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Saturday / March 25.

The way forward for towns and cities

By Devki Pande

Almora bazaar in the 1860’s was a network of wooden likhai and plaster, of sprawling stone steps and minarets. Today, the two ends of a narrow street lean towards each other because of the slum-like expansion of the market; because of shops being built on top of each other. Opposite Almora bazaar is the mohalla Champanaula; once a posh area, its stock value deteriorated when a dog pound cropped up, when unplanned expansion on roughly demarcated patches of land resulted in tangled plumbing extending into the open air. Yelahanka is a suburb of Bangalore which was designed to be a residential area. Today, it is a mixed neighbourhood. It is the nature of markets to crawl into gullies and take up residence. It is the nature of cities to push against the pulsating boundary. They will grow, checked or unchecked, like living things.

It is the nature of cities to push against the pulsating boundary. They will grow, checked or unchecked, like living things.

Cities are no longer closed loop systems, but linear and open ended. Since they are constantly expanding, if no full circles are achieved, it means the waste produced in the end would accumulate – and there are several ends.

One way is through biomimicry: using the environment’s tried and tested patterns to seek sustainable solutions to human problems. A man made imitation of nature can clean water on a city scale by combining the concept of wetlands and percolation. Bogs act like sponges- they absorb water and contain micro-organisms that break down waste into simpler substances, and percolation filters out the sediments through several layers. Another linear energy consuming system in a city is the mechanisms for heating and cooling. Rather than constructing machines that heat and cool air, we can take inspiration from a touch-me-not plant, which closes up whenever its chemical balance is disturbed. Touch-me-not’s, or Mimosa pudica close up because of loss of turgor pressure – which is the force applied by water within the vacuoles onto the cell wall. When the plant is disturbed, potassium ions are released that force the water out of the vacuoles, causing the plant to collapse inwards. Like a lotus, structures can begin to have petals where the closing and unfurling is triggered by biosensors. The side of the petals exposed when the structure is closed can have solar panels, so that energy absorption is a constant. We need to make cities closed loops, but with the benefits of linear systems- that of sustained energy inputs.

We need to start focusing on systems thinking; we need cities to start performing like ecosystems.

The law of entropy states that the total energy of the universe is constant. It means that when we consume all the energy of the world, something called ‘heat death’ will occur. In the context of cities, entropy is the energy which cannot be put to any use. Pollution is an inevitable entropy, gauging by the aim of the Indian automobile industry to sell 6 million plus vehicles by 2020.1 Therefore, rather than employing measures to control it, we should start thinking about how to use it. Gaseous pollution is comprised of nitrogen oxides which are used to generate metal nitrates. Sulfur oxides are used for bleaching and preservation. The fumes produced by an automobile can be compressed and stored in bottles within the automobile itself. Perhaps investments can be made in a generation of vehicles with under-the-bonnet gas tanks and compressors.

This is the reason why attention must also be paid to the vernacular style of building, which preserves the energy that would otherwise be lost in transportation of materials. If employed strategically, a vernacular structure can come close to zero energy net use. In its purest form, it is too raw, but it can be adapted into its modern category- like plastic and glass. Plastic and glass are used irrespective of region, and are therefore both vernacular and collective. They are generated in massive quantities as waste, and are not easy to dispose safely.  Plastic works very well as a windbreaker, or as thatching on a roof. Glass chips can be used to create terrazzo tiles for flooring. Using them to build will help to bend the linear loop into a circle.

It is difficult to plan and map cities in India because they evolve organically. Although street vendors and street parking take up a lot of space, they are not included in the master plan. It can be better explained through the following analogy; if we are given a chair that is discoloured, cracked and so filthy that we cannot use it, does it still count? Similarly, if the space depicted in maps is always used up by street vendors and vehicles, can it really be considered free and available? If an area marked off to construct a school is located near a landfill because that is the only expanse available, can it really be counted as space?

Yet the middle path is always the best option for evolution. With this in mind, cities should be medium sized, rather than extremely large or extremely small. Medium sized cities would not encroach too much upon the geography of their region, and they would also ensure health of the local economy. Small towns in India are called so because of no better alternative, and are often little more than electricity cuts, pockmarked roads, garbage piles, open drains, and acute water shortage. This is one of the downsides of urbanization. But medium sized cities will help avoid this by preventing rural depopulation and urban drift.  They will ensure quality of life not just for the inhabitants but also in the surrounding rural communities.

With this in mind, cities should be medium sized, rather than extremely large or extremely small.

But then, the next question arises- how do you put restrictions on growth; especially for cities in India? Mumbai was once upon a time a small city, but today, it has an extraordinary population of above 21 million residents.2 It brings with it a number of environmental and hygiene concerns. Mumbai has been voted among the world’s dirtiest metropolises. This is because the space on which it is built is ideal, but limited. Megacities like Mumbai are the hub of industry, transport and business because of their location. Since space is limited, the problem is no longer just horizontal. It is also vertical, with buildings becoming higher and higher. Since height is associated with quality, high rise locations are more in demand. The Nine Elms flats in London are being built with sky pools. The urban drift does not only increase discrepancies between the rural and urban, it also creates discrepancies within the big cities themselves. Mumbai is divided- the inner area is fortified by the elite, while the displaced poor congregate in slums around the periphery. It seems that if we proceed on the same path as we are on, the new generation of cities will be built on the remnants of the old.

Indian cities are not rigid, but liquid.  India is in its second decade as a post-modern culture, yet we are planning and building as if we are living in the modern age; believing that if a particular style works for Western democracies, it works for the rest of the world. Postmodern design appreciates the value of diversity, and acknowledges that there are many truths, rather than just one. Like materials, spaces too, are different, and what can be done with one space may not always work for another. Market activity cannot be replicated. A building in Mumbai is constructed like a building in Gurgaon, is constructed like a building in Kolkata, although the climate and the needs are different. Modernist architecture looks at the building as an installation, but postmodernist cultures are less inclined to agree that there is a single correct way of planning, and open to different styles and ideas.

When you raise children, you nudge them towards good values. Similarly, when we set the stones to build a city, we need to provide directions for them to grow towards and into. Rather than waiting for cities to expand, and then thinking about how to handle them, we need to have sustainable, flexible systems in place so they do not become uncontrollable. And since a majority of cities have become spoiled over time, the question to ponder deeply is not how to design new, sustainable cities, but rather, how do we make them sustainable, now that we have erected them.


  1. http://makeinindia.com/sector/automobiles/
  2. http://www.indiaonlinepages.com/population/mumbai-population.html

Devki Pande is a student at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, intern at Contract Advertising Ltd, has worked for Essel Vision Productions Ltd, developed education oriented content for Laugh Out Loud Ventures, conducted workshops for underprivileged children in rural Uttarakhand and is an avid marathon runner.