The Green City


        In 1893, the World’s Fair came to Chicago. Unveiled on 700 acres as part of the fair was a gleaming new model of ‘the City Beautiful’. Chicagoans could never imagine that their city, bursting at its seams and with no unifying order or beauty could actually look like this someday. In fact there are many parallels that can be made between Chicago at the turn of the century and Bangalore today. Chicago was an industrial center, the result of the railways, and there was an acute housing and service infrastructure shortage. The Fair and this ‘White City’ built mostly of a mixture of plaster, cement, and jute fiber captured the imagination of the people. Leaders of the business community, already involved in bringing the exposition to Chicago, were now seriously considering a new Plan for Chicago based on the Beaux-Arts model seen at the Fair.


        In 1906, Daniel H. Burnham, Director of Works for the Fair, was invited by the Commercial Club to prepare a new plan for Chicago. Burnham’s plan of Chicago when published in 1909 was a landmark document. This was the first time that the conception and preparation of what was to become the official planning document for a major city was initiated and funded by private individuals. The City Planning Commission was created as a result of this and the processes by which public support was garnered and recommendations of the plan were effectuated were the most successful in the history of the American Planning Movement. These very same individuals continued to support the functioning of the Planning Commission through its first ten tumultuous years.


        So, large-scale public processes could be initiated and funded by private enterprise. We do see a lot of this in Bangalore, where casual observations by corporate leaders immediately become public directives. As an alternative it would be a lot more effective if experts looked at the problems not in isolation, but as part of a whole. Bangalore has, if one is to go by the many annual architectural awards, an unusually high percentage of ‘gifted’ architects. It is strange then that our city does not reflect the ingenuity these architects show in private commissions, in the public realm.  It is time now for the leaders of our business community and our politicians and bureaucrats to come together and collaborate with the architectural community to begin talking about a vision document for the city. Bangalore is not in a unique situation and we can learn from the precedents set in cities like Chicago. Private patronage could help introduce a fundamentally new way of thinking about problems that plague the city, and if this is coupled with political will, great things could be achieved. Architects also need to instigate their clients. We, architects, need to be this agent of change. We need to influence the powers that be on issues pertaining to city form and planning. We sigh at the deteriorating fabric of our city and the dwindling public institutions around us but play no part in participating or initiating a dialogue with the community at large or its representatives.


        I am reminded of the Ahmedabad of the 50’s. It is one of very few cities in the country that developed without significant colonial impetus. The success of the city was primarily due to the enterprise of its local industrialists and textile merchants.


        Private individuals getting involved in the establishment of public institutions and city building is not new to India. Gujarat, and Ahmedabad in particular has a long tradition of such philanthropy and community service. The Indian Institute of Management (IIM-A), the Center for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT), and the National Institute of Design (NID) are a few institutions, which were either started by private business houses or supported by them. A genuine interest in the nature of these institutions and their role in the making of a new India set these patrons apart. Bangalore needs this kind of commitment. We are all part of the solution.


        Bangalore is today at that point where it could either become irrelevant because of the apathy we see around us in terms of public and private initiative or a meaningful collaboration between private enterprise and public institutions could turn it into our very own ‘White’ or should I say ‘Green City’.


Bangalore Mirror

June 2008