Department of History

Digital urbanism and diasporas: walking the cultural heritage of Calcutta's riverfront

Project summary

This project is a partnership between University of Nottingham (UoN), the University of Calcutta, Heritage Walk Calcutta, and Chitpur Craft Collective. UoN's School of Geography is collaborating with the School of Humanities. The project lead is Michèle Clarke, Professor of Environmental Change, Faculty of Social Sciences, with support from Maiken Umbach, Professor of Modern History, Faculty of Arts.

Local people interacting with the riverfront in Kolkata


Indian cities suffer rapid urbanisation increasing demand for housing, infrastructure and services, causing densification, an increase in lower income households and informal populations in slums and squatter settlements, and urban sprawl. At the same time, rapid transformations in the digital technologies offer new opportunities to city decision-makers in adopting smart solutions to urban challenges and 'smart' city plans offer a digital vision in which all citizens have equal access to and participation in a city life which is safe, secure, inclusive, healthy and desirable.

However it remains unclear whether 'smart' urbanism is equally inclusive of migrants and diaspora communities, challenging notions of equality and social justice. Here we focus on the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of migrant communities living in one of India's largest cities - Kolkata. Historically known as Calcutta it has a long and rich tradition of trade, commerce and migration, which has left a lasting legacy in both contemporary society, its traditions, cultures and practices and also in the built environment. Working with local diaspora communities and social enterprises this project will focus on the Hooghly riverfront to engage with, document and co-curate Heritage Walks which narrate the stories of under-represented diaspora heritage in all of its forms. Through the use of social media and digital technologies, as well as public walks and an exhibition, the diversity and traditions of different urban groups will be shared, building increased awareness and understanding, a renewed sense of place and fostering social cohesion. By engaging with municipal authorities, institutions and policymakers this project aims to change the way diaspora heritage is viewed and valued and to inform regional and national heritage conservation policies.

Aims and objectives

This project focuses on the often conflicted relationships between cultural heritage and urban development agendas in India and aims to contribute to improved social cohesion and inclusive city planning which values and conserves the heritage assets of migrant communities.

We focus on under-represented diaspora communities whose cultural heritage is threatened by the multi-layered challenges of rapid urbanisation. Documenting the narratives of different migrant communities living on the east bank of the Hooghly River, we will establish whether on-going 'smart city' initiatives offer a voice to these communities or render them and their cultural heritage 'unseen'.

Given the land pressures in Indian cities, the destruction of heritage seen as 'other' has serious social cohesion implications and can lead to conflict and unrest. Specifically, this project aims to address the intangible and tangible nature of diaspora heritage, with the long term aim of ensuring all citizens (including the poor, displaced and disadvantaged) have equal access to and participation in a city life which is safe, secure, inclusive, healthy and desirable.

Working with diaspora groups and locally-based community enterprises we will curate co-developed heritage walks to encourage the public to engage in walking and talking the diaspora city, learning about its people, history and traditions and these walks will be shared through social media to engage a wide audience of new, concerned and interested citizens. An exhibition of supporting objects, artefacts, visual and documentary materials will highlight the broad contextual nature of diaspora communities, leading directly to improved understanding and potentially economic and welfare benefits for individuals and households, decreasing conflict, reconnecting citizens with their shared past.

Through better understanding of the wider benefits of heritage conservation (including increased tourism), this work will ultimately promote economic and social development and enable a roadmap and long-term vision for heritage planning to foster the development of equitable, inclusive, environmentally and socially beneficial cities in India.

Who's involved

Maiken Umbach

Project schedule

January 2020 - October 2020 

Project partners

University of Calcutta

Heritage Walk Calcutta

Chitpur Craft Collective


Arts and Humanities Reseach Council

Indian Council of Historical Research

Newton Fund

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Department of History

University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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