Urban development: Should environment pay the price?

The next decade bears the potential to define the growth of Indian infrastructure. Moving towards sustainable cities provides a new perspective on urban sprawl

Updated - February 03, 2024 11:33 am IST

Published - February 02, 2024 04:03 pm IST

India grapples with surging housing and infrastructure needs — all the while striving to balance growth with minimal environmental impact from construction. The concept of building ‘less for more’ has gained significance in recent times due to the alarming effects of climate change and depleting natural resources. Understanding the causes and effects of urban sprawl and its impact on urban redevelopment requires a multidimensional perspective. In addition, policy options must be discussed to steer urban development towards more sustainable pathways.

Repurposing spaces

Compact, efficient, and multi-functional designs to optimise space and resource utilisation can reduce energy and materials required for construction, thereby minimising environmental impact, and enhancing the efficiency of transportation and infrastructure. To maintain a progressive outlook on evolving paradigms of enhancing space quality, architects must learn and adapt to new ideas and technologies while repurposing existing structures.

Compassionate approach

The focus here is on the need for repurposing spaces and reducing the demand for building new structures. This approach aims to promote sustainable urban development by utilising available resources efficiently, reducing carbon footprint, and creating a healthier and more liveable environment for the present and future generations.

Urban development is fraught with numerous challenges such as greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, road congestion, and the need for more affordable housing. In addition, developing areas near newly planned transit lines results in price hikes in the associated real estate. Urban redevelopment can be a difficult transition for the city’s original inhabitants as it requires adaptation to long-term changes. Therefore, preventing inconvenience and finding sustainable ways to allow organisational planning that does not sever neighbourhoods is a crucial aspect of urban redevelopment. Architects, designers, and industry leaders must adopt a forward-looking approach to designing and developing spaces that serves their purpose while minimising environmental impact.

Principle of new urbanism

Smart growth or mixed-use development is the fundamental principle that helps mitigate the issue of urban sprawl. Smart growth is an overall approach of development and conservation strategies that helps protect our health and natural environment and makes our communities more viable and resilient to climate change. Such advanced developments are encouraged to prevent rural areas from becoming more populated due to constant urban expansion. Moving towards sustainable cities provides a new perspective on urban sprawl and its causes and consequences.

The next decade bears the potential to define the growth of Indian infrastructure. However, development confines its own pros and cons. The growth of GDP is accompanied by several positive social impacts, including improved access to food, education, employment opportunities as well as investments in real estate. On the contrary, we must acknowledge the cons of such policies, resulting in poverty alleviation and disposable incomes causing waste.

Promoting radial development

The development of vertical living spaces must be approached with deliberate inclusivity and sustainable strategies. Regrettably, most real estate developers must be aware of the adverse consequences of poorly designed high-rise buildings. To address this issue, India, the most populous country in the world, could greatly benefit from adopting Ebenezer Howard’s ‘Garden City’ theory, which proposes limiting the size of cities and constructing satellite towns to prevent urban sprawl.

High-rise development leads to a concentration of growth that needs to be more inclusive. To maintain balance and significantly improve the country’s infrastructure development, we must prioritise sustainable, low-rise radial development that is inclusive. Furthermore, such design considerations must include provisions for the growth opportunities of future generations. Thus, promoting low-rise and radial development can prove to be a practical solution to reducing carbon emissions in the future.

Common challenges

In the 70s and 80s, reducing, reusing, and recycling played a significant role in India’s supply and demand chain. Due to short supply, luxury was considered an ornamental addition to design rather than a priority. In current times, it is essential to balance the need for both growth and demand. In a rapidly growing country such as India, where demand is skyrocketing, easy access to affordable housing development schemes can tackle the need for building more/spatial requirements.

Ideally, it would be beneficial to construct spaces with similar codes and specifications, with open spaces democratically determined by population density. Such spaces should be consistent across affordable, M.I.G. and H.I.G. developments. Any luxurious elements should be limited to finishes and other features. High penalties should be imposed on imported materials to reduce environmental harm, given their contribution to fossil fuel consumption during transportation and the potential for ecological damage.

Revisiting vernacular architecture

Incorporating the influences of vernacular architecture and spatial consumption, as well as mixed-use designs, is advantageous in the contemporary context. As a well-known adage dictates, “one can never forget history, lest they be condemned to repeat it”. Hence, vernacular and conventional wisdom serve as valuable resources. By returning to our roots, we can distinctly identify the fundamental principles of architecture that have developed over time — encompassing light, ventilation, orientation of built mass, and materiality — all of which remain relevant today.

By designing mixed-use buildings and communities that can accommodate multiple services, we can reduce the need for separate structures for each use. This, in turn, can help to conserve resources, reduce carbon footprint of construction and transportation, and promote more sustainable and liveable communities. To limit carbon footprint, adaptive reuse through repurposing an already-built space is crucial. Additionally, developing multi-purpose spaces during the design stage can ensure 100% utilisation and result in building less for more.

The writer is Co-founder & Director, Edifice Consultants.

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