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Urban conservation is often a pressing challenge in historic Indian cities that are experiencing the pressures of development. Many cities, often lacking any viable local-level policy and enforcement, have resorted to alternative tools, often citizen-led, to accomplish the goal of conservation. In a seminar this week, Ashima Krishna — Assistant Professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Buffalo — explored the tools of advocacy, politics, and civic engagement through recent examples from the city of Lucknow in northern India.

The Challenges of Urban Conservation

Professor Rahul Mehrotra of the Harvard Graduate School of Design opened the discussion, highlighting Krishna’s experience as both a researcher and a practicing architect, and her connection to Lucknow, India. “Ashima said that Lucknow incapsulates the best of the relationship between Hindu and Muslim communities, and is home to Sikhs, Christians, and other communities that make it a very rich social cultural experience where diversity is reflected in the city’s architecture,” said Mehrotra.

In her talk, Krishna explored the different kinds of tools employed in conservation throughout the city of Lucknow, focusing on the context of cities where there is either a total absence of local legislation, or an absence of strong legislation and enforcement mechanisms. “Across India, cities that want to conserve the historic course, which can often comprise at-risk, commercial, residential, and institutional districts, often face a pretty complex challenge,” she said. “While local legislation and ordinances have enabled cities to conserve their historic urban fabric, that is of course not completely without challenges. In cities that lack long-term processes like local legislation or even heritage commissions, like Lucknow, they regulate and protect their heritage sites in different ways and still struggle to carry out urban conservation.”

Transformation, Demolition, and Colonialism

Prior to the 18th century, little was done in the city of Lucknow by way of conservation of historic heritage sites. During that time, there was considerable politically motivated construction occurring. “Every successive Nawab was trying to create a stamp across the landscape, so there wasn’t any focus on conservation itself,” Krishna said. “We really began to see a change with the onset of the colonial period.” During this period, excessive demolition took place throughout the War of 1857, and the city of Lucknow underwent a massive transformation. “Even in the aftermath of so much demolition and destruction, there wasn’t too much focus on conservation, except for the British residence campus,” Krishna noted.

Another reason for the lack of conservation in Lucknow and similar areas centered around the focus on Mughal era sites and Buddhist sites elsewhere in the states. “In one of the traveler’s records that I read from 1890, Lucknow and its architecture was stated as one of the worst specimens of architecture in all of India. So, we see that for the colonial power, it was a way to extend their power beyond the Mughal architecture and the Mughal period by laying down the idea that Lucknow’s architecture is not worth saving, and the Mughal architecture was,” Krishna said.

Post-Independence Conservation Initiatives

Post-independence, there has been more deliberate planning throughout Lucknow, but for a city of its size, only three heritage zones have been identified — yet heritage is at risk, given the city’s rate of development. In a place where there is little clarity on the designation of heritage sites and local agencies lack staff trained in heritage or conservation, citizen-led initiatives have arisen in the past few years to fill in the gaps.

According to Krishna, there are three factors beyond a site’s historic character and significance that are needed to facilitate and encourage the process of conservation in a city: 1) advocacy, by connecting public agencies and the local community; 2) politics, by harnessing political will in a difficult climate; and 3) civic engagement, by efforts in public interest litigation.

1. Advocacy

Through advocacy, the actors involved are trying to affect change within the system using all tools available. “That connects to the larger ethos of the city, where there has been a strong and long history of collaboration among the Hindu and Muslim communities,” said Krishna. “It was their efforts at promoting cultural development within the city, and their success was predicated on negotiation and collaboration with the state. It has been many citizens — everyday citizens — who have taken up a lot of the grassroots efforts to advocate within the system.”

2. Politics

In Lucknow, political action has historically driven most of the urban development, and continues to play a role today. “If you were to visit today, you would see quite a bit of politically motivated development that has taken place over the last few decades. It’s really challenged contemporary notions of what heritage sites and monuments are, and it’s also affected how a lot of these ‘monuments’ are shaped and preserved, because historical sites and monuments languish across the city [in favor of new development],” said Krishna.

Continuing, she noted, “It’s interesting that current political systems are already planning for the preservation of what they are building today, but there is very little emphasis on what the city has inherited over several centuries.”

3. Civic Engagement

“India has a long history of litigation and public interest litigation, which from the 1970s onwards began to play a very important role [in conservation],” explained Krishna. Today, civic engagement is making its mark on conservation through public interest litigation. “One of the most famous examples of public interest litigation is at Agra, where meaningful court judgments through public interest litigation affected many of environmental changes within Agra. The battery-operated vehicle is one of the examples of efforts by the local administration to minimize pollution in the area,” said Krishna, showing the significance of local movements.

Through these three tools, the city of Lucknow and others like it are taking steps toward better conservation practices, preserving the memories that the cities pass on from one generation to the next by upholding the value and importance of heritage sites.