Wild snowstorms paralyzed electricity infrastructure in Texas, a state in the country with the world’s largest economy.
Just imagine what climate change fueled extreme weather will do to our cities as infrastructure and ICT systems become increasingly interconnected.
Many see high-tech “smart cities” as a climate solution, but just how smart are they?
This article is a commentary and the views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Smart cities are held up as beacons of hope in meeting the climate crisis. This is because they reduce greenhouse gas emissions by paring back energy use and urban waste. But is it possible the high-tech complexity of smart cities actually leaves urban dwellers more exposed to future climate disaster? Smart cities’ dependence on the information and communications technology (ICT) systems that help generate these emission reductions may actually be opening up new climate vulnerabilities when we consider what happens if these systems fail. There is a danger that we fall into the trap of assuming that a reliance on increasingly high-tech solutions is our “get out of jail free” card for everything.
We need to think more about whether our increasing reliance on interconnected information-based technology includes adequate fails safes to protect against systematic collapse if cities are hit by outside stresses – including climate-induced shocks. A number of experts working in the field of urban climate adaptation believe this issue is not receiving adequate attention.
Considering that about 55 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities, and this figure is projected to rise to seven out of 10 people by 2050, we ignore this issue at our possible peril.
The definition of what actually makes a smart city is not clear cut. There is general agreement though that they share an ability to combine real time data and digital technology to improve people’s decisions on when to use energy and when to move around, while also contributing to more efficient long-term city planning. Sensors and people’s ubiquitous use of smartphones, for instance, encourage urban residents to use public transit during off-peak hours to avoid large crowds and to access energy and water services at different times of the day to lessen demand surges.
Smart emission reduction
Smart cities reduce carbon footprints by utilizing interconnected ICT systems to create greater efficiencies. These can come in the form of more energy efficient buildings and street lighting, better waste management, smart energy meters that allow consumers to tap cheaper off-peak power, and electrified public transport links that best conform with people flows. Largely absent from positive depictions of smart cities’ ability to reduce emissions though are considerations of how robust the ICT systems are that make them smart.
In his book published last year, “Apocalypse How”, former UK politician Oliver Letwin issues an arresting warning about whether we are adequately assessing the way our growing reliance on technological connectivity opens our societies to vulnerabilities. Letwin provides a detailed portrayal of how the physical and human infrastructure of UK society would break down quickly if there was a systematic failure of the internet and associated services, including banking and satellite-based communication and navigation. He predicts this would lead quickly to a large number of deaths (in his synopsis due to the failure of indoor heating) and, ultimately, a breakdown of law and order.
The title of Letwin’s book is a misnomer (possibly with a suggested nod by the publisher to the current popularity of dystopian literature and TV) as the ICT breakdown he posits –associated with internet-busting solar flares – is rectified in a few days. While Letwin does not address climate change, his book does provide a useful thought experiment in highlighting the way our fragile modern society is increasingly dependent on the ICT systems that connect us and our machines. Isn’t it possible that the increasingly extreme effects of climate change – such as floods, hurricanes and extended droughts – could, ironically, threaten the integrity of the smart city ICT networks designed to help mitigate global heating?
Enmeshed in the ICT era
Humanity’s increasing reliance on technology is by no means new. It began with the use of simple tools and fire, leading to gradually more sophisticated irrigation and animal husbandry. During the past few decades, the use technology has carved out a central part of our lives – accelerating rapidly with the invention of steam power (which, along with the myriad benefits of fossil fuel-powered modernity, began the current trajectory to the climate crisis we now face). The extent to which we now use technology-based communication and interconnectivity though is unprecedented. Today’s generation is deeply enmeshed in the ICT era, equally as it is within the Anthropocene era.
Richard Dawson, an urban climate expert based at the UK’s Newcastle University, warns of a “cascading failure” if single ICT components fail. Dawson says we need to upgrade our thinking about urban infrastructure connections beyond a traditional focus on electricity, road, rail and sewage systems. “The increasing reliance on data and ICT in urban planning is a double-edged sword,” he said. “It allows for incredible flexibility – to create new communication lines we don’t have to dig up a road. We could live without being able to talk across continents if telecommunications fail, but we would struggle if this breakdown led to a mass system failure.”
