Varanasi | A Planning Exercise

Varanasi is a mesmerizing mix of culture and heritage, coupled with the basic issues that plague every medium-sized city in India. Throughout its history and growth period, Varanasi has a subtle yet strong undertone of rich heritage that has grown to define it today.

The city is a planner’s paradise and a planner’s worst nightmare. It is so different that it does not accept traditional planning solutions that have worked well for other similarly-sized cities. In fact, it has a host of distinctive problems. These problems stimulate the creative side of planners – the birth of innovative ideas that can only be digested by Varanasi. On the other hand, the prosaic challenges that the city faces require the most fundamental building blocks that make up a city. As the city is bursting at its seams trying to accommodate a rapidly growing local population – it is a nodal center for commercial activity, healthcare facilities, and education opportunities in the Puruvanchal district – and a steadily increasing domestic and international tourist influx, it begs the need for a comprehensive city development plan.

The crippling infrastructure woes are not entirely a product of asset mismanagement and poor planning. Every project or proposal seems to compete with the protected status awarded to the many historic monuments, sites, and districts. Planners face many limitations and challenges by having to compete with archaeologically, culturally, and religiously significant structures. Plans to incorporate more regions under the historic preservation program have blossomed – and rightly so! That is what makes the city unique; that is what gives it a personality. Varanasi is a heritage city, as designated by HRIDAY, and it requires unorthodox planning solutions that find the optimal balance between development and conservation.

Combined Methodology

The overarching objective of the studio is to synthesize ecological solutions and the promotion of tourist activities through potential transportation improvements. The studio’s goal sits at the intersection of the three focus areas and even though the research methods and analysis for each may be different, the solutions proposed are aligned towards the broader vision of sustainable city growth.

The Planning Process

Choosing the Three Focus Areas

Prime Minister Modi announced in the government’s large urban planning vision that Varanasi will be one of the 100 smart cities under the Smart Cities Mission. To transform it from the city of the past to the city of the future, it needs to become a city of the present. Varanasi is the spiritual capital of India, the seat of Buddhism and Hinduism. Its importance as a religious center attracts tourists from all over the world, thereby requiring an easily understandable information framework which can guide them to their desired point of interest. The water pollution occurring in the Ganga over the decades has been a talking point for environmental activists; the sub-standard air quality levels and inefficient waste management warrant the implementation of an eco-friendly strategy. The exponential growth in vehicular ownership and the rise in small-scale mobility services without a corresponding increase in transportation infrastructure has left the existing road network incapacitated. Staying within the nuances of the planning profession and keeping in mind the skill set of our team, the scope of this studio has been narrowed down to three focus areas – the environment, transportation and tourism.


The Environment Team was formed after the studio analyzed the growing heat, pollution, and drainage concerns in Varanasi. By assessing the rising uses of motorized vehicles in concentrated areas around the city, the glaring consequence – an urban heat island – was quickly realized. Through heat and congestion mapping, it became clear that motorized vehicles and dense urban centers were causing unhealthy hot spots arounds the city. This emission of waste heat and particulate matter from vehicles and other sources were identified as impacts that needed to be addressed. Further, a lack of trees and small-scale vegetation in many heavily utilized corridors were illustrated in the land-use maps created using Landsat data. The maps showed that as the Varanasi city boundaries expanded, vegetation was lost. The loss in vegetation further contributes to issues of urban heat and pollution. For these reasons, the studio chose to focus on heat and pollution mitigation strategies across the three zones to address these issues.

Alongside air pollution and growing heat concerns, water pollution and drainage issues are another set of environmental problems that the studio deemed crucial to tackle. An assessment of the outdated drainage system revealed that solid waste and discharge continues to flow into the Assi Nala and the Ganges River. The lack of municipal maintenance of the drainage and waste management systems causes build-up of garbage and hazardous waste in the water. As residents and livestock rely on these water sources, it was evident that a solution had to be drafted to address water pollution.


The Transportation Team was formed due to the studio’s analysis of traffic patterns and travel modes in Varanasi. Upon initial analysis of the three zones, studio members realized that each zone had different congestion levels, thus resulting in varying measures of air pollution levels. In response, the studio formed a Transportation Team to assess how streets can be modified in the different zones to accommodate the various forms of travel modes and improve air quality. The Railway Station zone, one of the hottest and most congested areas in Varanasi, offered high potential for transportation improvements. The lack of organized parking and the chaos at the entry and exit points of the railway station provide opportunities for innovative mobility solutions. Additionally, the unorganized city street grid that accommodates rickshaws, bicycles, motor-bikes, cars, public buses, and pedestrians make it crucial for the studio to draft solutions to ease the congestion.

As the studio assessed traffic patterns from R coding and Bing maps, it became clear that congestion and the lack of road connectivity were causing difficulty for residents to traverse the city. Scarcity of sidewalks and the complete absence of designated bicycle lanes worsen the issue. The Transportation Team was formed to develop mobility solutions and organized travel patterns to improve public health in Varanasi.


The historic and spiritual importance of Varanasi and nearby Sarnath inspired studio members to address ways to improve the touristic value of deeply-rooted local industries and heritage sites. Upon understanding that economic development and tourism should go hand-in-hand, the Tourism Team was formed to strategize ways Varanasi can better include local craftsmen and slum dwellers into the region’s robust tourism industry. The team created maps that highlighted industry clusters and their proximity to slums in hopes of highlighting alternative tourist destinations that allow visitors to experience more of the local culture. Further, by combining industry clusters with slums, tourists are able to visit more of the city and thus boost economic opportunities for the residents. This concept of encouraging tourist to visit non-tourist designated sites, called the Anti-Tour, was embedded within the Tourism Team’s goals for Varanasi.

Alongside boosting tourism through the expansion of must-see destinations around Varanasi, the Tourism Team identified a lack of signage and guiding literature in tje designated zones. Sarnath, Assi Ghat, and the Railway Station all experience a high volume of tourists who vary in language, age, and physical ability. Therefore, wayfinding and information booths at targeted locations became a primary goal for the studio. For Varanasi to develop into a Smart City, the tourism industry must be modernized in order to enhance the experience of visitors.

The Three Zones

The objective of the studio is to create a comprehensive city development plan for Varanasi. It is ambitious, however, to attempt to observe and provide recommendations for the entire city. More importantly, a single solution spanning the geographic diversity that is Varanasi is impossible. Looking at the city through a microscopic lens, we have identified three sub-regions, i.e., zones, into which our analysis and proposals have been concentrated.

The Assi Ghat Zone is a recently renovated tourist attraction receiving an increasing footfall of local visitors and international travelers alike. The mouth of the river Assi meets the Ganga here, creating avenues for pollution and solid waste collection.

The Transit Hub zone is the region composed of the Varanasi Cantonment Railway station and the Varanasi bus stand. It is an entrance into the city for many, and the sheer volume of passengers the zone handles exceeds its ageing infrastructural capacity.

The Sarnath zone is a peaceful, secluded paradise that sits north of the mayhem in Varanasi. Home to one of the holiest sites for Buddhism, Sarnath is an archaeologically protected area with limited non-vehicular connectivity to its sister city, Varanasi.

The three zones are each distinct in their own characteristics, warranting context-specific solutions. Zooming out to view the larger picture however, the three zones are adequately representative of Varanasi’s overall personality.

Map of the Three Study Zones