Rapid population increase, global warming, depleting resources, and migration unprecedented in human history are some critical realities that countries world over are facing today. Closer home, India’s faces the additional challenges of exponential urbanisation, an expanding middle-class, infrastructure scarcity, alarming levels of pollution, and catering to the variegated needs of a population of a billion plus. From the face of it, the odds in the Built Environment space seem to be stacked against us; there are too many variables to be controlled if we are to even begin thinking about issues such as sustainability, inclusion, a minimum basic lifestyle, ensuring well-being of each individual, and that of the environment.
But if we add to this mix some of India’s unique trump cards – GDP growth rate of 7%, a resoundingly youthful population, our rich, traditional knowledge systems, and the famous Indian proclivity for innovation – the equation begins to look a lot more evenly balanced. This should, however, not make us heave a sigh of relief just yet or be lulled into believing that it’s business-as-usual for now.
A 2010 report by McKinsey Global Institute, titled ‘India’s Urban Awakening: Building inclusive cities, sustaining economic growth’, projected that 700-900 million square meters of space, the size of the city of Chicago, needs to be built every year. In fact, they postulated that 80% of all of India’s Built Environment needs by 2030 – housing, transportation, sanitation, energy management systems – are yet to be constructed. As we consider these mind-boggling figures, it is important to pause for a moment and harken back to some of the more nuanced implications at play. What kind of cities and infrastructure should we aim to develop? Should these hundreds of new ‘Chicagos’ all resemble one another or, for that matter, Chicago? What kind of implication should they have on the environment, on ecology? Can our Built Habitats be designed to be inclusive, resource-efficient, safer, more representative of ‘Indian-ness’? Can they facilitate social cohesion and a healthier lifestyle? Can the development of these be crowd-sourced, open-sourced, so that not only are they built faster but also naturally incorporate the needs and inputs of those who will ultimately use them?
These are not just ideal, intellectual pursuits. They are both a necessary consideration and a future we are moving towards. Without our even knowing, our Built Environment exerts a considerable impact on us – on access, efficiency, productivity, well-being, on our moods and our social structures. In short, they exert an influence on (as well as are influenced by) the individual, the cultural, the social, as well as on economic aspects. Recognising this, city agencies in New York got together to define an Active Design Guideline, highlighting opportunities for Built Habitat to advance the dual goals of health and well-being. Turning to nature for design ideas perfected over centuries, the Coldharbour Lane project in London is conceptualized around the idea of green roofs that manage to maintain a balance between nature and human activity. The wiki-housing initiative makes open-source housing blueprints and construction technologies available to all to promote development that is human-friendly, uses local materials, is accessible and non-discriminatory, and most of all is democratic. Architects like Alejandro Aravena and the good folks at the MASS Design Group, see architecture design as a process that gives voice to the communities – healing and bonding them in the process – and ensures preservation and future sustainability by giving the power to the people.
These examples are just a miniscule subset of the larger shifts, innovations, and trends shaping and redefining the field of Built Environments. If we want to change the output, the inputs have to be reconsidered. We need to employ an entrepreneurial, interdisciplinary lens and collaborate across silos, across stakeholders groups, to come up with solutions to these challenges that affect us all. Architecture, design, planning, engineering, biomimicry, must interact with an understanding of people’s habits, behaviours, mindsets, with cultures, history, and environment. Only then can we, as a country, not just provide for our people but also ensure that all of us, individually and collectively, thrive despite the rapid changes taking place in the world around us.