Why do canals need love from the city?

Shortlisted & Exhibited

July-August 2018
In 2018, we responded to the open call for ideas to rejuvenate one of Chennai ́s most important water body — the Buckingham canal. Built in the British Raj primarily to transport goods from Vijayawada to Madras, the canal today is faced with encroachment and severe pollution woes with untreated sewage and solid waste finding their way in.

The project explored the correlation of preservation of the canal to the health and welfare of urban dwellers —questioning the invisibility of urban infrastructure systems and advocating the need for awareness of resource use.

‘Eyes on the Canal’ is part of the project “Cities fit for Climate Change”, implemented by GIZ. Some text and imagery is sourced from the competition brief package.


The Buckingham Canal is a manmade saltwater navigation canal that runs parallel to the Coromandel Coast (Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu) in the north-south direction. The canal forms a part of the National Waterway 4 (NW4) and cuts across the three rivers in Chennai — Kosasthalaiyar, Cooum, and Adyar.

The rejuvenation of the Buckingham canal has been an on-and-off agenda for the Inland Waterways Authority of India. The recent focus is motivated by realisation that the canal has potential in mitigating floodwaters — a frequent occurence in the city.


Chennai bears on the most severe climate change impacts in India. Recent years have oscillated between periods of floods and droughts — as the city’s stormwater absorption capacities decline owing to extensive construction and development.

Monsoon patterns vary drastically for the city. The reservoirs that overflowed during the 2015-16 floods, dried out in 2019. 60% of the households depend on private wells for meeting water demands. As a result of extensive extraction, the city expected groundwater to run out in 2020. Additional desalination plants are being planned to aid the crisis.

Unregulated urban sprawl
Modern day Chennai’s growth indicates a clear disregard for natural ecosystems — as formal and informal developments encroach lakes and river beds. The elevated mass-rapid transit system (MRTS) line is built along the bank of Buckingham canal, restricting its flow and compromising width to under 6 metres at several locations.

Inadequate infrastructure
The three rivers and the Buckingham canal forms sites for solid waste disposal in the city. The water channels encounter 400-700 sewage outfalls from informal settlements within the city.

Sums up our reaction to the degraded state of the Canal and the many causes
The canal is victim to abundance of problems including solid waste and untreated sewage disposal,  encroachments causing an obstructed flow, but most importantly — a severe neglect from the city and its people.

Where to even start?

It took us a while to realise that mere widening, extension and cleaning efforts won't sustain a long-term revival of the Buckingham canal, if not for recognition from the city and its people.

While the conventional approach would be to clean up the canal to invite activity and revive the canal front, we decided to flip it. Bring people to the canal banks to raise awareness and demand for change and as a result, a longer sustained effort.

Proposed Intervention

The project follows a people-centred approach - encouraging them to reform their lifestyle while providing opportunities for engagement to participate in the canal's revival.

The proposal focuses on the buffer space between the canal and the city as the area of intervention —aimsing to formalize the canal bank and define its relationship with the city.
︎ Public Engagement
︎ Aquatic Ecosystems
︎ Economic Sustainability
︎ City Greens

Juxtaposition of service infrastructure and public spaces

City-wide extents of the bank are imagined as a green trail integrating an ecological infrastructure system with aspects of community engagement, waste management and aquatic ecosystems.

Back-of-house infrastructural systems are rather combined with public spaces like parks, demonstration grounds and cultural spaces to inherently promote cognisance of resource usage and responsible waste disposal.

Creating engagement opportunities

The design forms opportunities for volunteer-led groups to engage with local social organizations like Nizhal, SankalpTaru and Chennai Green Commune in plantation drives, urban farming and community composting.

A Modular grid system accommodates diverse activities and allows flexibility of ownership and funding
Key sections

A parent foundation is envisioned to bring together representatives from the city, government authorities and environmental organisations to coordinate action on the canal banks.

︎ from the city is critical to reverse perception of the ︎ as a liability to an active, thriving resource.

Whether we like it or not, we are collectively responsible for climate change because each of us, in various proportions, have been causing it.

While Chennai struggles to cope with frequent floods and growing demands of the city, it is critical that city dwellers understand the resources and infrastructure they depend upon - how their waste is treated, where their water is sourced from.

Chennai's successful rainwater harvesting drive from 2003 serves as an important case of study demonstrating the power of coordinated action and grassroots level awareness.

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