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Auroville Adventure

December 2004

A powerful new planning tool

from an interview by Alan

But are we underutilizing its potential?

Lata and Prashant met at the University of Pennsylvania where she was studying regional planning and he had returned to do a project, having previously studied landscape architecture there. In those days, this university was something like the Holy Grail for people like Lata and Prashant who were interested in environmental issues, for the head of faculty, Ian McHarg, was regarded as the “father of ecological planning”.

Lata“During the first semester,” remembers Lata, “we didn't design anything. Instead, we were given a landscape which we had to study and understand. First of all we studied the natural resources – the topography, hydrology, soils, vegetation, wildlife etc. – and then we studied the human ecology – the people who lived there over time, their occupations, socio-economic condition, demography, the transportation network. Then we were given a land use, like sanitary landfill, and we had to find the location for it which would do least damage to the ecology and to the inhabitants of that landscape.”

One of the key tools they were introduced to was GIS or Geographic Information Systems.

Prashant“GIS,” explains Prashant, “is any system of computerized information that has a spatial component to it. In other words, the information is linked to a specific location on the surface of the earth.” GIS allows many different kinds of information – ecology, land use, transportation system, electrical connections – about a specific location to be stored in such a way that a multi-dimensional image of that site emerges. Backed by powerful computer programmes, GIS then allows high-speed presentation and reorganization of that data according to the needs of the user. “GIS can and is used in many different fields,” continues Prashant. “It can be used to predict natural disasters, to find oil, to monitor the effects of pollution. McDonalds use it to determine the best location for a new restaurant! However, the effectiveness of GIS depends upon the accuracy of the data collected and upon the ability of the user to ask the right questions of it. The more precise the question, the more useful will be the answer.”

After graduating Lata and Prashant became GIS specialists. They worked for environmental groups and also for the biggest maker of GIS software in the world, ESRI. In 2000 they visited Auroville. “I'd stayed here between 1984-6 as an architect trainee, and later as an Aurovilian,” says Lata, “and I'd always promised myself I would return. But in 2000 we came with a specific object – to see if we could help introduce GIS to Auroville for we saw tremendous potential for its use here.” As a first step, they enabled an individual working in Auroville to attend training courses in California , from which he returned with GIS software donated by ESRI's Conservation Programme.

However, when Lata and Prashant returned to Auroville two years later they were disappointed at the lack of progress. The intention had been that the individual who had been trained would, in turn, train others so that a community of GIS professionals would come into being. This hadn't happened. Moreover, the groups which were using GIS were not clear about the questions they wanted answered. In other words, a powerful tool was being underutilized.

Lata and Prashant looked for opportunities to use their GIS skills. Pashi Kapoor and Joss asked them to assist in a projected Biosphere Reserve project and they started working in the Town Hall. After some months Lata and Prashant made a presentation of GIS to Roger. “He liked it,” remembers Prashant. “As he was leaving he said something like, ‘Why not overlay the Galaxy and see how it works on the township site?' We never did this as the galaxy was still not geo-referenced at the time. What we did do was a rough and limited analysis: we looked at the locations of the proposed radial roads and green corridors in relationship to the topography of the township area.”

“When you look at topography,” explains Lata, “the first thing you look at is the water situation. Where is it? Where is it flowing? Then you try to ensure that these areas are afforested in order to check the water-flow and improve percolation and water quality. Roads are definitely not a good idea, but we saw at once that some of the proposed radial roads are located on water-sensitive sites. Three or four of the radials only require minor adjustment in their alignment to solve the problem. However, two radials – the Aurodam and Prayatna radials – are entirely in the wrong place from an ecological point of view.” “Aurodam is a particularly sensitive area,” continues Prashant, “because it contains the only water-body in the Auroville township area which exists for almost the whole year. So we were very concerned when we also noted that the Master Plan locates this water-body in one of the highest density residential areas of the future Township.”

One of the basic tenets of ecological planning is that you don't examine things in isolation. Consequently, Lata and Prashant also widened their lens to include the immediate bioregion. Specifically, they looked at the route of the proposed access roads to the township, two of them connecting to the old Madras road, two to the new East Coast Road . “When we looked at the latest satellite images we noticed there were problems,” says Prashant. “Two of these access roads would run through villages, another very close to a canyon. When we pointed this out to the planners, it was obvious that they hadn't realized this.”

So how did Auroville's Future respond to these findings? “While there was a certain openness to make minor adjustments in road alignment,” says Lata, “We got the impression that larger changes were not so welcome. When we wanted to understand why, for example, there were twelve radials or why the parks were located where they were, we had to be really persistent to get answers. We were quite prepared for the “Mother said” sort of answers but sometimes these were also not forthcoming. This was frustrating because we feel that people should be aware of the basis upon which town planning decisions are being made in Auroville.

“We believe that planning is an integrative process. It involves the collection of a lot of different information which is then looked at and discussed by those holding different perspectives. If we look at the Town Plan, for example, the data would include the topography, the present patterns of habitation and communication as well as the Galaxy concept, which is a very powerful occult perspective. All these different perspectives are known in Auroville, but they are held by individuals or groups who don't come together at present. This means that the present planning process is not integrative; on the contrary it seeks to impose a particular concept – the Galaxy – without considering other factors.”

“This is very much a 1960s approach to planning,” adds Prashant, “this is how Chandigarh and Brasilia were built. It reflects one of the tenets of Modernism – of the supremacy of Man over Nature. But times have changed and planning today is more evolved.”

“I believe that with goodwill we can embark upon a collaborative planning process which will result in a solution which optimises all the perspectives,” concludes Lata. “For example, the spirit of the Galaxy can be preserved while making it more sensitive to environmental factors. But the goodwill, the willingness to sit together and consider other perspectives is the first prerequisite. GIS is a very powerful tool for understanding different views and for experimenting with different scenarios, but without goodwill even sophisticated tools like GIS can be of little use.”


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