High Ground+Low Ground

Students: Yanmin Bao, Yuqi Cui, Caroline Jeon, Yeonkyu Park

What if a strategy of sculpting the landscape into High Ground and Low Ground became a model for future Ganga floodplain urbanism?

Floodplain Urbanism in Varanasi

Existing Elements | Mohalla

Existing Elements | Watercatchment

Existing Elements | Bund

High-Ground + Low Ground: Ganga Floodplain Urbanism proposes an innovative strategy to improve the livability as well as the economic and social conditions of residents in the heavily populated floodplain along the Ganges River. Instead of annual inundation and hardship in low lying areas inhabited by poor and migrant populations, a strategy of sculpting a low-ground + high-ground landscape allows people to live safely on high ground while the low-ground is used for seasonal agriculture and the easy drainage of high waters. In this way the low-ground sites in and around Varanasi can be safely inhabited.

Incremental Floodplain Development

In the floodplain site between the Ganges River, the Ring Road, and Banaras Hindu University, we propose a settlement strategy of ‘fingers of high ground’ by using a combination of soil from cut and fill operations and dredged river silt to build the fingers. This will be followed by an incremental building strategy on top of the fingers based on the mohalla, a prevalent neighborhood typology in Varanasi. The low-ground areas between the fingers will become capable of draining water to the river during monsoons while serving as ground for urban agriculture during the rest of the year. Infrastructure and transportation is also proposed along the spine of the fingers, which will enable people formerly living on the low-grounds to have better connections with the city and its infrastructure, and live with resilience, harmony and improved economic opportunity

Floodplain Development Proposal

What is Floodplain Urbanism? Meander is a winding curve or bend in a river that results from both erosional and depositional processes. It creates low-lying areas on either side of a river i.e., a floodplain. Currently, the floodplains along the Ganges River are unsuitable for development due to their geographical condition.

Even the Varanasi Master Plan of 2031, which proposes to expand urbanization, does not deal with the low areas which flood each monsoon. The disregarded floodplain causes hardship to the poor and marginalized people who settle in the informal settlements in the floodplains due to lack of choice.

Floodplain along Ganges River

Varanasi 2031 Master Plan

What is the existing condition of the site? Across the Ganges River from the site a major project is underway: the development of a multi-modal terminal on National Waterway 1 that is expected to serve cities from Allahabad to Haldia. Along the stretch of this 1620 km project, Varanasi is one of the major cities. The key benefits from this terminal is the sand and silt that will be dredged annually for the cargo ships to traverse the river. With the large amount of river silt, we propose to build fingers of high-ground to improve living conditions in the floodplain of the Ganges River. 1

Our site is the low-grounds between the Ganges River, Ring Road highway, and Banaras Hindu University. Each one of these have different development characteristics of low and high grounds.

Define HIgh Ground & Low Ground

“Thousands of citizens have been stranded and are suffering due to heavy rains and water logging in Varanasi..” – Piyush Surana

Development with Existing Urban Fabric The Ganges River, Ring Road highway, and Banaras Hindu University is the geographical high-ground infrastructure adjacent to the low-ground. Distinguishing High-Ground and Low-Ground defines the incremental operation strategy that could be applied to the low-ground.

*Three High-Ground + Low-Ground *

  1. The Ganges River deals with levee [high-ground] built from sand dredge, that deposits and drains the Ganga [low-ground]

  2. The Ring Road highway bund [high-ground] helps to connect and expand through agriculture [low-ground] and its market.

  3. The Banaras Hindu University is surrounded by mohalla [high-ground] settlement, a typical community formation that involves religion, occupation, and social class in Varanasi, that structures itself around an infrastructure such as, water catchment [low-ground].

“How can we design to live with Ganga River in harmony?”

Resilient + Incremental Design Strategy As the current low-ground sits below the monsoon flood level, the communities living there have to relocate themselves annually. To make a resilient living space in the low-ground area, this project proposes an operational strategy of three high-ground and low-grounds.

High-Ground + Low-Ground Operation

“How can we incrementally develop the low ground area to become resilient?”

Once the three operations – levee + Ganga; bund + agriculture; and mohalla + water catchment – are applied, the low-ground area can be improved incrementally by building high-ground for habitation from dredged sand and using mid+low-ground for seasonal agriculture to enhance the economy and ecology of the area.

The project proposes to begin with a finger of high ground across from the port development, then expanding both ways from there with a high-ground mohalla typology and low-ground agriculture. During the monsoon, the low lying area will drain out the flood water while leaving high-ground mohallas dry and resilient.

Incremental Development

How does a ‘finger of high-ground’ work? With high-ground formation made up of dredged sand and silt, the new urban fabric will regenerate incrementally using a mohalla typology around water catchment structures. The mid-ground will support terraced agriculture. And the Low-ground will drain out monsoon water during the wet season and support seasonal urban agriculture during the rest of the year. It will create a new source of income that will turn informal communities into “communities in formation”.

High-Ground Finger Formation

Who are the stakeholders? Planning in Varanasi is done by the Varanasi Development Authority. This project strategy will give them a way to develop the floodplain. Once the high-ground is built, the demand for real-estate will rise. This will justify building high-ground with the large amount of annually dredged silt from National Waterway 1 development. However, it is important that they ensure that the poor are not pushed out of this area by real estate pressures.


The proposed ‘fingers of high-ground’ on the low-ground in Varanasi can become a prototype for the floodplain all along the Ganges River. This model of development provides an opportunity for the vulnerable areas to house marginalized populations. The High-Ground + Low-Ground approach to urbanism can improve economic opportunity as well as bring resilience to settlement in the Gangetic Plain.

Resilient Floodplain Through the Development of High Ground Fingers

The annual rise of the Ganga cannot be avoided; we can live in harmony with it.



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