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Trip to India gives planning students hands-on experience

By Meredith Dault, Senior Communications Officer

 Dr. Ajay Agarwal (second from left) and his students in Auroville, India.

As they prepared to depart on their trip to India in December, Michael Rac (MPL ’14) and his classmates felt certain they were ready. The group of eight was headed for Auroville, an intentionally planned community, as part of a course, to put into practice everything they had learned so far as part of their studies.

With support from their professor, Dr. Ajay Agarwal, they had spent months familiarizing themselves with the city and its history, local traditions, needs and current systems. The city, who had hosted another group of Queen’s planning students in 2013, had asked the students to help them develop a set of indicators to help assess their development in accordance with their master plan – specifically around sustainable development – and to guide future efforts. Their host was Lalit Bhati, from Auroville Integral Sustainability Institute.

Not long after arriving in Auroville, sleep-deprived and excited, the students presented their initial work to a panel of experts. They quickly realized they had a lot to learn.

 Students enjoy a much needed lunch break on a busy day. 

“We realized that what we had produced for them wasn’t flexible or nuanced enough to meet their needs,” recalls Mr. Rac, who served as project manager. “They wanted a system that was designed to be used by their residents, for whom sustainability is a way of life. We came out of the meeting thinking ‘oh no, what will we do!’“

They spent the next ten days conducting in-depth interviews and visiting sites in the city, returning to the city’s Charter and referring to work conducted by other scholars.

“We were like ‘tell us everything, we are sponges, we want to learn’” laughs Mr. Rac, describing work days that often lasted 12 to 14 hour days, capped off with evening entertainment, not to mention the challenges of living together in a new culture and climate.

The students presented their final project, Auroville Sustainability Indicator System, at a public presentation attended by close to 80 people, most of whom were local residents. It went overtime due to the audience’s enthusiasm for their work.

“The results were very, very good,” sayd Dr. Agarwal. “The students not only created a system, but test drove it by applying it to a particular neighbourhood within Auroville, all in 12 days.

 Michael Rac presents the final project to a group of Auroville citizens. 

Mr. Rac says he knew the group had done good work when they were approached by Auroville’s chief planner at the end of their presentation.

“She said in 40 years, she hadn’t ever really understood how sustainability could be measured,” he says, explaining that their proposed indicator system was quite holistic in that it not only included physical measures such as accessibility, but also addressed much complex concepts such as social engagement as part of their understanding of sustainability.

While Mr. Rac says the trip required both a significant time and financial commitment, it was well worth it.

“It was a fantastic experience,” he says. “It required more time and effort than some of the other project courses, but we got to work on a real project in India – we might never get to have that kind of experience again. It was hard coming back to Canada!”

Dr. Agarwal is already preparing to lead another student project in India in the Fall of 2014.

View videos created by the students while in Auroville, India.

To obtain a copy of the full project report, please contact Dr. Agarwal at agarwala@queensu.ca

The students will give a public presentation about their experiences in Auroville, India, on Thursday, January 16, 2014 from 12 – 1pm in Robert Sutherland Hall, Room 554.