A loss of ICT interconnectivity has implications far beyond the failure of systems employed to create urban efficiencies and, therefore, reduce emissions. The rapid speed at which ICT systems operate could actually work against us if they fail, as the negative effects would be sharp and sudden. Dawson points out the loss of electronic banking could quickly lead to social problems. This would be particularly worrisome if this occurs as the result of a climate disaster when a ready access to personal finance is so important.
Strange conspiracy theories
The US Government found that many of the social problems following Hurricane Katrina’s destructive descent on New Orleans in 2005 arose from “information gaps”. While accounts of rioting and other lawlessness at the time were later described as exaggerated, numerous reports do indicate communication breakdowns did severely impact social cohesion. Professor Ayyoob Sharifi, from Japan’s Hiroshima University, warns the ICT systems that control smart cities are not just prone to disruption from uncontrolled disaster, but also from intentional human-created harm.
The curation of social media misinformation by individuals or organizations, including overseas governments, could overcome local officials’ attempts to prevent the outbreak of havoc when disaster strikes, said Sharifi, who studies urban climate measures. This could include the dissemination of purposefully incorrect information about where to take shelter during flooding. Purported attempts by the Russian Government to use social media to sway election results in the US and Europe shows that anonymous attempts to sway public perceptions can be effective.
The ability of strange conspiracy theories, especially if abetted by unscrupulous populist politicians such as former US President Donald Trump, to cut through the daily online traffic and garner widespread support shows that social media is not always the best medium to convey factual information. Social media, usually accessed by smart phones, is an important part of the two-way communication interface of smart cities, as it is with many forms of climate early warning systems.
How do we ensure then that the commendable work of climate proofing cities does not lead us down cul de sacs of urban planning where an overreliance on ICT connections actually increases the potential for climate disruption? One way is to take a holistic approach that incorporates different approaches to urban dynamics.
Future Earth’s Urban Knowledge-Action Network – a global group of researchers and other policy, business and civil society innovators – is striving to make cities more sustainable and equitable by highlighting the human element in democratizing data and including underrepresented voices in city planning.
Local Governments for Sustainability, known as ICLEI, is another global network – comprising local and regional governments in over 100 countries – that advocates cities that weather rapid urbanization and climate change by combining sustainable and equitable solutions.
Nazmul Huq, ICLEI’s head of resilient development, says people need to be placed at the centre of all urban management – especially in developing countries, many of which are now entering intense urbanization. Rapid interconnectivity in the new urban hot spots of growth in India, China and Nigeria is creating advantage and potential disadvantage at a rapid pace.
“The emergence of ICT, especially mobile phones, represents a revolution for poorer people in developing countries as it provides them with greater control over their lives,” Huq said. “But at the same time, an overreliance on interconnected ICT urban networks also raises the possibility of devastating systematic collapse – including through rapid climate-induced disasters such as heat waves. This could disconnect people, while knocking out internet connections and electricity generation.”
Huq said the most important factor in making cities livable – whether they are smart or not – is to include all urban citizens, including disadvantaged groups, in the decisions that shape their urban spaces. “We must ensure the voices of the poor and marginalized are heard to avoid injustice and unequal distribution of the benefits of city life,” he added.
The way megacities are emerging now in developing countries may well determine whether we are able to overcome the climate challenge – especially considering that 70 percent of greenhouse gases come from today’s cities. Under current trends, it seems likely the lives of those rich and poor will become increasingly urbanized and interconnected by smart city ICT systems.
The sheer enormity of the climate challenge means we need to consider all options, including seeking out technological solutions. We should, however, balance our desire to be smart and interconnected with urban planning that at least considers the fragility of our city systems and what happens when they don’t work. We must not allow our thirst for technology to overcome our human need to consider nature.
Banner image caption: City of London skyline by Colin via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0).
