The other side of getting urbanised

Updated: Jun 2 2008, 00:51am hrs
Ashok B Lall, Architect

Large geographic regions in emerging economies will undergo a rapid shift toward further urbanisation in the coming decade. There is both euphoria and trepidation concerning the implications of accelerated urban development. The euphoria results from an enhanced knowledge base as well as an increased productivity spawned by the integration of institutional infrastructure with global markets. The trepidation is voiced by those who view the present severe disparities of wealth and opportunity being further exacerbated by the developmental process which is centred largely on those already privileged rather than on the needs of the majority of citizens, compounded further by the pressure of environmental degradation.

In emerging economies, the overarching force that drives the current process of urban development is globalisation. This spawns new habits and expectations associated with the highly visible MNC lifestyle promoted as the symbol of progress and success. This precipitates a growing preference for construction materials with high embodied energy i.e., steel, glass and aluminium. Such preference of lifestyle and the way of building also increases per capita demand for artificial lighting and air conditioning in malls, offices and multiplexes. When this building culture of images is compounded with an unregulated use of energy, a carte blanche is given for both, an explosion today and, subsequently, a bush fire of energy consumption. The explosion is an immediate result of excessive use of high-embodied energy materials, compressed into one decade of a building boom. The bush fire is the consequence of increasing dependence on energy for operation of buildings and urban infrastructure, which will persist for their entire lifetime. To this add a drought of water its increasing pollution and shortage of supply. Consider too the ecological pressure throughout the countryside due to the demands of expanding cities. These factors constitute the environmental challenge of sustainability.

Do we expect the gains of accelerated economic development centred on cities to contribute to general social and environmental well being Possibly, but only if the initiative is seized to find alternatives to the negative impacts of urbanisation. Conventional models of urban systems and capital-intensive technologies are not going to be affordable. Innovation is necessary on many fronts.

* First, a wealth of locally produced and low-embodied energy materials for example stabilised soil, processed stone, and the use of biomass can provide most of the resources required for building construction. We must call upon the creative skills and imagination of the design and engineering professionals to create a new aesthetic founded on environmental principles pertaining to the intelligent use of material resources.

* Second, if buildings are designed to moderate unfavourable climatic conditions, then this can significantly curtail the need for energy-guzzling air conditioning and heating.

* Third, to build highrise buildings is unwise. Moving goods and people against the force of gravity, while holding them secure up in the sky against wind and earthquakes is a formula for the highest possible consumption of energy in building construction and operation. Urban planning must seek a balance between horizontal distribution and density, keeping buildings close to the ground in compact formations.

* Fourth, public transportation systems of bus and train combined with pedestrian, bicycle, and small vehicle access routes must become an integral aspect of urban development to minimise dependence on the personal motor car.

* Fifth, decentralised technologies for water and waste management combined with spatial systems integrating built-up areas with natural ground can provide low-energy and low-cost solutions to environmental upkeep. If the above mentioned strategies are coordinated to meet the environmental challenges, then several benefits are foreseeable. Indigenous creativity and enterprise, evolving to a new platform of knowledge and skills, will become the leading edge in innovating environmentally responsive technologies and systems that are locally appropriate and affordable. The dispersed development of such technologies and systems will build capacities and capabilities of the human resource capital across the socio-economic spectrum. The processes of urbanisation seen from such a perspective become the engine for distribution of wealth and knowledge. This begins to meet the social challenge of sustainability.

The light that signals the hopeful potential of meeting the social and environmental challenges of rapid urbanisation emanates from the combination of two factors. First, emerging economies are youthful societies that form a storehouse of creative energy, never seen before. Second, the information and communication revolution is reaching far and wide, giving these nascent urban societies access to knowledge and the capability to choose their futures intelligently. Thus the question must be asked: might these factors lead governments and corporate powers on the path toward a vibrant society based on environmental wisdom Will the opportunity be seized

The writer is an architect