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April 2002


"We are a marriage agency!"

- from an interview by Alan and Roger

 

Luigi and Sauro have been instrumental in linking Auroville to the Asia Urbs programme. Auroville Today spoke to them after the conference to find out more about Asia Urbs and the opportunities it opens up.

Luigi and Sauro

 

What exactly is Asia Urbs?


Sauro: Asia Urbs is a European Commission programme for promoting decentralized cooperation between cities in Europe and in Asia in areas like urban management and information exchange. These kinds of partnership are totally new and reflect the realization that macro-projects quite often do not deliver the expected results. Consequently, there is a new emphasis upon small projects which involve local communities, and in this context cooperation between the cities of different countries is perceived as being potentially a very effective tool.

In 1998-1999, Auroville first submitted a project which was primarily concerned with our own urban management. Last year Asia Urbs invited project submissions in a new area - information-sharing. We decided to apply in this category also because we'd already been trying to strengthen our contacts with other cities, but the funds we received under the first project were inadequate for this. So now Auroville has two projects running under Asia Urbs. Under the first one, which runs for two years from last March, we are partnered with the cities of Venice and Cologne. We receive funding for projects like the Town Hall annexe and expert assistance from both India and our European partners in formulating a more detailed Master Plan. We also undertake to organize workshops for local municipal officers to expose them to best practices elsewhere. The second project - which will run until October - includes the organization of the conference which has just taken place, and the creation of information tools like databases of European and Indian cities and a website for cities to exchange information and discuss developments. The website, (www.citynetworking.net) which will be operational very soon, will initially be managed by one of Auroville's partner cities, Venice. Paris, another of our partners for the second project, is coordinating the database of European cities.


Why did you want to link Auroville to the Asia Urbs programme?


Luigi: The whole thing started for us about 6-7 years ago. During a meeting about city development, Toine suggested that we ask cities around the world for support in creating an ideal city. The idea really resonated with me, and we decided to start approaching various cities with this in mind. To our surprise, we discovered that cities understood Auroville much better than other institutions, and many responded enthusiastically to our invitation. For example, the chief town planner of Venice told us, "In our cities it is hard to change something. But you still have everything open, and that is fascinating."

Sauro: For many years we'd been frustrated because all of our fund-raising efforts with big funding agencies came to nothing - either Auroville was too small for them, or our activities didn't fall within their parameters. So when the European Commission began talking about cooperation between cities we thought this might be a better way to find partners. Originally our motivation was to secure funding for our own development, but as we networked to achieve this objective we came to the idea of networking, of facilitating partnerships, for others also. Hence this conference.

 

A number of the delegates remarked that the success or otherwise of the conference will be determined by the number of practical projects which evolve out of it. Do you already know of any such projects?


Sauro: There are already a number of different ideas. For example, Udaipur has plans to link with Venice and Bruges in a project involving water and heritage preservation. And both Chandigarh and Dehra Dun have asked Auroville to find them European partners.


In other words, Auroville is becoming a marriage agency!


Luigi: Yes, something like that. It is increasingly being recognized that Auroville is in a unique position to bridge the gap between India/South Asia and Europe, and more and more cities are approaching us to find partners for them. For example, Pondicherry wanted assistance with a heritage project, and we found partners for them in Urbino in Italy and Villeneuve-Sur-Lot in the south of France.

Two main themes for projects emerged out of the conference. One was heritage preservation and development, which is exemplified by the Pondicherry project. The other main theme was the promotion of the concept of "cities of dialogue". Historically certain cities, like Toledo in Spain, were meeting-points for some of the monotheistic religions of the world, and consequently places of tremendous cultural exchange. In the wake of September 11th there is a renewed interest in recreating such multicultural conditions in the cities which originally fostered them. So we suggested to Toledo that they explore this idea with similar cities elsewhere, and at present they are exploring partnerships with Bhubaneshwar in Orissa and an association of cities in Greece.
All of this is not only giving Auroville a much higher profile internationally. It is also demonstrating that we have the skills and capacity to take on this work, that we are concerned with more than just our own development, and that money spent in Auroville is well spent.

This sounds exciting. Yet there have been some questions raised in the community about Auroville's involvement in the Asia Urbs programme. For example, it has been suggested that Asia Urbs may used by some Aurovilians to steer the development of Auroville in a certain direction, specifically in the direction of the Galaxy model.

Luigi: Like all other cities in the project, we have to provide some indication of how we want to develop. In our case this is the Auroville Master Plan. This was recommended by the Auroville residents after a long participatory process, endorsed by the Governing Board and approved by the Ministry of Urban Development. There is no question of imposing any plan but of evolving a sustainable township within the flexible framework of the Master Plan.

Sauro: At the time of making the project application we wondered if becoming involved with a project funded by an external agency like the European Commission might fix the lines of our future development, or create some lack of flexibility in our internal process. But the first point to make is that the European Commission is not sanctioning our present Master Plan: they are merely providing the financial means for us to elaborate it in more detail so that we can make informed decisions about it. Secondly, the project we've submitted involves a long phase of community participation. The idea is that we collect data for 6-8 months (this phase is almost finished), then we elaborate a preliminary proposal, and then we dedicate 6-7 months for citizens' participation and discussion. We are already bringing together Aurovilians involved in activities like water management, energy and solid waste disposal to see how we can combine different perspectives and experience. Then, beginning August-September, we will have a series of one day workshops on town planning, transport, energy, waste disposal and water management in which we can discuss our ideas among ourselves and with visiting experts.

Luigi: Interestingly, other cities involved with Asia Urbs have told us that it has often been very influential in getting departments of their municipalities to begin working collaboratively again. In this sense, Asia Urbs is not only linking us externally with cities around the world. It is also linking us within through forcing us to transcend our differences and work more closely with each other.

 


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