Simon Pollock is an Australian-British writer and climate change communicator based in South Korea. Before leaving the Australian Government in 2016, he was a member of the startup team that launched Al Jazeera English Television from its Asia HQ in Kuala Lumpur. Simon’s interest in development and environmental issues stemmed from observation of how the two don’t always mix during six years in Beijing as a Kyodo News reporter.
Retail real estate needs Paris-Proof decarbonisation strategy, says Buildings Performance Institute Europe as reported by property funds world. It is understandable when, with the increasing industrialisation, buildings’ energy consumption already accounts for one-third and still counting of global CO2 emissions.
Retail real estate needs Paris-Proof decarbonisation strategy, says Buildings Performance Institute Europe
24 February 2021
BPIE – Buildings Performance Institute Europe – has released a new report highlighting that despite industry efforts to decarbonise building portfolios, retail real estate asset managers and owners lack a sector-specific trajectory towards achieving climate-neutrality.
The report marks the launch of Paris-Proof Retail Real Estate, an initiative that looks to develop a vision and strategy to support the European retail real estate sector reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement.
The report highlights that the current rate of decarbonisation of retail buildings is not happening fast enough to meet climate goals. Extreme weather conditions, rapidly expanding floor area and growth in demand for energy consuming services exacerbate the issue. In 2019, the global buildings and construction sector accounted for 35 per cent of final energy use and 38 per cent of energy and process-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Delivering the vision of climate-neutrality requires thorough renovation and smart design of the whole building stock, including retail portfolios.
According to the report, existing low carbon transition and 1.5°C climate roadmaps are not yet fully adapted to the needs of the sector, and climate change issues are not yet fully integrated into mainstream asset management and investment decision-making processes, traditionally focused on the cyclical trends of property markets. Yet it is precisely at sector level where climate-related risks become more apparent. Interviews with ten retail property investment and management companies, which informed the report’s analysis, reveal that failure to put in place a decarbonisation strategy now could lead to value erosion and stranded assets in the years to come.
“In Europe, while GHG emissions targets are well defined for 2030 and 2050, these are not yet transposed into meaningful guidance for individual industry sectors,” says Zsolt Toth, Senior Project Manager at BPIE.
“If we are serious about decarbonising the full building stock by 2050, the retail real estate sector and policymakers need to have a common understanding of who needs to do what, and by when. The strategy should be measurable, sector-specific, and disaggregated from high-level political targets.”
Clemens Brenninkmeijer, Head of Sustainable Business Operations at Redevco, an urban real estate investment management company, agrees. “The need for deliberate actions and tangible results to significantly decrease emissions in the built environment is becoming more urgent for retail real estate managers every day. This report, funded through the Redevco Foundation, provides insight into where the retail real estate sector in particular stands, and what should be the next step.”
While this may seem evident, developing a forward-looking decarbonisation strategy for businesses amidst a changing policy landscape is not a simple exercise, says Joost Koomen, Secretary General of ECSP, the European Council of Shopping Places, representing retail and mixed use destinations and their communities.
“Aligning the broader long-term 2030 and 2050 goals with short to medium term investment decisions will be important, particularly in a rapidly changing industry that has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Koomen. “Market actors urgently need to understand how to plan for the longer term while also ensuring stability within the short to medium term.”
As BPIE’s analysis shows, most of the risks associated with climate change are expected to appear in the medium to long-term and thus are not captured by the relatively short-term models used in most current risk management practices. Data gaps, confusion of metrics and protocols, as well as the particular nature of carbon risks could give rise to a collective mis-assessment by real estate markets.
BPIE plans to launch a decarbonisation vision and strategy with the European retail real estate sector before the end of 2021. Owners and asset managers from the sector are welcome to participate in workshops and provide input in its development.
Smart Cities are set to gain further traction post the pandemic, with providers focusing on developing data-driven infrastructure to provide appropriate healthcare facilities and public security services. Could The first step towards the future of Smart Cities be a matter of connected buildings? BW SMART CITIES‘ Ganesh L Khanolkar explains.
