Suzhou in China is a live example of how to preserve classical gardens that trace their roots to about a 1000 years ago, while keeping pace with development.

Why Bengaluru needs to look to this Chinese city on how to preserve its green coverRishika Pardikar
news Development Thursday, June 28, 2018 - 10:27

Today, much of Bengaluru’s ‘garden city’ charm remains in name only, and often harks to the times of the Mysore Kingdom under Krishnaraja Wodeyar, Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan and the British under whose rule Lal Bagh, Cubbon Park and various other gardens and public buildings began to adorn the streets of Bengaluru. And reality continues to depress with news of the loss of the city’s green cover.

What can be done?

For starters, we could look at China.

China’s President Xi Jinping often refers to ‘ecological civilisation’ in his speeches and has been known to draw from Confucianist temperaments when it comes to harmonious development. And refreshingly, the nation has walked its talk and is a live example to illustrate this point is Suzhou - China’s garden city.

"Suzhou is a tier-two town,” said Jin Liu, a researcher based in Beijing, adding, “Very well developed and very beautiful also.”

The city’s widespread classical gardens and canals adorn its sights while high rise buildings, wide, clean roads with green cover and airport-like looking train stations promise the lifestyle a city-dweller often looks for.

What’s even more refreshing is the story of preservation - the classical gardens of Suzhou trace their roots to about a thousand years ago, from the Song to the Qing dynasties which ruled between the 11th to the 19th century. They were private gardens built by scholars and were preserved, further beautified and made open to public in the years that followed. No wonder some of the gardens figure on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. If China could nourish gardens, which are about a thousand years old, then surely we could preserve our gardens and historical sites, most of which are fairly new since they range between the 18th and the 19th century - Cubbon Park, Lal Bagh, Bangalore Palace, Bangalore Fort, etc., and are therefore relatively less delicate in architectural ruins.

A study by Harvard University notes, “Suzhou is a historical city of over 2500 years”. The report adds, “The site of the old city has never been moved and still continues to be used for residential and retail purposes. This is unique in China and rare in the world. The nodes and transportation net are essentially intact. It has a canal system that is comparable to that of Venice and St. Antonio…The central government highly values the significance of the cultural heritage in Suzhou and requires preservation of the old town.”

Suzhou, therefore, has managed to interweave history into its development plans - a lesson Bengaluru could glean from since the biophysical space of the city points to its most urgent needs. Bengaluru is a semi-arid landscape and being so, lakes and other water reservoirs were dug by the townspeople and trees were planted in order to sustain life. As Harini Nagendra, the author of Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future notes in an interview: “The way in which settlers have reshaped the landscape around Bengaluru for millennia – converting a semi-arid rocky landscape with thorny bushes and no perennial source of water into a lush green and blue, fertile agricultural landscape and later into a modern bustling and thriving city – is really quite remarkable, when you think of it! But nature is not a passive entity to be reshaped at will, either. You can bend it, but not stretch it too far. The droughts, seasonal flooding, heat waves, air pollution and other impacts we are witnessing in recent years are a testament to the importance of nature in the city, and a counterpoint to the many voices who claim that nature needs only to be protected in distant forests and rural areas, and that there is no place for ecology in a fast-growing city.”

Early in 2018, Suzhou’s story also attracted the attention of the Indian delegation which visited China as part of the Global Environment Facility which is an international partnership of 183 countries which addressed global environmental issues. Noting the town’s structured public transportation system, a report by the World Bank which covered the meeting between the Indian and the Chinese delegation said, “Visiting Suzhou, one of the most economically developed cities on China’s eastern coast, visitors took a ride on tram line 1. The tram bus is running at 30 km/h, connecting 28.5 kilometers within the Suzhou High-Tech Zone, and seamlessly integrating with the metro network. The delegation also visited the bus-only-lane network within the city center of Suzhou, which gives buses the precious right of way along busy streets to improve running speed.”

Such close interactions between India and China on the city-development front are necessary considering how both the countries share troubles which entail rapid development set against exploding levels of population - poor levels of air quality, the accessibility, purification and moderate-usage of water resources (the statements are also true for cross border sharing of the Himalayan rivers), waste management and the like. And in the present context, Bengaluru is in urgent need of structural changes to its city development plans. It would do well to look closely at our northeastern neighbour and emulate its best practices.

All pictures courtesy Rishika Pardikar 

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