By Malrey Head | Tuesday, September 24, 2019 | Atlanta, GA
Varanasi, India, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, looks to become a 21-century city.
The Government of India a few years ago initiated a $14 billion urban renewal and retrofitting program to develop 100 cities across the country in a “Smart Cities Mission.” Varanasi, which sits on the banks of the sacred Ganges River, is among them.
In the spring of 2019, nine Georgia Tech students took a semester-long graduate studio offered by the School of City Regional Planning to study the “smart city” ambitions of Varanasi, which some sources say has legends that go back 10,000 years.
The students worked in collaboration with researchers and Ph.D. students from the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur (IIT-KGP) and the Indian Institute of Technology BHU (IIT-BHU).
While studios are a regular part of the graduate curriculum, the Varanasi studio was a first for the School. It was co-taught by Subhro Guhathakurta, chair and professor in the School of City Regional Planning, and Ramachandra Sivakumar, a member of the research faculty in the School.
Guhathakurta is also the director of the Center for Spatial Planning Analytics and Visualization. Sivakumar is a senior research engineer in the Center. Both the School and the Center are part of the College of Design at Georgia Tech
The project organically grew out of connections Guhathakurta had with the leadership at IIT-KGP. It was about three years in the making, he said. Researchers at IIT-KGP had already done some work with Columbia University, creating connections and good will.
Guhathakurta noted that the studio highlighted the planning, or lack of, in developing countries.
Some of the goals of the studio were to get students involved in international collaboration and learn whether planning is possible; learn to bridge ideas across cultures; and learn how people think of this historic city.
The objective for the students was to create a comprehensive city development plan for Varanasi and provide recommendations for the city. However, students realized that a single solution spanning the geographic diversity of Varanasi was impossible. They also had to keep in mind the historic and spiritual nature of the city.
Stereotypes and Challenges
For many of the students, even those from India, it was their first visit to Varanasi. Many knew of it as a sacred city, a tourist attraction, and place of cultural significance in Hinduism, said Sreekar-Shashank Boddupalli, a master’s student from Hyderabad, India, who graduated in the summer.
They also arrived with preconceived notions of a city that was dirty, chaotic, and not very modern, he said.
However, Boddupalli said, when the team arrived they found a city cleaner than expected. The last five years had brought many changes.
The students talked with shopkeepers, and he said they soon learned that officials had already been working on modernizing the city.
The students narrowed their work to focusing on three topics -- environment, transportation, and tourism – for each of three chosen geographic areas – The Assi Ghat, Transit Hub, and Sarnath zones.
The team visited Varanasi in March during spring break. On that visit, the students got to see major differences in the areas, and gained first-hand knowledge of planning in a developing country, Sivakumar said.
But they also faced challenges.
One was lack of access to quality data. During their visit, the city was in the midst of an election and holidays, which prevented students from meeting with officials and acquiring some information.
And lack of data meant analysis was limited. Sivakumar said all analysis was done at a mile-high level.
Despite lack of original data, the students were able create proposals for three zones.
Boddupalli said they tried various other methods to come up with data. They sourced satellite images, and looked at cities with similar problems to see if they could copy solutions and alter them to fit Varanasi. In some instances, they could, he said.
In one week, they learned a lot about the city, he said, by walking around and meeting people. Pictures are a great way to tell if something is feasible or not. He said they had an idea for a vertical garden on pillars. Once they visited the city, they realized it was possible and they included mock-ups in the website they created for the project.
Georgia Tech Solutions for Varanasi
After the visit, students made adjustments to the proposals for the three zones on which they focused.
Sivakumar described the zones:
The Assi Ghat Zone is a recently renovated tourist attraction receiving an increasing number of local visitors and international travelers alike. The mouth of the Assi River meets the Ganga here, creating avenues for pollution and solid waste collection.
The Transit Hub Zone is the region composed of the Varanasi Cantonment Railway station and the Varanasi bus stand. It is an entrance into the city for many, and the sheer volume of passengers the zone handles exceeds its ageing infrastructural capacity.
The Sarnath Zone is a peaceful, secluded paradise that sits north of Varanasi. Home to one of the holiest sites for Buddhism, Sarnath is an archaeologically protected area with limited non-vehicular connectivity to its sister city, Varanasi.
Proposals for each zone focused on issues such as installing better signage to aid tourists, improving streets and sidewalks for pedestrians, providing cooling in the cities, through things as cool roofs, and helping cities manage waste. The overall goal being growth for the areas.
Sivakumar said that recommendations were forwarded to local authorities through their IIT partners. Their deliverable for the work was a website that detailed the project and proposals.
The team also presented their plans at the Smart India luncheon hosted by Georgia Tech Smart Communities and Inclusive Innovation group in the presence of senior personnel from Consulate General of India and Georgia Indo-American Chamber of Commerce.
A team of eight graduate students accompanied by Dr. Joy Sen (IIT-KGP), Dr. Amrita Dwivedi (IIT-BHU), and Dr. Swasti Mishra (IIT-BHU) made a reciprocal visit to Georgia Tech for final presentations in April.
“We started with an empty slate. There was no data available. Most knowledge was in people’s heads,” Sivakumar said.
However, the field work was an eye-opener for the students as they got to talk with local people, he said.
Sivakumar was pleased with the student’s work, and noted that they could have done more with additional information and data.
Despite the limitations, he described the studio was “more than a success.” There is interest returning to the city in 2021 and expanding on the work, he said.