Retrofitting, Restructuring & Conservation of Kolkata

Retrofitting, Restructuring & Conservation of Kolkata
May 2017 , by , in Interviews, Story

In the last three decades, there has been a significant transformation in the City of Kolkata. Anjan Mitra, Principal Architect & Urban Designer at The Appropriate Alternative elaborates on the reasons for this transformation and traces the pattern of Kolkata’s development.

The recent process of change has been introduced not by an administrative decision like that of 1911- when Capital of British Empire was shifted from Calcutta to Delhi; but in fact it is the city’s spontaneous response to global socio-economic change. With the advent of globalization there has been a direct immediate demand in IT Industry of young professionals for outsourced jobs. Suddenly the city started resembling‘a big FLAT world’ that went beyond the conventional notions of physical geography – in which a new form of an international cultural brand challenged the existing traditional values of specific physical context.

The Newtown Rajarhat area with up to date infrastructure, facilities has been conceived as part of this process. The technology driven culture also demanded a different set of design and planning parameters. New meanings in lifestyle, efficiency, environment, governance were embodied in the expression ‘smart city’,a city for the new millennials. Their terms of engagement with physical spaces started being redefined. These are reflected in the surge of greenfield developments around the periphery of the city

Unfortunately, these requirements are for a very selective group of people – approximately 5% of the gross population, leaving a huge disconnect for the remaining people of the city,who belong to a very ambiguous mix of economic – social stratification. Kolkata in its effort to adjust and accommodate the patterns of development engages in a continuous physical and cultural negotiation of space that becomes a major urban design concern. These negotiations manifest in generating intense pressure for development and redevelopment, structuring and restructuring.

Kolkata’s image has become extremely important and demands a restructuring to be able to impress upon global businesses. This has changed the focus and style of the built environment to one of iconic visual appeal from the existing user-friendly and culturally-socially responsive city..

2 Rajarhat Skyline

The Changing Facets

Kolkata essentially grew out of a colonial framework biased towards trade and administration, evolving a unique culture on the way that is juxtaposition of Indian ethos with neo-interpretation of western education.This is emphasised in its existing spatial pattern.

We have a traditional Indian core in North Kolkata primarily with elite Bengali families, the Indian business community and supporting middle class babus. It is spatially manifested in traditional courtyard typologies ideal for warm humid climate and predominantly supports mixed-use.

The central part of Kolkata is an intermediate bazar,a commercial precinct – the trading and administrative hub of the city. There are European Bungalows and urban town-housessouth of Park Street in Kolkata. The pattern here can best be termed as ‘Bungalow compound complex’(a direct colonial imprint) – defined by A.D.King as a typical colonial form of representation.

In the post-Independence period,this spatial structure was modified and expanded through an industrial base in the eastern part of the city to accommodate the influx of refugees from Bangladesh.

The morphology of Kolkata has changed. All around the periphery, the city has undergone rapid densification and creation of very high density, low rise residential-mixed use development for non-formal activities that target the lower-middle income population. Development of these areas are mainly unplanned and ad-hoc.

On the other hand, the more open, low density bungalows in south Kolkata are subject to an on-going developmental pressure. They are transforming into high-rise, high intensity development for the aspiring affluent business class replacing the educated neo-rich Bengali families. This is the first indication of the predominance of the trading/business communities over the spatial pattern of Kolkata.

Current spatial needs cannot be provided in the densely built part of Kolkata.The land that belongs to sick industries or large holdings in South Kolkata have become the soft target areas.Two distinct types of spatial patterns have emerged –

  • The very large parcels of land with matching large floor plates and clear spans similar to the huge warehouses with centralised controls as the main work space,E.g. Sector V of Salt Lake, EcoSpace in Rajarhat
  • The exclusive gated residential enclaves with high security, self-contained land parcels with matching international standard amenities and facilities. They are virtual cultural islands within the city- a“New York in New Town Kolkata” as advertised by a MNC promoter.

Both these proposed spatial patterns demand significantly large parcels of urban land and the designed ambience has minimum reference to the larger context of the city that exists beyond its boundaries. We have started referring to this micro-level cityness as the preferred option for a selected few.

Real-estate development of Kolkata has become primarily a business response and maximization of financial gain and opportunities without any responsibility towards the city or its sustainability.

Impact of New Developments

Large gated communities have sprung up mostly in the fringe areas of South, East or in New Town, spreadingto the Northern fringe areas as well. To maximise profit, almost 80% of the new accommodation are upper MIG, HIG and HIG + segment.  Affordable Housing is just a nominal numerical percentage and consumes the minimum stipulated area. Even though millions of square feet in housing are added every year, the actual housing shortage continuously increases. The standard occupancy rate in these new complexes is almost 30%, and the model is entirely unsustainable.

If we carefully look at the resident population of metropolitan Kolkata – it has declined since 2000, whereas the day time population has increased many folds resulting in the very high-density non-liveable housing in the extreme fringes of Kolkata- Baruipur, Joka, Behala, Madhyamgram, Barasat, Barrackpore, Sodepur and even in the western banks of Hooghly, etc.

The improved public transport network and high electronic connectivity has made these places possible alternatives for living. They have become the new middle-income group localities. This pattern has left a void in the inner city to be replaced with intense non-formal mixed use zones or ad-hoc encroachments and rampant commercialization.

The old neglected neighbourhood saged more than seventy years that represent the original city of Kolkata have become heavily tenanted and litigated. These areas need up gradation and value addition. They are still serviceable but are stuck in limbo due to the existing Tenancy Act.The Conservation Act of KMC can at best conserve a handful of listed heritage buildings but a more pragmatic approach must be taken for revitalising the existing stock.

Developers in Kolkata have a new CSR to develop sustainable development options (affordable is a misnomer). Furthermore, ‘redevelopment’ is a much greener in concept – cost effective,contextual and sustainable.

There are a considerable number of Bustees which have the potential for redevelopment. With new construction technology there is also a possibility of infill development, constructive redevelopment in the old core and upgrading and retrofitting of the old stock. KMC has recently introduced a new initiative by proving option for redeveloping old buildings allowing additional floor space to accommodate existing tenants.

With concerted effort of CREDAI, KMC and local resident’s networks, we can effectively upgrade the traditional neighbourhoods into sustainable living areas, reviving the ‘City of Joy’ – the spirit of Kolkata.



Our firm, The Appropriate Alternative has effectively demonstrated the practicality of ‘Retrofitting, Restructuring&Conservation’as viable alternatives for sustainable development for Kolkata. Rammohun Library and free reading room, a heritage building and institution has been effectively revived and revitalized through this effort.

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