USC Price students develop plans for India
The 16 graduate students in the USC Price School of Public Policy’s recent international planning studio arrived in India as outsiders, but they used that to their advantage.
“The studio was founded on the idea that, as outsiders, we bring fresh, unbiased and provocative perspectives to planning and urbanism efforts,” said Vinayak Bharne, faculty member at USC Price and the USC School of Architecture, who directed the studio.
Last year, he released two books — The Emerging Asian City: Concomitant Urbanities & Urbanisms and Rediscovering the Hindu Temple: The Sacred Architecture and Urbanism of India — that examined urban phenomena and issues in the Asian world.
During the trip in December, the students took a newcomer’s look at Banaras (also known as Varanasi), one of India’s oldest and holiest Hindu cities, situated on the banks of the Ganges River. They collaborated with faculty and scholars from Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and the Center for Environmental Planning and Technology University to chart multidisciplinary strategies for the city’s future.
“The forces and processes shaping cities in India and other parts of Asia are very different from the United States, so the processes of urban transformation demand very different approaches,” Bharne said. “The challenge is to go beyond our preconceptions and understand these cities on their own terms.”
Before setting foot in India, the students pored over available data, researching the issues in Banaras to propose tentative strategies for addressing them. They also did case studies on how certain issues have been tackled in other cities around the world.
Bharne called the visit “a trip of active verification, not passive reflection.”
He explained, “I felt that taking students to Banaras at the very beginning of the semester would result in a predictable process and set of proposals — where we think we have analyzed a place; we think we know it, and then we make so-called conclusions and propositions.
“My intention,” he added, “was that the students accept their distance, study Banaras — imperfectly — through data collection, films, books and Web-based exchanges with scholars. And then take their propositions, however thoughtful or naïve, to the city and say, ‘Am I right? Was I completely off the rocker or does it make sense?’ ”
In Banaras, students explored the city’s known and lesser-known places, and interviewed a cross-section of citizens ranging from hermits and vegetable sellers to municipal commissioners and university scholars.
Master of Planning (MPL) student Briana Gauger ventured into the city’s red-light district to research social inequality and oppression pertaining to women’s issues. She met with scholars from BHU and representatives from a nonprofit group who were working to eliminate human trafficking and second-generation prostitution.
“For me, this is really the beginning of a much broader research project,” she said. “I plan to get my PhD after finishing my master’s degree, and this will be something that I will come back to with my PhD work.
“Making the connections that I did there and being able to identify some of the places where it would be beneficial to delve in further was really helpful,” she added.
MPL student Marc Corti studied mobility methods in Banaras, which encompass both contemporary modes, such as highways and rail, and traditional vehicles, such as tuk-tuks, rickshaws and two-wheel cycles.
“I’m really interested in doing project management and consulting, so this studio was hitting the ground running,” he said. “Looking at other cities to see what they’re doing that may be relatable to what we experienced in Varanasi — that’s applicable to a lot of situations that I might find while doing transportation consulting, whether it’s here in Los Angeles or in any other city in the U.S. or around the world.”
MPL student David Shea tackled questions of zoning and development. He suggested a change to Varanasi’s floor area ratio (FAR) regulations, which limit the ratio of a building’s floor area to lot size. In his proposal, developers who build under their ratio would have the option to sell their excess floor area to developers who want to construct bigger buildings.
The goal would be to “try and create a more flexible system that stops certain developments from getting too big without totally stymying them,” according to Shea.
“There’s a lot of value in understanding an international city in a different context,” he noted. “It forces us to think outside of the box and adapt to a lot of the same problems that are here in the U.S., but without necessarily going down the same routes that Western planners automatically go down.”
Other student projects addressed a breadth of topics, including urban sanitation, water shortages and pollution, flooding, urban agriculture, informal settlements, pilgrimage tourism and traditional medicine. All projects will be posted soon on the planning studio website, and some may also be collected for a book on that Bharne is currently outlining.
“The best part is that you had a group of 16 bright, energetic students who were so diverse and so multidisciplinary … from urban planning, architecture, public health and public administration to finance, nongovernmental management and economics,” Bharne said.
“The best thing that came out of the studio was the opportunity to approach a city like Banaras from multiple lenses and multiple disciplines right from the beginning,” he added. “And that laid the foundations of discovering the extraordinary multiplicity and nuances of what this city really means — far above and beyond the stereotypical sacred image that dominates it.”