Rethinking Taj Heritage Corridor: A River as Historic Connection

by Peichen Hao (MLA ’15) recipient of American Society of Landscape Architects 2015 Student Award

Located between Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, this proposal on Taj Heritage Corridor aims to reestablish the image of riverfront that was destroyed during the problematic reclamation project in 2002-2003. By creating a recreational water treatment canal along the original river bank, a landscape urban infrastructure is proposed to visually connect the city’s scattered historic riverfront monuments and create public space for both tourists and local community. With a full respect of the silently mild image on Yamuna River in Agra, the design proposed an educational space that highlights the inherent dialogue between environment and history. Through analysis in different scales with the understanding of extreme site conditions, political background, and feasibility potentials, the design demonstrates the strong capacity of landscape intervention in resolving the complex contradiction between modernity and historic environment conservation.

Taj Heritage Corridor Site, located between Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, refers to a 320,000 square meters reclamation area that was constructed during December 2002 to June 2003. The reclamation project aimed to upgrade the tourism infrastructure of Agra and propose a commercial zone including a shopping mall in the vicinity of India’s largest tourism attractions. The project was defunct due to the accused corruption of the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Mayawati Kumari, leaving behind a brutal intervention upon the visual connection between historic monuments. The site is now a piece of useless land partially piled with garbages from an influent sewage canal, further threatening the fragile hydrological environment of Yamuna River.

The current condition of Taj Heritage Corridor site adds on to the isolation of Yamuna River in the image of Agra by pushing river water further away from Agra Fort. Once as the capital city of Mughal Empire (1526-1857), Agra was founded with Yamuna River as the entrance and connection of its 45 historic gardens built along river bank. As the city gradually grew under British Empire’s colonization, most gardens were abandoned as bridges built brutally cutting the visual connection between Agra Fort and the gardens in the north. Over the years, households, factories and farmlands has transformed the river into a sewage dump site and the backyard of the city. The river gradually becomes the confluence of untreated sewage canals instead of a connection historical monuments and civic life. Currently, efforts are taken by the city to treat the polluted sewage canals through Decentralized Wastewater treatment (DEWAT) system, which aims to reduce the amount of pollutant discharged from the city.

However, the pollution of Yamuna River is not the problem of Agra by itself. The river, a connection of historic indian cultures, is managed separately in 6 segments divided by 5 major barrages. At Dakpathar Barrage where Yamuna River exists the Himalayas, 96% of water is directed into irrigation canals for agricultural use, which makes a long stretch of the river including Delhi and Agra suffers from insufficient flow in dry season. As each barrage holds up water and force downstream area to accumulate pollutant, the river now relies on monsoon water discharge by upstream barrages to dilute some pollution from July to September. The river has literally become a dead zone with no capacity of self-cleaning.

The proposal on Taj Heritage Corridor Site aims to reestablish the image of river near Agra Fort by creating a water treatment canal along the original river bank before reclamation. Through landscape intervention, an urban infrastructure is proposed to connect the monuments and create public space for both tourists and local community, with a full respect of the silently mild image on Yamuna River in Agra. The design is composed of four performative layers: hydrological system, cultivation, recreational circulation, and lookout platforms.

Hydrological System
Water from river would be treated through segments of sedimentation, aeration, and root-zone filtration, and used for irrigating proposed productive farmland. The used water would be treated again before connecting with Yamuna River. The bank on urban side would be regraded and replanted to help filter urban runoff.

A Mughal Garden scale grid that is perpendicular to the original river bank is used to manage proposed plants which are selected from planting palette currently used in protected monuments. Arbors and shrubs, including flowering trees and fruit trees near activity areas, are proposed to promote root-zone filtration for urban runoff. Visual corridors are left open towards Taj Mahal to promote the view. The garbage currently on site should be removed from river bank and be relocated in formal landfill. The polluted area must be capped and covered with phytoremediation species with a 100 meter buffer zone around it. Agricultural lands are located next to the proposed canal to produce ornamental plants that would financially support the maintenance of the project.

Recreational Circulation
A primary pedestrian path along the proposed canal connects Taj Mahal and the community area to the north of Agra Fort. Several smaller paths penetrate vegetated area to connect the new canal and the urban edge.

Lookout Platforms
The upstream community side treatment and downstream Taj side treatment segments provide opportunities to propose two major complex of lookout platforms: one for the community, and the other one primarily for tourists. These major platforms, including a seasonal dock in the center of river, celebrate the coexistence of waterfront activity, water treatment technology, and the new perspectives to appreciate Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Mehtab Bagh, and Itmad-ud-Daulah. The platforms would help reconsider the site as a visual connection of historic monuments. Smaller platforms are proposed along the primary path to highlight the shifting functions of water treatment segments. The site is expected to function as a central public space of the city that holds the locals and the tourists in the same space to encourage communication, while also serve as an educational space that highlights the inherent dialogue between environment and history.

The proposal requires the collaboration of international organizations, governmental authorities, and local community. World Monument Fund (WMF) and World Bank Group (WBG) are both currently considering intervention options for Taj Corridor Site and could become sponsors of the project collaboratively. As an important urban infrastructure development that mostly benefits community and tourists, Agra Development Authority (ADA), with the experience of collaborating with WBG, should first prepare the base layer, focusing on garbage removal and landform construction of the proposed canal. And to better preserve the visual image between Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) who is the major governmental force to protect historic monuments, now sponsored and collaborating with WMF, should lead to manage the surface layer which includes introducing water treatment infrastructure, vegetation establishment and long term management. By financially supporting maintenance of the project, local government will benefit from more tourism income from originally scattered monuments which would be better understood from the proposed visual connections. Locals especially landless farmers should be hired to participate in managing the productive farmland and the constructed landscape to support the maintenance as well.

The current effort on government-sponsored projects such as Yamuna Action Plan (YAP) could be the hope for Yamuna River to restore its capacity of self-cleaning in 20 to 50 years. The time stretch allows one or two generations of people grow up with this water treatment landscape in Agra. At that time, this proposed treatment system will not be necessary for the recreational quality of river edge. The existing erosion control walls that are now protecting the reclamation site could then be demolished. Monsoon water would be allowed to erode the reclamation land, until the landfill area is totally removed and becomes a part of Yamuna River once more.