You don’t transform a city by abandoning the past

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has said of India that there are some places resembling Sub Saharan Africa and others California. Bangalore is one of the places he had in mind. Home of major Multi Nationals and leading Indian Corporations like Infosys, the place has the feel of a high tech hub. Some would say that this is at the expense of Indian authenticity and others, are disappointed that Bangalore is busy losing its Indian heritage in a rush to be the modern showcase.

Recently, there has been increasing coverage of the decline of once legendary markets like Jayanagar, Russell and Malleswaram which still dot the city but only as poor remnants of what they once were. “Our markets were wonderful places with beautiful buildings. Now, they have been reduced to garbage dumps. In developed countries, markets are tourists attractions but we have let them be controlled by the mafia and are allowing valuable property in prime locations to be rented out for paltry sums. The BBMP (Greater Bangalore Municipal Corporation) should instead treat the markets as valuable real estate and as the city’s pride,” says ABIDe member, R.K Misra. ABIDe is an initiative to address the urban chaos of Bengaluru.

KR market Bangalore

This is a key issue in many global locations. As urbanisation and modernisation accelerates, there is a tendency to raze whole districts to the ground, thereby losing the local flavour that pulls together a community and, is so attractive to tourists. With neglect and underinvestment, it does not take long for a neighbourhood to collapse, lose its architectural integrity and uniqueness and a spiral of decline sets in. Then, the area is ignored by Master Plans and marginalised to the point when it has to be pulled down – to rise again as a developers “vanilla” project that looks like someplace else.

There is another factor involved here. Many Indian Cities are characterised by informal activities such as the flower markets so much a part of the culture. In Bangalore, this has declined to the point where it is more a garbage dump than a vibrant flowers market. If this gets out of hand, people stop coming to the market – even if the prices are lower. Even the rotten flowers are not taken care of – which is a serious oversight when it could be fed back into the local horticulture industry as compost. There are 25,000 hectares of land under floriculture in Bangalore’s home State of Karnataka. Just think of the business that Kenya and Columbia have managed to make from cut flowers – they are both leading exporters of this high added value product.

In Bangalore, the saddest example of the decline of once proud markets has to be KR or City Market as this historic area was originally called. It is over a hundred and fifty years old and apparently where the first light bulb in Bangalore was lit in 1905. Observers note how much this floral hub links across the city to connect the growers to the market and then on to smaller markets elsewhere such as the smaller markets of Gandhi Bazaar, Jayanagar and others.

KR is a vibrant hoovina mandi (apart from the intoxicating fragrance and colours of the mallige, kanakambara, chendu hoo, and sevanthige ) and it is from here that the flowers will find their way to temple complexes and religious shrines, be carried to ceremonial occasions as bouquets,  be distilled into ittr,  decorate wedding mantaps,  participate in sacred rituals, hide a bride and groom within a sehra, be offered up to the Gods in a pooja thali and scent sacred spaces with their pure fragrance. This is a sophisticated supply chain with a historical gem at its heart. This is a huge export business to boot – This Valentine’s Day, over 5 million roses were flown from the country to destinations around the world. About 3 million of them were from Bangalore.

Covent Garden, London

Big cities in emerging and developing markets should take note of what happened in places like London and Paris when they let their traditional markets of Covent Garden and Les Halles decline; later to be developed. Les Halles was pulled down and a modern market built in its place and, Covent Garden was about to suffer the same fate in the 1970s when a huge public outcry of local residents opposed every re-development plan in favour of developing it as a heritage site. Janet Jacobs classical work on the decline of American Cities has a brilliant perspective on this and urges any Master Plan or Developer to take more than decline into account – it can lead to the gentrification of an area and, sometimes this can be centred on enhancing traditional fare and crafts. There are many tourists who stopped visiting Singapore when it became little more than a big Shopping Mall and lost its historical soul.

Les Halles

As global population moves from 6 to 9 billion and, urban living shifts to 75% of this number by 2050 we are well to consider what we are going to do with our heritage sites. We can defend them in Covent Garden; develop them in a modern idiom like Les Halles or, simply let them decline and be destroyed. India has many such sites on which this choice will be made.

 

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