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25 Years

The Canal and the City: Water's Edge Urbanisms in Chennai

Wed, 05/01/2019 - 3:00pm
Event Location: 
537 Heller Hall

Presented by Karen Coelho, Madras Institute of Development 

This paper examines the edges of urban waterways as a specific kind of intra-urban “periphery”, offering a crucial geography from which to theorize urban transitions in Indian metropolitan cities. From undervalued, squatted and slummed hinterlands, to aspirational world-class waterfronts, these spaces index larger transformations in metropolitan spatial politics. Chennai’s Buckingham Canal has undergone shifting valuations in the city’s urbanization schemes over its history since its construction by the British in the 1800s to transport freight down the eastern coastal tracts of the Madras Presidency. Perennially challenged by tidal surges, storms and siltation, it failed to sustain its navigational function, and by the 1950s degenerated into a dysfunctional urban drain. In the 2000s, the canal has become subject to new metrics of worlding through “waterfront” restoration and beautification schemes.

But there are other, overlooked, histories of this waterway, notably those of the slowly expanding complex of informal settlements and small-scale industrial establishments that established themselves along its banks, offering working class families, both migrant and local, a foothold for residence and livelihood within the city. What can perspectives from the canal banks offer, what urbanisms can be proposed in this distinctive kind of periphery? As urban waterways -- rivers, canals, creeks – become central to projects of world-classing, old settlements on their banks get drawn into shifting dynamics of spatial valorization, from “development” and gentrification to eviction and displacement, which in turn shape their strategies of place-making. Employing multi-sited ethnography in three canal-bank settlements, this paper highlights the specific conditions of water’s edge urbanism, and the shifting trajectories of opportunity, challenge and threat it offers, showing how the production of urban space in each of these neighborhoods is shaped by the canal’s changing ecological and economic values.