Aiding community-led heritage regeneration in India

Monday, 11 April 2016

Oxford Brookes and SPA Delhi students talking to local inhabitants in a riverside neighbourhood

As Oxford Brookes' School of Architecture prepares to hold a Postgraduate Virtual Open Day this week (Thursday 14 April), find out more about one of their exciting research projects…

Six students on the International Architectural Regeneration and Development course are working on a research project to promote a community-led approach to heritage regeneration in the city of Agra, India.  

Agra is synonymous with history and architecture from the Mughal era and as such is a major draw for tourism. However, the economic benefits of tourism are found to only bring benefits to the select few. Many visitors remain unaware of the rich heritage of the city and its surroundings, including Moghul period tombs, gardens and waterfront areas and cultural heritage.  

Dr Aylin Orbasli, Researcher in the School of Architecture and the Principal Investigator of the project explains: “This is partly because they are not being effectively marketed, some are difficult to access and there is no discernible integrity to the historic city. Meanwhile, like in many growing cities in India, pressures of urbanisation and growth are threatening areas of historic significance. Whilst the river has been somewhat forgotten by the city, the river edge has also changed its character from that of an elite area to one housing the poor and the marginalised in large pockets.” 

Having the opportunity of doing a field trip in India has been one of the most interesting and unexpected experiences that I have had. It was very exciting and fantastic research work, which gave me the opportunity to discover new places and come into contact with very different cultures.

Giulia Robba, Postgraduate student, MA International Architectural Regeneration and Development, Oxford Brookes University

The six month, £30,000 project funded under a network grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Indian council of Historical Research (ICHR), is being undertaken in collaboration with the Delhi’s School of Planning and Architecture and the Center for Urban and Regional Excellence (CURE), a non-profit organisation also based in Delhi.  

Through a selected pilot project, focusing on the Mughal river front gardens of Agra, and the communities residing along the riverfront, the project aims to explore a model of urban conservation which is both community led and community driven. It will attempt to bring the river, the river edge and its associated natural and cultural ecologies back into the lives of the larger population of Agra.  

Dr Orbasli continues: “The existence of the historic gardens, and attempts at their conservation, offer a unique opportunity to help reconnect the historic city with its riverfront and also to engage local communities with the heritage surrounding them. Using heritage as a vehicle to develop livelihood opportunities will ultimately serve to improve the quality of life and habitat of the communities residing in these areas.”  

In January this year, as part of the first stage of the project, the Oxford Brookes students spent a week in Agra working alongside students from the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, visiting the riverside gardens and neighbourhoods, collecting data and engaging with the local communities as well as meeting with local planning, tourism and heritage authorities.

The Agra riverfront

Student Giulia Robba, an architect from Italy, studying MA International Architectural Regeneration and Development  said: "Having the opportunity of doing a field trip in India has been one of the most interesting and unexpected experiences that I have had. It was very exciting and fantastic research work, which gave me the opportunity to discover new places and come into contact with very different cultures. Working in a place such as Agra, would have been impossible without the collaboration of the Indian students, who helped us by sharing their knowledge and culture.”

Over the next four months the students in both institutions will be guided to develop regeneration strategies for the selected river front areas. They will generate proposals that provide opportunities for the conservation of the cultural and natural environment in ways that directly engage and benefit local communities. These proposals will then be shared with the local communities, locally active NGOs, and planning and heritage authorities through a series of on-site community events.  

The aim is to demonstrate to the local authorities and the communities themselves the benefits innovative and viable approaches to regeneration can deliver, as well as test the efficacy of participatory research.  

The action-research project combines the expertise of Dr Aylin Orbasli on cultural heritage protection, management and tourism, and Professor Priyaleen Singh from the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, an expert on historic landscapes and urban conservation. It has been envisaged as the initial stage of longer term collaborative research initiatives between Oxford Brookes University and the School.  

To take part in the Postgraduate Virtual Open Day visit the  website

More information about the project can be found on Research Council UK’s website.

Images: (1) Oxford Brookes and SPA Delhi students talking to local inhabitants in a riverside neighbourhood (2) The Agra riverfront characterised by the remnants of the Mughal garden structures