Connected buildings: The first step towards the future of smart cities
Earlier this year, International Data Corporation (IDC) released a forecast predicting that the global spending on smart city initiatives will reach a staggering $124 billion, by the end of 2020. This is an increase of about 18.9% compared to the 2019 spend for the same.
This comes as no surprise considering smart cities are set to gain further traction post the pandemic, with providers focusing on developing data-driven infrastructure to provide appropriate healthcare facilities and public security services. Investments in the space too, are expected to rise significantly over the next few years.
While the smart city has definitely become a buzzword of sorts, there is very little understanding on what it takes to achieve this vision. When we think of smart cities, we immediately conjure images of Artificial intelligence (AI), driverless cars, smart street lighting, smart parking, etc. But we fail to guess the starting point of a connected society – smart buildings.
After all, buildings are the ideal starting points from which a smart city can grow. Just how a building is a functional unit of a city, smart buildings are the primary units of a smart city. Smart buildings integrate technology and the IoT to provide solutions to challenges like overspend and inefficiency in building management. Within a smart building, all the systems are connected, from managing energy, water, lighting, to delivering security and emergency services. Therefore, smart buildings empowered by the deployment of IoT and cloud technologies will be the key reason for smart cities to succeed. So what are the key factors that make a building ‘smart’? Below are some of the key features.
Energy Efficiency: Connected buildings primarily help save power and centralize control over the energy management. Such buildings unify the management of heating, cooling and lighting functions, and eliminating wastes within the building by use of advanced sensors. Smart thermostats turn the temperature down in your absence saving power to save power and also use renewable energy sources (e.g. Solar panels) thereby reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and electricity.
Predictive Maintenance: Connected building models provide constant monitoring and evaluation of embedded automation and systems. Be it anticipating asset lifecycles, or monitoring the life, repair and replacement of individual elements, predictive management help avoid shutdowns which can incur loses. Minimizing disruption in building operations reflects positively on resource and capital utilization, as well as leading to greater ROI by enhancing the market value of the property.
Enhanced Security: Smart buildings provide enhanced security on various levels. As these buildings are all connected, building managers can integrate fire, intrusion and access systems to provide inmates the highest degree of safety possible. Further, each of these critical amenities can be customized, resulting in an overall synergy, as well as a strict adherence to local or state safety compliance.
Current challenges in making old buildings smart and how technology helps
Given that half the world’s population currently lives in urban areas, this trend will put unprecedented pressure on our built environment, especially maintaining our buildings. Floor space restrictions are making our cities increasingly taller. So there is an urgent need for a reliable and efficient building services to maintain these buildings and ensure they run at optimum efficiency.
Currently what holds many buildings back from becoming smarter is their reliance the conventional paper model to manage critical systems, be it electricity, plumbing or air conditioning. Agreed that a full scale revamp of an existing building is somewhat of a costly undertaking, but technology does help make this transition easier.
Old buildings without smart sensors or fixtures can still be optimized for energy usage by deploying intelligent systems of rule-based efficiency modules. Most of these old buildings have energy meters, and further, several components of the HVAC system are energy hoggers. There is an energy meter associated with each of these. It is through these energy meters that data of energy-hogging equipment of old buildings is gathered. And by using advanced machine learning algorithms, modules can be built that can help decide how energy is being used, apart from detecting fault through identification of abnormal usage.
Such deployment of integrated IoT solutions to render old buildings advanced and smart can assure building owners and managers of a significant ROI in the long run.
How the pandemic is shifting priorities towards smart buildings
The pandemic has really forced us to rethink the way that we are currently living. While many of us have embraced technology to keep connected personally and professionally during the lockdown, very few are aware of how the concept of connected buildings (a key building block of smart cities) can be used effectively to ensure the safety of a building’s inmates and control the spread of the disease. Connected buildings are without a doubt the easiest implementation of a digital upgrade which can have a positive impact on all the fundamental elements around which our societies are organized. Therefore, it is more critical than ever for policymakers at both local, and national level to plan their connected building strategies.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors’ and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house
MENA states keen to invest in smart cities, social infra under Belt and Road Initiative related projects.
The picture above is for illustration and is of the BBC‘s.
