wanted to try to find out that special. Still there was no answer to my eagerness but I was not convience my self & questing that “How there can be a huge investment, if there is nothing special which interact with personals….Dense/ Durable/ Homogenous concrete itself speaks on his own existance which seprating from people……It dose not merge ……..

    I visited early in the morning/ late night / day time for few hours but all the times, I was feeling that “some thing is missing”. But I could not find an answer that “What is missing?? ” I returned with blank camera all the times, since I could not find any thing to capture….

    But, today your blog gave words to my thought & I came to understand that what is missing at River Front……….

  • Hi Aniket,

    This has been an education.

    When I first read your explanation of all things wrong with the River-Front, I was very dismayed. I have very fond memories of the river and it’s surroundings including the circus and the Sunday Market and cycling on the undulating river bed ….. and now such simple pleasures will not be available to anyone!

    You said Ahmedabad river front was meant to be modeled after the Paris one but a lot got lost in translation.
    That implies at least a sincere intent.
    But if you see the difference between what is and what it could have been, nothing at all got translated. How is it possible for a sincere intent backed by reasonable skills and solid effort to fail so miserably?

    What I also fail to understand is why would you be a silent spectator ? I am certain it must pain you far more to see this systematic and torturous destruction.
    If it can be saved/ salvaged to whatever extent and for whatever it is worth, why not now?
    Why not take these concerns to people and the powers that be and explain/ educate?
    Sanjay Prakash said may be 40 years down the line it may become a useful lung to the city. May be. But can the city afford to wait?

    I do hope you will find sensible means to stop this from completely devouring the river and through that take away a lung of the city.



  • Hi Aniket, I miss the atmosphere of the Gandhi Ashram with the river behind the tranquil prayer, not to mention the Natrani Amphitheatre with the riverside backdrop and the hotel strip of Khanpur Road with each restaurant facing the river. Why don’t we enhance the inherent beauty of a place and spend on keeping it clean and well-facilitated, rather than turning it into a manmade structure? In city republics or small countries manmade attractions are created out of a need to make the tourist spend more room nights and thus generate foreign revenue. Singapore, Macau or Monte Carlo being cases in point. But in India where there is a vast resource of architectural heritage, natural history, beauty spots, textiles and handicrafts, cultural attractions and so forth, why don’t we make the most of our abundance rather than investing in big ticket projects that we do not really need?

    As a schoolboy and later a college student in the 1980s, Vastrapur Lake was my favourite birding spot. Since on a student’s budget it was not always easy to visit a bird sanctuary, even Thol and Nalsarovar, lakes like the one at Vastrapur offered me and my other natural history minded friends an opportunity to enjoy close views of about half a dozen species of ducks from residents like nakta and spotbill to winter ducks, pheasant tailed jacanas, ibises, snipes, saras cranes, even flamingos in the marshes between Vastrapur lake and the Gandhi institute. I even saw painted and wooly necked storks nesting on trees near the lake. A couple of times the owners of houses around the lake too often invited us warmly to watch birds from their balconies or grounds. Apart from birds, fresh water turtles and small mammals too would be seen in the lake environs. Instead of converting the lake into a concrete structure, could not some imagination have been used to retain a birdwatching tower and a bird-friendly plantation created on one side? The birds had been coexisting with houses around them, for my article in The India Magazine photographer Dinesh Shukla in 1994 even photographed painted storks with Sunrise Park in the rear, and would have with a park as well. That could have been a pride of Ahmedabad, a place to watch birds within the city limits. Same goes for many other lakes.

    Once i was asked about whether a Sentosa Island/Monte Carlo type oceanarium/marine world in Rajkot was a good idea. I told them it was ridiculous since Rajkot was inland. So they asked about Jamnagar. I asked the person why we need an Oceanarium in Jamnagar when we have India’s first Marine National Park just a short distance away with a profusion of marine life – where a tourist can wade in ankle deep water during the low tide to get close views of octopus, starfish, brittle star, sea cucumber, striking looking fishes, crabs, coral formations and so forth, and some of the world’s largest assemblages of coastal birds at the mud banks? The coast from Jamnagar to Okha is full of attractions – Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary, the heritage buildings of Jamnagar, bandhani tie-dye, Narara Island, the holy places of Dwarka, the stunning Rukmini temple, the applique of the Bhopa Rabaris, the beautiful Shivrajpur beach, the flamingo, pelican, stork and grebe flocks at Charakhla, and so forth. So why not spend money on providing better basic amenities at these sites rather than creating a huge aquarium? The tourism guy had no answer to this except to say that some minister or bureaucrat or someone wanted to invest in it.

