Katra: the soul of a city

International experience captures the lively character of Old Delhi

Inside the walls of Old Delhi, India, centuries stand shoulder to shoulder. Mughal, Colonial, and Post-Colonial architecture line the narrow streets, which hum with the activities of modern life. 

Kanika KaushalKanika Kaushal has dedicated her Master of Architecture to studying Old Delhi’s urban makeup. Her research is driven by the fact that Old Delhi has reached a tipping point. The 17th-century city has seen intense commercial activity and migration from across the country; those pressures, combined with poor infrastructure and low quality of life, have led officials to declare the city a slum and to slate it for redevelopment.

Kaushal’s concerned about what could be lost if Old Delhi changes too quickly. She describes a sense of community unlike that of New Delhi or other contemporary cities, with families living for generations in courtyard houses connected by rooftop terraces. In these close quarters, residents form bonds that help to give Old Delhi its lively character.

Kaushal wondered how to preserve that sense of community while allowing Old Delhi to adapt to its residents’ needs. Before she could find the answer, she first had to understand how the city has changed over the centuries and how it brings people together today.

She studied Old Delhi’s architecture through books, maps, images, and even aerial views from Google Earth — but it wasn’t until she travelled back to the city that those visuals took on a third dimension.

A donor-supported international experience award helped Kaushal make the trip to Old Delhi. She toured the streets independently and on heritage walks, documenting all that she saw.

“Walking through the city provided me with a very clear picture of its fabric and the problems it was facing,” she says. “I also got the opportunity to meet a few residents and shop owners. Their stories provided helpful narratives about the city’s growth and transformation.

“I realized that these same people are the real stakeholders of architecture. Their insight is crucial and must be made a part of Old Delhi’s redevelopment.”

Kaushal discovered that many of the city’s residents live in katra, dense urban neighbourhoods with courtyard buildings that house as many as 80 families. Residents share a common outdoor space for socializing, storage, and everyday chores, like hanging laundry.

“The neighbourhoods were repeated all over the city, so understanding their development became key to my research,” says Kaushal.

When she returned to Waterloo, she used the information from her trip to compile a database of Old Delhi’s buildings and neighbourhoods. After analyzing the katra and other types of architecture, she created a step-by-step urban development process with guidelines at three scales: city, neighbourhood, and building. All three work together to generate the city’s vibrant energy.

Kaushal defended her thesis this year, and is now preparing to expand on her work with a PhD in urban planning. She’s also been inspired to take up teaching after leading an undergraduate design studio as part of her degree.

With plans for the future still underway, she says of the two goals, “I’m looking forward to whatever comes first!”

Each year, the University of Waterloo distributes close to 250 awards to help students pursue experiential learning opportunities around the world. Many of these awards are made possible through the generosity of donors, while others are supported by the University of Waterloo.

“Studying and doing research abroad may be one of the most enriching experiences for a student. When students travel as part of their education, they gain invaluable experience, acquire cross-cultural skills and specialized training, expand their professional networks, and make new friends around the world. Their international experience enables them to generate innovative ideas that will improve our global community and enhance Waterloo’s profile abroad.”

Madalina Mirea, Manager, international research and partnerships, Waterloo International/Office of Research

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