Design / Architecture / Urbanism / Research by Despo Thoma.
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thinkTANK / GSAPP

 

 

thinkTANK

Water Urbanism Studio
with Amanda Chan, Marshall Allen, Sebastian Delpino
Columbia GSAPP
New York, Spring 2016

 
 

Madurai’s urban history has revolved and flourished around an elaborate water system consisting of tanks, canals, channels and drains. Today, the city faces a tipping point because of rapid urbanization pressures where if nothing is done, the water system will cease to exist.

nomanifesto despo thoma think tank madurai india
nomanifesto despo thoma think tank madurai india

Think Tank aims to radically shift the perception of Madurai’s tanks by making them the frontyard of the city rather than its neglected backyard. Through the lens of water+stewardship, the proposal seeks to look at the multi-scalar water system of Madurai and adapt it through a change of governance to fit environmental and social conditions. The water system is comprised of interconnected tanks and their respective communities. By focusing on these units, Think Tank aims to strengthen the social and physical structure at a local scale in order to have an impact on the system as a whole.

 

What if Madurai’s ancient water tank system became the driver for new adaptive growth?

 

The water system of Madurai has sustained the city for centuries due to its necessity for religious, agricultural and social practices. Religion is a fundamental aspect of the Hindu faith and ultimately, the water system was devised as a way to sustain religious tanks with water throughout the year in a historically arid climate. Agriculture was a method for retaining and using water in a responsible way that both supplied the city with fresh, locally grown food as well as guaranteeing water in the final religious tanks. And finally, with religion being such an important part of life in Madurai, much of the social practices of the city focuses and supported certain ideologies that inherently use and preserved the water system.

These three core elements have historically been linked with each other through water but currently, these links are beginning to break. Agricultural fields are being parceled and sold for development. Channels are clogged with garbage and sewage. And the tanks are drying up at an alarming rate. These events continue to spur further development and as such, further environmental and social degradation.

 
  Critical Urbanization Front: Edge Condition

Critical Urbanization Front: Edge Condition

 

Methodology

A crucial component to Think Tank is a replicable strategy that would be applied to other tanks throughout Madurai that are currently or will someday experience the pressures of urbanization. Through the process of identifying existing conditions, establishing tank saving policies, activating public space and adapting the tank for modern environmental conditions, the water system of Madurai can be managed on a tank by tank basis. Gathering stewards in the form of local institutions, and community or civic groups, an adapted system of governance is introduced in order to maintain and manage the tanks. These groups will also be held accountable for the caretaking for this vital resource while also being able to use it for their benefit.

STEP 1: IDENTIFY

A. Identify the type of tank (religious, urbanized, edge, rural) and focus on the edge tanks which are at the front line of the urbanization process.

B. Locate the hard edge and the soft edge of thank. The hard edge is usually defined by a piece of infrastructure that creates a barrier between the community and the water. The soft edge is undefined by any physical or visual element and is usually a zone prone to encroachment by settlements of agricultural fields.

C. Understand the water flow. Identify the inlets and outlets for each tank.

D. Take an inventory of the surrounding land use and context, such as institutions, community groups, local markets, civic organizations, agricultural land, small-scale residential and large developments.

D.1 Identify potential stewards that will be responsible for taking care of the tank and will benefit by utilizing areas around the tank for their own specific program.

D.2 Enact policy for stewards that choose to take part in this arrangement.

Hold groups accountable for the stewardship (yearly dues, trash pickup, water quality tests).

Ensure that there is a benefit for these groups in that their program will be incorporated into the design of the adapted tank.

 
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STEP 2: ESTABLISH

A. Understand and declare the boundary of the tank, specifically the undefined boundary (soft edge). Consult historical maps to understand the high water mark of the tank and demarcate what the highest capacity is (for future rainfall events). Declare tank preservation zones- stating that no further building shall take place within this boundary. Declare the existing encroachment is illegal.

B. Make new edge visually identifiable for each tank to create an identity and indicate the newly established boundary. Use of colors or signals to signalize the periphery of the tank.

C. Preserve and incorporate agriculture with further development surrounding the tank to create a productive landscape buffer. Development should only happen with the preservation and incorporation of agricultural fields.

