Re-Coding the City
A Case of Form-Based Codes for Historic City Cores in India
It is a surprising fact that a 25-year-old concept still hasn’t found any mention, let alone application, in a rapidly urbanizing third world nation which is losing its historic urban cores at an alarming speed. Recent reports on 330 cities around the globe (not only in the US but also Europe, Gulf and Australia) adopting the FBC’s had me waking up to the fact that indian cities still don’t have a solution to the urban sprawl! Our cities are juggling between planned growth at one end and an uncontrollable expansion on the other. And according to my consensus we owe a major part of this to our zoning regulations and building bye-laws.
Consider the case of the historic urban cores which are mostly associated with high density, traffic congestion, intense socio-cultural and economic activity and environmental degradation. Where does one start the redevelopment in such a scenario? Various schemes of pedestrianisation, streetscaping, urban renewal, tourism development, re-locations, rehabilitations, etc. all make head starts but ultimately fall flat at inception. The answer does not lie in planning projects but in the planning framework itself.
Our historic city fabrics have been reeling under the regulations of euclidean zoning ever since municipal bodies were setup by the British pre-independence for the maintenance and development of the city (See Indigenous Modernities: Negotiating Architecture and Urbanism, Jyoti Hosagrahar). In the post-independence era, commonly regarded as ‘The Golden Age of Planning’ (Peter Hall, 1988), these zoning regulations were extended to all cities of the country, which were to hold good for built-up as well as new constructions. They have since done irreparable damage to the historic urban fabrics which traditionally followed the patterns of mixed use compact development keeping the city at an intimate human scale with an occasional awe-inspiring public monument around which the cultural life evolved. In the last quarter of the 20th century, the world moved on, while indian cities stuck to their setback rules and land acquisitions; two laws that have single handedly destroyed some unparalleled fantastic urban forms. And are still at it.
One such initiative that has crossed my path seems to me to be the first experiment with form-based coding in India. Though it is not being done under that banner, still its inception is based on the same premise. Fort Cochin is a declared heritage zone in the city of Kochi, and its INTACH chapter (Indian National trust for Arts, Culture & Heritage) has taken up the task of formulating guidelines for sustaining the historic urban form. The settlement, an important port town under the Portuguese, Dutch and the British in succession, is now a major tourist destination in India.
Anticipating the the pressures of development from the tourism industry, a small group of architects made recommendations as early as 1994 for the conservation of the urban form through a case study published by INTACH. It makes for a very interesting reading, since its recommendations adhere to what the FBC’s preach. The recommendations are listed below:
1. Built form-street relationship: No setback should be specified in the front abutting the street and the building line made mandatory on the street edge.
2. Height of Building: The existing height of each building should be frozen to ensure variations in the skyline.
3. Floor area ratio: Along with coverage, the FAR should be frozen to ensure that the street’s infrastructure is not overloaded and that the small courts which exist in the the present form are retained.
4. Roof form: Roofs should be restricted to sloping tiled roofs and the existing roof to wall ratio maintained separately in each plot.
5. Walls: Walls must be finished in plaster, painted and no extraneous finishing materials permitted.
6. Openings: The percentage of openings to the total wall area should be maintained for all plots separately. The design of openings should also be restricted to existing rectangular forms. Sun protection systems should be encouraged.
7. Architectural elements: Balconies and external, on-street staircases should be encouraged.
8. Plot sizes: No plot amalgamation should be permitted. Sanctions should be taken separately for each plot.
9. Land use: No nuisance land use should be permitted (like motor repair, lathe workshops, etc.) Such existing land uses may be phased out and new small scale commerce, restaurants, bakeries and other tourism oriented uses encouraged.
10. Ground floor usage: Opening up ground floor wall area for introducing car garages should not be permitted.
These recommendations as well as the place itself have come a long way since. A draft ‘heritage zone guidelines’ document with graphic illustration of the regulations was prepared in 2010, which was supported by the ‘Regulations for ensuring and promoting conservation of heritage buildings, heritage precincts and natural heritage’ under the Urban & Regional Planning and Development Act, 2003. After the publication of the guideline document and the enactment of the law, Fort Cochin would have written its own city-code and would have all other municipal building rules and bye-laws relaxed in its zone. By law!
Further, the guidelines not only make recommendations for the existing constructions in the area, but also for new constructions and renovations. It also makes protection of existing open spaces mandatory along with cultural elements such as the Chinese fishing nets. This certainly becomes a case for Form-based codes to be considered as the preferred code for the hundreds of other historic urban cores in India.
Abdul Bari has actively gained exposure in different design contexts for cities in and outside India. He has managed to gather hands-on experience in arenas of Building Conservation and Public Space Urban Design, engaging closely with the government sector. His main focus remains architecture and place-making in built-up environments, with a flair for adaptive re-use projects.
Sustainable Cities Collective