Goa’s urban network

February 15, 2011

This introductory note on Goa has been written for graduate students of the landscape architecture program of the Royal University College of Arts in Stockholm. We are organizing a year-long programme on Goa’s urban systems with them.

The Studio aims at understanding the way habitats and settlements in Goa function, how they are organized and in what way do they resemble or differ from habitats and settlements in the rest of the country. Goa is the smallest state in  India with a distinctive history shaped by Konkan coastal experiences and Portuguese colonialism. The Konkan coast all along Maharshtra and Karnataka shows comparatively lower population levels than the hinterland of those states. The population levels of the coast are also comparable with the sparse demographics of the hilly tracts of the regions. Goa includes a coastal belt as well as hilly ghats that shape its landscape, making it a bio-diversity hotspot with  a demographic profile that is very distinctive.

Due to the long presence of Portuguese rule, four major urban settlements emerged, connected to trade, commerce and political rule. These are the port town of Vasco, the commercial center of Margao, the market city of Mapusa and the political capital of Panjim. The sea facing economies of these urban centers were also connected to the agrarian landscape of the rest of the state, which were dotted with villages and hamlets, mostly on the coastal belt. The four urban centers are intricately connected to the other settlements through economic exchanges and population movement giving the entire populated region of Goa a sense of being a connected network.

Through the landscape one sees paddy fields, private forests and water bodies that are enmeshed into the network by being constantly shaped by human presence and activity. Along the western hilly tracts the forests too are involved in an economy of use through the large mining industry and commercial exploitation of timber.

Most of the coastal belt is shaped by the tourist economy with its distinct civic infrastructure. The presence of Industrial estates – large zones of economic industrial activity – also dot its landscape making them destinations of everyday commuters.  The visual grammar of Goa gives you a sense of low population density and vacant spots, but in reality it is a highly dense, even urbanized system in which many habitats and settlements co-exist with forested and agrarian areas.

To the national imagination, the land use patterns of Goa seem difficult to understand, shaped as the hinterland is by a very different history and colonial experience, with a heavy concentration of large mega cities and extremely denuded and infrastructure deprived rural regions.  In relative comparison, many of Goa’s villages have infrastructure comparable to small Indian towns and in some coastal regions, even reproduce a condensed and highly urbanized consumer lifestyle thanks to tourism.

Goa is beset by a variety of pressures; the ongoing juggernaut of real estate development in the rest of the country looks at Goa as a prime destination for luxury and upper-middle class second homes for India’s rich, the mining lobby looks at its bio-diversity rich forests as spaces that can be exploited for more wealth, the idea that agricultural activity is no more the economy of future makes a lot of traditional land use vulnerable, and a combination of real-estate interests and tourist activities plays havoc with its coastal belt.

Along with all this, administrative policies in Goa are pressurized by the national framework, which forces categories and policies that work with larger population levels and different urban typologies. For example electoral constituencies in Goa are considered too low making for an inclusion of more territory per unit, even though these territories are internally very distinct. The idea that a network of villages and towns can potentially work as a system is totally disregarded and a larger urban discourse prefers looking at Goa as a city-state or a big urban center with a potential of becoming a bigger city.

All these factors play havoc with everyday life in Goa, which is consequently becoming a hotspot of restlessness and frustration to Goans of all kinds. Activism in Goa and its political consciousness is on high alert but intensely pressured by forces beyond their control. The rhetoric  of urban real estate, planning and urban design discourses typically undermine Goa’s unique urban trajectory and organization.

We aim to understand Goa’s spatial and historical configuration through the idea of the network of its towns and villages and help translate its distinction (or similarities) to policy makers, so that its future is more in control by the people who reside in it, by people who are part of its history.

It is also a strong contention that Goa’s spatial configuration can act as a reference point for several of India’s thousands of districts that are presently being denuded by the idea that dominant big-city centric urbanization of today is the only kind for everyone and all regions.  In this day and age when environmental concerns are becoming more and more real, when the practices of the construction industry attached to hyper-urbanization is being understood as being ecologically, socially and economically problematic, the story of Goa can contribute hugely as a counter-point.

The fact that there are different ways of being urbane, that are not necessarily connected to building construction and certain types of industrial development, which allow for the co-existence of natural density and social demographic density and where villages and towns, forests and fields can be accepted as functioning networks can open the way for a better policy that looks after the interests of most of India today.