Curated by Tikender Singh Panwar

Is Sustainability Sustainable? The Approach To Urban Development

City Speaks: Curated by Tikender Singh Panwar

Is Sustainability Sustainable The Approach To Urban Development

  Picture Courtesy: Biofriendly Planet Magazine

Dear readers,
This is our first article to a column titled “City speaks”, which will run through this website every week. We intend to get people to write to this column; people who are linked in shaping the urban futures for livability and sustainability. The writers will opine their views according to their experiences working in the urban realm.
First in the series, we present below an article written by Kanishka Prasad who is an architect by profession while pursuing his PhD from JNU.
Kanishka brings to focus the whole issue of sustainability and questions whether the concept of sustainability is sustainable in itself; going by the present set of city development trajectories. He re-imagines viable alternative strategies to ensure that the ecosystem remains sustainable. Giving an example from the regional South, he writes: “This sensibility necessarily demanded inventiveness, i.e., an ability to create a solution with regionally available resources and techniques without relying only on a manufactured solution. This approach of frugality must be made central for the human race to sustain.”

In the last 150 years massive increases in industrial activity and to site it large scale urban development, reliant on extensive mining of natural resources have precipitated a disastrous environmental scenario due in large part to an almost 30% increase in the level of CO2 concentration in the Earth’s atmosphere. This concentration has not been as high in the last 650,000 years as it has been the last 5 decades. This increased carbon dioxide, which derives significantly from manufacturing and a consumption led lifestyle, has meant an increase in the average global temperature nearing 0.85°C over the last hundred years with half this rise having occurred in the last three decades.

At the present rate this would cause a further increase of temperature ranging between 3.5-5°C in the next hundred years. Such has been intensity of urban development globally that estimates say it would take more than 52 years of improved air conditions to repair the damage already done to the Ozone layer. It is evident from the condition of contemporary urban agglomerations when seen in the context of changing climatic systems, that the earth faces a bleak future. The only planet that has the conditions to support life is fast hurtling towards destruction in pursuit of a singular aspiration of prosperity predicated on consumption and the resultant generation of waste.

It is estimated that of a global population of 7.5 billion as many as 3.11 billion are classified as consumers generating 1.96 billion tons of waste each year. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations has documented that 420 million hectares (more than 10%) of the planet’s forest cover has been lost since 1990. According to the countrywide data of the report, Brazil has a total forested area of 497 million hectares (12.2%) primarily in the Amazon. This rainforest presently confronts increased use of forest fires to clear land to promote agriculture and settlement. Encouraged by the present Bolsonaro administration hoping to appear pro-development, these actions have resulted in a loss of 9.76 million hectares (1.96% of its total forest cover) in just the period between August 2018 and July 2019.

In spite of the severity of the crisis that has implications for all much like the present Covid-19 pandemic, the comity of nations choose to debate the efficacy of annual weather data that makes evident climatic changes fast underway. The Paris Climate Change summit in 2016 witnessed the leaders of 190 plus nations, blinded by the glamour of an urban lifestyle, struggle to commit carbon dioxide emission reductions over the next 20 years that might restrict a global temperature rise to 2.7-3.0°C this century. This is still significantly higher than what scientists consider as a threshold limit of 2°C. The limited accord agreed at the summit amid much fanfare, has little legal or punitive aspects. With the limited allocation of funds for clean technologies but with no intellectual rights mechanism enabling actual technology transfer seems unlikely. In their work on the Ethics and Integrity of a climate change regime published in 2016 (but without full knowledge of the outcome of the summit when going to print), Breakey and Popovski note how the present global intellectual property rights regimes would actually obstruct greater clean energy technology transfer making any agreement elusive from Paris “as there has been little consensus on the text related to intellectual property” in past summits as well.

Events like the climate summit offer an approach of a directional solution transfer from a “developed” country to a developing country and from the rich to the poor. Such an approach is bound to fail as they are heavy on input resources and so deter continued deployment. This approach seeks at best to do the same thing “better” but only slightly. However, contemporary urban development policy continues to promote a globalized aspiration of an urban lifestyle. The urban sprawl in India, in recent years has seen two significant governmental interventions that have envisaged the “elevation” of cities of all hues towards such a homogenized conception, that of the “world class” city. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) of 2005 was conceptualized to provide an impetus for greater urbanization by encouraging upgradation projects in existing urban and rural centers. The JNNURM in its overview proposes that resource management along with an increased use of renewable sources of energy to supplement existing non-renewable electric supply, rain water harvesting and ground water recharge were to be the incentivized while giving a major boost to urban development. The more recent Smart Cities Mission of 2015 focuses exclusively on the e-governance aspects of its predecessor and envisages a much greater role for technology driven systems to map people and services in a series of real-time GIS based models. This tracking of goods, services and people, as articulated for the world by McKinsey & Co., would in theory give the agencies of public administration much greater control and a far reduced response time to ameliorate the issues of its citizens.

The policy intentions indicated by these schemes are that India like the rest of the world has set on a path of increased urbanization that has a singular (i.e. universalized) definition. They are both predicated on the assumption that enabling private enterprise is the way to proceed with a faster and so desirous pace of urban expansion. However, the implied assumption that private corporate interests would drive innovation to be competitive is belied by empirical evidence to show that their interests are best served by multiple repetitions of preexisting solutions without application of mind to adaptation either of available material or techniques. This approach is clearly driving humankind towards an unsustainable future and must be critically examined.

There is however another more fundamental approach with a regional focus and inventiveness that must come to the fore. Mahatma Gandhi, in calling for the boycott foreign manufactured fabrics and garments said,

“Every Non-Cooperationist is duty bound to simplify his [her] wants and dispense with all luxuries that are dependent on the use of foreign articles.”

What Gandhi was able to do by promoting the symbol of the charkha and hand spun cotton cloth, was provide the Indian masses a tool of self reliance that was a viable alternative to that which he asked them to shun. Mothers and grandmothers in sub-continental families have traditionally stitched discarded plastic milk pouches into protective covers or converted old clothes into smaller garments and even dish rags. At the core of these practices is an urge to be frugal in the utilization of material. This sensibility necessarily demanded inventiveness, i.e. an ability to create a solution with regionally available resources and techniques without relying only on a manufactured solution. This approach of frugality must be made central for the human race to sustain.

Kanishka Prasad is an architect & PhD Scholar at Centre for Informal Sector & Labour Studies, JNU, New Delhi.