DUBAI, Social infrastructure, logistics, as well as smart city projects are the top three most cited sectors where businesses in the Middle East and North Africa have plans to invest in Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)-related opportunities.
According to a survey commissioned by international law firm CMS, almost equal proportions of MENA respondents (44% and 41%) plan to target BRI opportunities in social infrastructure (hospitals and healthcare) and the logistics sectors, while slightly more than a third (37%) intend to invest in smart city projects. The fourth most cited sector was transportation (road) infrastructure with 35%.
There is also a rising interest in ‘greener’, more sustainable and eco-friendly sectors such as renewables and hydro. Only 11% of MENA respondents had previously been involved in clean energy projects with one-fifth (20%) in conventional power developments. These priorities have now been reversed with 24% of MENA respondents planning to target renewables projects and 17% looking at conventional power developments. Almost three-quarters (72%) of MENA respondents say it is important that BRI projects are sustainable and eco-friendly while 63% of Chinese respondents share the same view.
Smart cities – the star that shine
MENA continues to be one of the leading regions in its enthusiasm for smart cities, with 37% of MENA respondents planning to invest in the sector and a little over half (55%) listing it as one of the five sectors presenting the most BRI opportunities. This proportion was significantly higher than the findings of similar BRI surveys conducted by CMS in other regions where the average was 40%.
Karim Fawaz, CMS Corporate and Technology partner, comments: “Such enthusiasm may, in part, reflect the projects already underway in the region such as The Line which is part of Neom in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait’s Silk City which are being built from the ground up. However, we also found increasing interest in the development of existing urban areas aimed at having smart and AI-connected areas as opposed to individual endeavours. These projects focus on improving the quality of life and the collection of data to enhance security, health, entertainment and other areas. While Chinese financiers and contractors are already involved in building smart cities such as Morocco’s Mohammed VI Tangier Tech City, Chinese companies are going a step further and taking space in these smart cities to set up operations – a sign of their optimism in potential opportunities and openness to private-public-partnerships.”
Digital and Health Silk Roads
As the pandemic continues to cause disruption and a global shift towards a more virtual world, the potential benefits of improved digital infrastructure for any country are clear. However, less than a tenth (7%) of MENA respondents are considering Digital Silk Road (DSR) projects (a decrease from the 12% that had considered them in the past), and a large majority (81%) have never considered them. In contrast, over one-third (35%) of Chinese respondents are considering DSR projects.
David Moore, CMS Infrastructure and Projects partner and UAE Managing Partner, says: “Some BRI participants are keen to be involved in DSR projects but are wary of potential problems such as rapidly evolving technical standards, cybersecurity and geopolitical tensions. These issues may limit the scope of DSR in some markets. However, with so many BRI countries, including many in MENA, still in need of new tech and comms infrastructure, there will clearly still be significant opportunities for BRI participants along the DSR.”
“We expect the DSR initiative to be further bolstered by China’s new Five-Year Plan2 which is likely to have implications for the future of BRI such as more emphasis on creating markets for technology originating in China and incorporating Chinese standards. This should lead to even more of a focus on ‘smart’ infrastructure. Some foreign businesses may find access to China easier while China will seek to strengthen its supply chains, an imperative likely to be reflected in some strategic BRI infrastructure projects,” adds Moore.
In 2020, the pandemic highlighted deficiencies in the health infrastructure in many BRI countries. CMS’s survey revealed a strong consensus that the pandemic will lead to an increased emphasis on the Health Silk Road (HSR) – an overwhelming majority (94%) of MENA respondents expect this to happen. This is in line with, as noted above, the 44% of MENA respondents planning to target BRI projects involving social infrastructure such as hospitals and healthcare – a rise from 33% who have previously done so.
Mark Rocca, CMS Life Sciences and Healthcare partner in Dubai, comments: “The effectiveness of the HSR in enabling speedy transfer of medical supplies and equipment was clear to see during the pandemic. Across MENA, there is considerable scope for investment in ‘next generation’ medical infrastructure, particularly in relation to telemedicine and other digital applications. These offer potential synergies with the DSR.”