    The market research team of a professional company got a shock when they asked me which beach destination should be the model for Shivrajpur beach near Dwarka – they thought I would say Phuket or Nice or Biarritz or some such place, but my answer: Puri, was not what they expected. I told them that I spent a good 3 day holiday in Puri with my wife and daughter – we spent time at CT Road which is like a tourist village frequently mainly by foreign tourists with nice cafes and international cuisine restaurants, seafood places looking out to the sea, ATMs and cyber cafes, and even restaurants that play meditative music and serve Vaishnavite food frequented by ISKCON followers. We strolled at Marine Parade where domestic tourists stay with play areas for kids and Bengali food restaurants. We saw the stunning Konark temple, went for Puja at Jagannath temple, tried Odia food at a restaurant called Wild Grass and Kolkata Chinese at Chung Wah, and has some of the local chenna sweets near the temple. We shopped at a handicraft emporia where there were live demonstrations of ikat and other weaves, visited a stone sculptor, went to Raghurajpur to watch pattachitra being painted, and stayed at Mayfair which was one of about 6 or 7 good resort/hotels in Puri. My daughter then 5 years of age played on the beach sands, enjoyed seeing sand sculpture and met some environmentologists concerned about the turtle nesting sites on the coast. Puri was sandwiched between two days in Bhubaneshwar and two days at Chilika Lake. When we visited Dwarka which is, like Puri, one of the seven holy cities, we spent 3 hours – visited Dwarkadish temple, saw Rukmini temple and drove right back to Jamnagar. No place to shop, no great place to eat, no beachside facilities, no well-organised nature trips. Should we not work on the Puri or Mamalapuram model where tourists can spend 3-4 days in the Dwarka area and generates revenue for local artisans, cooks and workers rather than trying to re-create something out of the western world or far-east Asia?

    A person from a financial institutions asked me for suggestions about what kind of amusements should come up in an unutilised part of Eden Gardens in West Bengal. I asked them why we need an amusement park when Kolkata has such a rich heritage? Why not a Museum of Indian Sports? Kolkata has a rich history of sports – the earliest Olympians were from here, the first golf club outside England is in this city, the hockey club, the swimming club, the polo club, tennis, the soccer scene, the cricket ground which has one of the largest spectator capacities, the chess grandmasters, the Statesman Vintage and Classic Car Rally, and so forth. So if there is a museum dedicated to sports and Kolkata’s sportspeople (Gurbux Singh, Vece Paes, Leander Paes, Sourav Ganguly, Shailen Manna, Mihir Sen, Gobar Guha,etc) with areas where visitors can even play simulated games, cubicles where youngsters can test their talent and kid play areas based on traditional Indian games, would not that be a unique tourist place in the city rather than just another park?

    These are stories about projects envisaged which we hope will get a rethink. When we think about what is already done and cannot be redone, it only leaves us feeling melancholy!

  • Jhumari, most so called expert boards are filled with political appointees and yes-men/women. Only a few politicians and bureaucrats are open to criticism, counter views or what they consider interference. A project envisaged by a powerful person is more often than not `fait accompli’ from the word go.

  • Hello Sir,

    I have thoroughly read the above conversation which i encountered while surfing the sites for my thesis project; Esplanade.
    My site is in Vadodara. I have had many discussions with people. So i have tried to bring in activities for all user group so as to no one group feels dominated.
    My main focus is on keeping it;
    -maximum green spaces
    – changing it from a dumping site to a better public space.

    1.Spaces like retail shops as the major source of introducing people the inside space through market spaces.
    2. Amphitheater for nearby schools or public to celebrate or perform.
    3. Promenade which runs along the main axis which presently has slums.
    4. Relocation of slums.
    5. Deck facing the river for seating,cafeteria, also to provide access to weekly activity like boating.
    The main idea behind this was;
    I studied many market spaces and the major issue that occurs is the public congestion so i thought of two major pedestrian routes ; one for those who arrive for focused purpose of shopping, reading while the other for deck space consisting of gathering activities.

    Now, after all this i was questioned about what is the major architectural effort.
    I am little confused as to how do I answer it. It is a public space connecting two areas and surfing the residences nearby.
    So, then i thought of providing certain gaming zones, sports ground, exhibition space.

    Sir, could you please help me with as to I perusing the right direction and how could i improve over my thoughts.

    Thankyou for you time

    I will be waiting for your response eagerly.

    Mohini Shandilya

    • OK Mohini
      Here it is. This is the great problem of the profession; to demonstrate its existence even when its real value in many cases may be in being nuanced or silent.The questions that you are being asked, are the very same that lead many an architect to go and do something in a context when the best thing may have been to be very gentle in the act of intervention, to the point of leaving no trace of having touched a space.At a larger scale this has just led to too much building for too little reason. I remember a study done by a University professor that I once met in a jury who said that if we add up everything that is built in the world now, and re-appropriate usages where spaces are being under-utilised, the chances are that the world wont need to build for a long long time. Even allowing this with a pinch of salt, the import of the argument is clear- we build to prove that we exist; we build to feed our egos; we build because we are restless; we build because someone asks us to; we build because we think if we do not then our existence and meaning is at stake- but mostly we don’t build because that is the only solution for the problem on hand….I do hope this lets you think about the problem on your mind; albeit indirectly.

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