D. Use the policy of transferring air rights over the agricultural land and sell to adjacent parcels to allow for taller, dense development that would capture the value that would be created around the tank.

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STEP 3: ACTIVATE

A. Understand and declare the boundary of the tank, specifically the undefined boundary (soft edge). Consult historical maps to understand the high water mark of the tank and demarcate what the highest capacity is (for future rainfall events). Declare tank preservation zones- stating that no further building shall take place within this boundary. Declare the existing encroachment is illegal.

B. Make new edge visually identifiable for each tank to create an identity and indicate the newly established boundary. Use of colors or signals to signalize the periphery of the tank.

C. Preserve and incorporate agriculture with further development surrounding the tank to create a productive landscape buffer. Development should only happen with the preservation and incorporation of agricultural fields.

D. Use the policy of transferring air rights over the agricultural land and sell to adjacent parcels to allow for taller, dense development that would capture the value that would be created around the tank.

 
Madurai_ThinTank_11.png
 

STEP 4: ADAPT

A. Implement smaller adapted tank system. Direct the flow of water from the inlets to the outlets along the soft edge of the tank. Use a series of interconnected, cascading ponds in order to define the edge and avoid further encroachment, illegal activities, and misuse within the tank. The ponds will choreograph the water to flow along the soft edge of the tank throughout the year.

B. Establish a series of vertical elements -activity stations. They will be programmed to reflect adjacent land uses and stewards. They will also be a visually connecting element that will help pull people into the site and view the entire pond from a higher perspective.

Bus Terminal Gateway

The already encroached north side of the Vandiyur tank is adapted to incorporate the two existing uses (bus terminal and flower market) in order to create a public space that is a new gateway to the tank. The adaptation aims to unify the two public uses and refocus them towards the tank. Currently, both the bus terminal and the flower market have no interaction with the tank. The vacant parcel between them is prone to further encroachment and it has been identified as a crucial point of intervention. By redirecting an existing channel, we create a new inlet in the public space that then forms the first series of cascading ponds that lead to the agricultural buffer. Markets, small ponds and a terraced ghat landscape integrate other elements in this gateway. Activity stations that hold viewing platforms, amphitheaters, and waiting/ bathing areas create points of reference in the vast landscape of the Vandiyur tank.

Soft Edge Definition

Using a series of cascading ponds, the agricultural buffer zone, dry and wet paths and activity stations, we define the undefined and usually encroached soft edge of the Vandiyur tank. The berms that form the ponds are accessible according to the seasons, whether wet or dry. The ponds can overflow during the monsoon season into the larger tank allowing that to fill up as it historically has. During dry periods, however, water flows from pond to pond allowing the entire system to work at a much smaller scale. Intentionally dry areas can host activities such as sports, markets or gathering spaces. These temporal uses are manifested here due to the absence of any public or civic spaces in the surrounding neighborhood. Insofar, the ponds act as a soft definition of the edge and at the same time, as an amenity for the immediate neighborhood.

 
 

The Vision for Madurai

Madurai’s existence depends on the presence of water. Religious, agricultural and social practices are all interconnected by water and serve as the sustaining three core elements of this Southern Indian city. Facing increasing environmental and social challenges due to rapid urbanization, the water system is severely threatened. Think Tank seeks to change the perception of the cities image from a Temple City to a Tank City with the goal of helping people to understand that it is the entire water system that should be celebrated and protected. By adapting the water system for modern conditions, we create a replicable strategy that will transform all of the tanks of Madurai into a catalyst for increased environmental, ecological and social stewardship.

 

A replicable strategy that could be applied to other tanks that are or will experience the pressures of urbanization. Through the process of identifying conditions, establishing policies, activating public space and adapting the tank for modern conditions, the water system of Madurai can be managed on a tank by tank basis. 

Gathering stewards in the form of local institutions, and community or civic groups, an adapted system of governance is introduced in order to maintain and manage the tanks. The groups are held accountable for the care of this vital resource. 

An elegant, ancient water system that nourished rice fields and settlements has begun to collapse and needs to be rethought relative to expanding populations, public health, and ecological prerogatives.