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March 02, 2020

Planners Abroad... in India

Planners Abroad... in India

Market stalls at the entrance to Auroville

In 2018, eight students in Queen’s University Master of Urban and Regional Planning (M.Pl.) program, along with our professor, Dr. Ajay Agarwal, travelled to
032001.JPGThe Matrimandir at sunset.
Auroville, India for our second-year project course. The team’s project involved developing a Tourism Impact Management Framework for Auroville, in partnership with our client, the Auroville Integral Sustainability Institute. The 14-day trip to Auroville was the culmination of three months’ worth of background research in Kingston, Skype/phone interviews with tourism experts, planners, and local residents, and other travel-related tasks prior to our departure.

Auroville International Township is a community located in the Villupuram District in the State of Tamil Nadu, India. It is located approximately 15 kilometres north of Puducherry, India and approximately 150 kilometres south of Chennai, India. Auroville was founded in 1968 by Mirra Alfassa (known as ‘The Mother’) and the followers of Sri Aurobindo based on their teachings and mutual values, and has since been endorsed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) along with the Government of India. Auroville currently has a population of approximately 2,953 residents from 58 countries, and is the only internationally endorsed ongoing experiment in human unity.
Governance in Auroville differs slightly from the typical Indian system of hierarchical levels of government, which usually includes a central government, state territories, districts, and taluks (administrative divisions). Auroville’s governance is non-hierarchical and based on consensus building. In 1988, the Auroville Foundation Act was created which outlined Auroville’s relationship with the Indian government and established The Auroville Foundation. It is a legal entity that is responsible for the decision making, management, and development of Auroville lands.
Similar to many areas of Ontario, Auroville has a regional plan in place, known as the Sustainable Regional Planning Framework for Auroville, Puducherry, Viluppuram, and Cuddalore. Auroville also has a 1.25 kilometre-wide Green Belt around its urban centre, intended to aid reforestation, regreening, improve water conditions, and to act as a barrier for Auroville’s urban growth and external development pressures from surrounding villages.

Planning Elements 
As a result of its unique character, landscapes, and architecture, Auroville is a popular
032002.jpgTeam members Sarah Butt and Alanna Damp (not pictured) meeting with the Edayanchavadi Women's Group Federation.
destination for both domestic and international visitors. The community does not actively engage in promoting tourism, yet Auroville received more than 700,000 casual visitors (also known as ‘day visitors’) in 2017. The most well-known site in Auroville is the Matrimandir, a structure dedicated to the Universal Mother that was created as a site for individual silent concentration.
Auroville is an incredibly environmentally friendly community, with a recycling centre, solar powered community kitchen, electric motos (motorcycles), lots of bicycles, and no cars within the inner town itself! If you want to learn more about sustainability and environmental conscious planning, we highly recommend you learn more about Auroville. 
Ultimately this project course gave us an incredibly unique international experience, and taught us how to think globally, learn from others, and transfer that knowledge and experience to our work in Canada.

Lessons Learned
  • Public engagement and participation. Professionally, the project allowed us to develop many important skills. As a group, we completed both primary and secondary data collection, first at a distance (from Canada) and then on the ground in Auroville. Similar to planning projects here, we completed a policy and plan review which provided significant context to the community we were entering. Through a number of stakeholder interviews and group meetings (focus groups, group interviews, public engagement), we developed strong group facilitation and interview skills. By speaking to so many different individuals from all around the world in this international community, we learned how to synthesize information and the differing
    032004.jpeg Team members gathering data at a kiosk at the Visitor's Centre in Auroville.
    opinions of a large group while finding similarities that bring the community together.  
  • Diversity within a community. One of the most significant aspects of the international project course is the fact that it is international. We entered an established community with an outside perspective, so we had to work hard to ensure that we did our best to understand and respect the many different cultures, languages, local experiences, and ways of life. Given the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of planning, this experience provided us with the opportunity to develop many important skills as planners, such as the ability to communicate to a wide audience and to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. As planners we are interacting with a variety of people every day, including other professionals, stakeholder groups, and residents. This experience taught the team more about the broad role of a planner, the need for community driven planning, and the importance of a bottom-up approach. We all returned with a new perspective and new approaches to planning, particularly related to the importance of involving the local community in the process.
  • Experiencing a place means so much more than reading about it. The project team spent three months researching Auroville from afar, and it still doesn’t seem like anything we could have read or watched gave us a full understanding of what it was actually like when we arrived. It served as a great reminder that despite all the technological advances that we have experienced throughout our lives, nothing beats a good old fashioned site visit,  and that having a full understanding of a place in terms of its geography and topography, as well as its social and economic networks, can truly have a huge impact on a project or development application. No matter what sized community you are working in it is important to remember that each and every single one has a unique setting and different challenges, and that whatever they are (environmental,social, developmental, etc.), they will all factor into the overall understanding of the community.
  • Teamwork and collaboration are key. In a town that governs under a consensus-building model, residents and business owners are extremely engaged and active in advancing community planning initiatives. Our team quickly learned that working within a two-week deadline required strategic planning and coordination during every public engagement event. The team conducted open houses, 20 interviews and group discussions and hosted two kiosks to collect information on existing conditions and proposed solutions with regard to tourism impacts and future planning. Within our limited time frame, our more successful interviews and events were thoughtfully planned and executed with on-site knowledge from individuals working for our client, Auroville Sustainability Institute. This adds to the first lesson learned that visiting and engaging at a personal level within the community produced the highest quality of feedback and engagement.
How does our experience relate to planning in the Canadian context?
032003.jpeg Team member Carling Fraser taking photos during a trip to see the temples in Mahabalipuram
  • Planners should not be afraid of testing new ideas or new ways of doing things.
  • Environmentally-focused and environmentally friendly practices can be incredibly practical as well. With regards to climate change, we need to anticipate potential impacts in order to best manage or mitigate these impacts in a way that benefits the community.
  • Collaboration and communication are vital, both within a municipality and within a greater region. When there is an emphasis on community engagement and a bottom up approach, a community can really make a difference!
  • Planning should be proactive rather than reactive in nature, with a need to emphasize the long-term sustainability of a community rather than prioritizing short term wins.
  • A one size planning approach does not fit all communities. Ultimately all villages, cities, provinces, states, countries (...) are all unique, and in many cases, there needs to be consideration for competing interests (i.e. urban vs. rural, environment vs. development, etc.) and best planning practices. Through planning we can capture this diversity and strive to create communities that enhance the lives of all individuals living in these spaces.
While planning around the world at times can appear to be so extremely different, what we learned is that planning has the same purpose, no matter the context – both locally and globally.

Additional Resources
  • India blog: the project team created a blog to update friends, family and interested planners on their day-to-day in Auroville. The blog is a light-hearted, honest cataloguing of the entire experience and features lots of photographs of cows famously known as “cow pic of the day”. If you are interested in reading the blog you can find it here.
  • Link to final report: want to read the final report? Find it here: A Tourism Impact Management Framework for Auroville, India.
  • VIDEO: CIP Centenary Student Award Entry


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s), and may not reflect the position of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

Post by Natalie Armstrong, Sarah Butt, Alanna Damp, Nadia El Dabee, Kassidee Fior, Carling Fraser, Kelsey Jones, and Vanessa Smith

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