Obstacles and risks
Two-thirds (65%) of MENA respondents described national governments and political issues as one of the greatest obstacles to their BRI activity, making this the most commonly cited obstacle, closely followed by legal frameworks (61%) and operational difficulties (53%). No other problem came close to this level of concern; the next most commonly cited obstacle, language barriers and cultural issues, was mentioned by only half as many respondents (25%).
Political risk was also cited by 56% of respondents as one of the most serious risks relating to involvement in BRI projects, marginally behind legal and regulatory risk (59%).
Despite the inherent obstacles and risks, and different levels of satisfaction reported by MENA and Chinese respondents in regard to BRI project outcomes, BRI opportunities in the MENA region continue to attract interest. Nearly a third (31%) of MENA respondents and more than double that proportion (68%) of Chinese respondents expect to increase their involvement in BRI projects. Almost half (47%) of Chinese respondents also indicated that they are looking to North Africa for BRI opportunities, while 29% are looking to the Middle East.
David Moore, CMS Infrastructure and Projects partner and UAE Managing Partner, comments: “There remains ample scope for infrastructure development in MENA. According to figures from the World Bank, the region will need to spend 8.2% of GDP to meet its infrastructure goals by 2030, compared with the 3% spent annually over the previous decade. We believe that BRI projects have the potential to close some of that investment gap.”
“With a GDP growth of 2.3% in 2020, China’s economy seems to be weathering the pandemic storm better than many others. This augurs well for the future of BRI and Chinese investment in BRI nations. But, as our report shows, a greater impact may come from China’s pivot towards greener and more sustainable principles for BRI, and an increasing emphasis on the Digital and Health Silk Roads,” adds Moore.
Amir Kordvani, CMS Dubai partner and Head of the Middle East Projects practice, says: “Chinese investment is growing rapidly in the renewable energy sector in the Middle East. Chinese firms have been able to leverage their expertise as well as state-backed financing (particularly through state-owned enterprises) to materialise targeted and strategic investment in renewable energy programmes in the region and notably in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt, and Jordan.”
About the survey
In the first half of 2020, CMS and global research firm Acuris surveyed 500 senior executives to gauge their views on various aspects of the Belt and Road Initiative. Of the 500 respondents, 75 were either based in Middle East and North Africa or predominantly working on BRI projects in the region and another 100 respondents were from Chinese entities. All respondents were either currently active or planning to participate in BRI projects. Their views were sought on a range of issues around BRI, including likely future involvement and obstacles they have encountered to date.
Observation of the physical form of Indian cities is the tool employed by Mehrotra to exemplify the clash between two opposing political rhetorics: constructing a global city or one that is equitable and sustainable.
Urban India: negotiating the impatience of global capital
The contemporary urban condition in India symbolises the two simultaneous transitions at play on the political landscape – moving out of socialism and into capitalism, or from state-controlled imaginations of the city to a free-market production of the built environment. In the occurrence of transitions, which are often at play for decades in India, the built environment is naturally a muddle and the fallout from each condition finds expression in the physical form of the Indian city. Ruptures in the fabric and startlingly bizarre adjacencies characterise the city which evolves with these narratives colliding in urban space. The two narratives, or the political rhetoric, then counterposed against each other are of “building a global city”(in other words, pandering to the impatience of global capital) and developing a city premised on nurturing a civil society that is equitable in terms of access to amenities. Clearly, the former is propelled by impatient capital and articulated as an aspiration by private interests, such as multinational corporations, developers and increasingly the Indian State itself! The latter voice emanates from civil society – the academy, the non-government sector, foundations, institutions, labour unions and all other formations where “capital” acquires patience so as to reside and grow in more inclusive ways. ADVERTISING
The physical paraphernalia of these opposing city aspirations is also dramatically different. In the former case, the ground has to be prepared to allow capital to land softly and securely. This results in the deployment of a standard tool kit: airports, freeways, five-star hotels, convention centres and subway or elevated rail systems followed by the preservation of historic buildings (to assert a local identity) and a general clean-up of the streetscape. In this configuration the rich retreat into gated communities both in the form of vertical inner-city towers and sprawling suburban compounds on the peripheries. In reality, in both cases they withdraw from the city and the nitty gritty of its everyday life. The architecture that results from this attitude often displays a complete detachment from its surrounding environment as well as from the place and community in which it sits.
