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Cultural Heritage in Smart Cities

IVLP alumna Shriya Bhatia says that Indian cities must retain their traditional architecture while moving toward development and modernization.

According to the United Nations’ 2014 revision of the World Urbanization Prospects report, India’s urban population is expected to exceed 800 million by 2050. In response to this growth, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the ambitious urban planning program, Smart Cities Mission, in 2015.

The Smart Cities Mission aims to meet the challenge of making cities more livable through technological improvements in transportation, utilities, housing, commerce and information technology (IT) systems connectivity. But equally important to the Smart Cities Mission is recognizing the intrinsic value of a city’s history and culture.

Shriya Bhatia, an environmental planner (consultant) at the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, explains the connection.

“For a healthy society, the mental, emotional and physical health of its people are central elements. In a technologically-intensive, industrialized world, efficiency leading to economic gain seems to be our goal, thus turning people into machines. The first step is to separate the economic value from the city’s physical and cultural resources and start looking at their social and ecological value, which are essential elements to building healthy communities,” says Bhatia.

According to her, the inclusion of the national Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY) in the Smart Cities Mission validates the importance of a city’s natural and cultural resources.

“Cities are made of experiences, and people are integral to generating these experiences. Smart urban planning needs to stimulate positive interaction among people,” she says.

Bhatia’s work in Mumbai exemplifies a heritage-based development approach that centers on existing neighborhoods and the heart of the original city, in contrast to past development practices of neglect of historic fortifications as people migrated to newer, modern areas in the city. She points to the current urban planning policies that prohibit removal of heritage assets as well as amendments and reductions in taxes or the floor space index for historic buildings.

Bhatia recently researched, compiled and listed historical, cultural heritage and environmental assets for the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. The Mumbai Heritage Conservation Society was then able to implement preservation measures, not just to protect, for instance, the style and façade of buildings, but also the setting of an historic, aesthetic, cultural or architecturally-unique listed heritage building, even to the extent of ensuring that the skyline of the historic sector is maintained.

Bhatia believes in the inclusive, bottom-up approach to planning. “It localizes the planning process to relate specifically to the people of the planned area,” she says. Bhatia cites her participation in the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program, an exchange program for professionals, on “Mega Cities and Urban Planning,” in 2013 as a major influence in developing this perspective.

“Localized planning was rarely seen in the Indian context. If the objective is to preserve natural and cultural resources, then we must clearly define what we’re aiming toward and look at the city’s environment and heritage to see how it will benefit the local community,” she says.

Bhatia is currently preparing neighborhood environmental improvement plans. Her expertise in developing and implementing environmental risk assessment frameworks includes a review of the natural resources and ecosystems of proposed development projects, such as in her recent development plans for eco-villages in Maharashtra.

“A local forest, riverfront or a coastal ecosystem is considered an essential element as people positively engage and experience the natural resource for an improved quality of life,” says Bhatia.

Smart urban planning involves developing a city’s identity based on its main economic activity. According to Bhatia, while the economy drives urban planning in Mumbai, Gurgaon has become a hub for the IT sector, earning the title of “Millennium City.”

The focus on heritage-based development remains central to smart urban planning in India, as promised at the Sustainable Smart Cities India Conference 2015 in Bengaluru. Bhatia points to the heritage restoration efforts boosting the tourist-based economies of walled cities like Ahmedabad with its heritage walk; Jaipur, known for its walled city markets; and Varanasi, famous for its traditional arts and crafts. These have been identified by HRIDAY for financial support to revitalize the soul of the heritage cities to let their unique characters shine through. And, the conservation work will continue across the country to ensure India’s precious heritage is preserved.


Hillary Hoppock is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Orinda, California.