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Living with the Garden City-Ahmad Rafay Alam

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By the middle of the 19th Century, life in the cities of Industrial Revolution Europe was grim. The continent had experienced unprecedented urbanisation, the science of public sanitation hadn’t quite met the challenges posed by densely populated cities and the main source of energy was coal. As a result, urban dwellers spent their days avoiding squalor amid slums and decaying buildings while breathing the thick black smoke produced by burning coal. It was Ebenezer Howard, the urban planner, and Patrick Geddes, a Scottish biologist and sociologist, who pioneered the solution to the problems of urban living of the day: the Garden City.

Lewis Mumford once said that the Garden City, along with the invention of the aircraft by the Wright Brothers, was the most significant initiative of the 20th Century. The idea is relatively straightforward. In order to escape the ill-effects of the city, self-contained communities needed to be developed outside of city limits yet connected through a system of transport (in the day, this was the train). These self-contained communities could be designed to incorporate the best aspects of the countryside: clean air, open spaces and that sense of camaraderie, absent in an urban jungle, that characterises rural life. At the same time, the nearby city was close enough and connected enough by rail for one to commute back and forth easily. This meant that living in a Garden City would not involve a trade-off with economic opportunity.

Because of its simplicity and its ambition to provide a social alternative to the ills of urbanisation, the Garden City movement, as it came to be known, was extremely influential in urban planning circles. It even had its proponents here in Lahore.

Between 1919 and 1925, Patrick Geddes had spent some time as a professor of sociology and civics at Bombay University. His Garden City ideas were not too well received by the practical men of the Indian Civil Service who otherwise planned and ran Indian cities. The only official acceptance of his ideas was the appointment of his nominee to the position of first urban planner of Madras. If the colonial Raj was indifferent to Geddes’ ideas of how to run cities, he was more warmly received by various princely states. In 1919, Patrick Geddes even toured Lahore.

His ideas must have had some resonance. At the time, the Lahore Improvement Trust was busy in its slum clearance programmes. The old English fear of the spread of disease through miasma was the reason for their almost paranoid belief that healthy and sanitary living conditions in cities could only be brought about by the large-scale rack and ruin of densely populated local communities.

Geddes’ ideas must have affected Dewan Khem Chand, an advocate of the Lahore High Court. It was Khem Chand’s dream to create an ideal society, based on the principles enunciated by George Jacob Holyoke and the Cooperative Movement, and put into practical effect by the creation of a Garden City at the outskirts of Lahore. According to architect Parvez Vandal, Khem Chand’s first choice for the location of his ideal “Garden Town” was in Shahdara, north of the River Ravi. But the area’s susceptibility to flooding made him change his mind. An alternative was found, some six miles away from the city along Ferozepur Road, on land belonging to the Forest Department and protected as Kot Lakhpat Reserved Forest. According to legend, it was Sir Ganga Ram who arranged some of the financing (and clout) for the acquisition of the land. And thus, in the 1920s, Lahore’s Model Town was conceived and brought into existence.

Ninety years later, the fact that a Hindu came up with the idea to implement European ideas in India, and the result of which is enjoyed by Muslim Pakistanis, gives you a glimpse of the remarkable achievement this must have been. It also gives one an idea of the metropolitan sophistication of Lahore.

One of the interesting things about Model Town, and this is often discussed in literature on the subject, is the design and style of the houses purpose built for the project. They were styled along the lines of the large Colonial-style bungalows with their sprawling grounds. Built for the elite of the city, they revealed the aspirations of their designers to mimic their European masters. The indigenous design of city homes in our part of the world is diametrically opposite. In South Asia, the predominant urban form was the multi-storied and inward facing makaan or kothi. Open spaces in this form of habitat was the courtyard. This ensured the privacy of its inhabitants. It also acted as a complicated temperature-controlling design. But that’s material for another article.

When the English came to India, they soon began to yearn for the “Old Country.” And nothing symbolised the Old Country more than the English country garden. Soon enough, in the Presidency towns of Calcutta and Madras, for example, large bungalows appeared that were nothing the urban landscape of India had seen before. Instead of facing inward towards a courtyard, the English bungalow faced outwards and onto its sprawling “country style” gardens. Clive’s Garden still stands in what is modern-day Kolkata, and is an example of the lavishness heaped onto this imported architectural style.

One effect of the English bungalow design was that it took far more land than the traditional Indian habitats. In urban planning practice, and for places like Lahore’s Model Town, this means finding large tracts of land for the purposes of housing relatively small numbers of people. And herein lies the rub.

Since Partition, the people in charge with developing Lahore and other cities in Pakistan have been greatly influenced by the Garden City movement. They also follow blindly the aspirations of earlier designers in mimicking English sensibilities. What we get as a result are housing schemes that take up vast tracts of land on the outskirts of our cities. The problem with this is that, as can be seen by historical experience, slums in urban areas in our part of the world tend to be on the outskirts of the city, where property prices are affordable to the poor. New housing schemes that crop up come up in place of these slums. Their existence points to the eviction of the areas previous residents.

The outward-facing design of newly designed bungalows are also not suited for our climate. It’s fine to have large gardens, verandas, high roofs with raushandans and fifteen-inch thick walls painted white with lime to combat the heat of our summers. But it only works if you have a two acre garden populated by tall, shady trees through which the passing hot air may be cooled. It won’t work if the plot an outward-facing house is built on is only four kanals. It won’t work if there are no verandas and raushandans. It won’t work if one has large plate-glass windows or if one uses cement, brick and nine-inch walls. No, sir, what you have is oversized relics of a time gone by which are ovens in the summer and deep-freezers in the winters.

The large space taken by housing schemes explained, I also point out that the urban sprawl that characterises our urban settlements also makes us automobile dependant. In the 1920s before the Model Town and its copy cats (Samnabad, Gulberg, Garden Town, Jauhar Town, the Defence Housing Authority), Lahore’s Civil Station didn’t extend beyond Chauburji on Multan Road. Baghbanpura was a village along G T Road, and the Mall had the Government Officers Residence. Other than the Cantonment, which then was not a place for the public, this was the entirety of the city. It now stretches from beyond the northern side of the River Ravi past the Hudiyara Drain in the south. And without any public transport, this city (and others) continues to suffer from the pollution emitted by the automobile.

If anyone wonders why our cities consume so much electricity and fuel and why their air is so polluted, perhaps this history will be of some assistance.

The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning. Email: ralam@nexlinx.

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