Furthermore, its tectonic quality and materiality is most often unmindful of local resources and building traditions. Such architectural production is usually a quick response to the demand for the large-scale infrastructure projects (e.g. upper-income housing, hospitals, schools, colleges and commercial development) that allow private participation in otherwise largely government-controlled sectors. Most importantly, this form of global architecture thrives on its perceived ability to provide predictable and stable services for impatient capital, searching for a host terrain in which to invest and quickly realise its value. At the same time, the other emerging landscape in India is one that is evolving naturally in a vacuum, the result of a retreating state.
This is a city that has ensued from the state relinquishing the responsibility for projecting an “idea of India” through the built or physical environment. Today, the major state-directed projects are highways, flyovers, airports, telecommunications networks and electricity grids that connect urban territories but they do not help determine or guide their physical structure as masterplans did in the state-directed (Socialist) economy. At the very least, the masterplans sought to create entitlement to housing and proximity to employment. Instead, the “everyday” space has become the place where the economic and cultural struggles of the majority are manifested and the physical shape it adopts is that of a bazaar or informal city! These are the landscapes of the self-help settlements – often referred to as slums – or the peripheries of cities that grow outside the formal state-controlled urban limit. Similarly, the 400-plus small towns in India expected to become cities of close to one million people (and maybe more) in the next two or three decades are actively producing forms of urbanism outside the mainstream discussion on architecture or urban planning.
This emerging landscape is the image of the Indian urban condition. The processions, weddings, festivals, hawkers, street vendors and slum dwellers all create an ever-transforming streetscape – a city in constant motion where its very physical fabric is characterised by the kinetic elements. This city is not dependent on architecture for its representation. In this “kinetic urbanism”, architecture is not the only “spectacle” upon which society relies to express its aspirations nor does it even comprise the single dominant image of most Indian cities. Quite the opposite, with festivals such as Diwali, Dussehra, Navratri, Muharram, Durga Puja, Ganesh Chaturthi and many more having emerged as the visual and representational spectacles of contemporary India. Their presence on the everyday landscape pervades and dominates the popular visual culture of India’s cities and towns.
Set against this imagination is a new landscape of global derivatives or the images of globalisation. It is an irony – that of the collusion of consciously dysfunctional land markets and exclusionary design and planning at multiple scales that has created this strongly contested fabric of contemporary urban India. Interestingly, in this condition both the rich and poor communities have managed not just to survive but to thrive! However, this reality is constantly challenged by the world-class city idea and slum-free city imagination. The government and financial institutions often drive this via a poorly informed appreciation of Singapore, Dubai and Shanghai – the havens of impatient capital set on autocratic political landscapes: cities where “humans” and especially the poor are not even considered in the imagination of the physical setup they will inhabit. In a democracy, citizens must be placed at the centre of any imagination of the city.
A humane and sustainable city must necessarily be premised on access to a basic infrastructure and patterns of mobility that will determine how the city grows and how people have equitable access to these amenities. In democracies, cities must be judged by how they treat their poor. It is really the choice between these two directions – or attitudes to city building – that will be central to the discussion on the future of urban India: a choice between constructing equitable cities or being bullied by impatient capital.Read also: Cities, increasingly global in the future, are the solution to the pandemic
Rahul Mehrotra (New Delhi, 1959) is the founder/ principal of RMA Architects. He divides his time between working in Mumbai and Boston and teaching at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University where he is the Chair of the Urban Planning and Design Department and the John T. Dunlop Professor in Housing and Urbanization. His most recent book is Working in Mumbai (2020), a reflection on his practice as an architect and urbanist, evolved via association with the city of Bombay/Mumbai.
Opening image: Peter Bialobrzeski, Mumbai 2017, images taken from the book No Buddha in Suburbia, Hartmann Books, 2019 .
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