Concept Note Series E-031. June 2015.
People today talk of designing not architectural artifacts, but of designing systems that generate architecture. Christopher Alexander professes that planning and construction should be guided by a process which allows the whole to emerge gradually from the local acts
Thus within the scope provided by the basic urban fabric, each individual carves out his own niche in his won way, to which he identifies and by which he belong to the community. The built form is used as a media to express his artistic and economic aspirations fully.
Nowhere are these expressions better brought forth than in the home of an individual. Underlying these factors is the subtle and subjective 'human factor' in the built environment. This is of course an oxymoron, since any 'built environment' for humans has to have a human factor.
But somewhere along the way, there has come about an erosion of values, of traditional ways of building and manipulation of space, that were so cherished by earlier generations.
Building and construction has now become institutionalized by private developers and local governments alike, neglecting and disregarding the human factor - a mere exercise in technology where humans are pressed to live in an anonymous environment.
Much of the anonymity of urban architecture has been primarily driven by physical, sociological and cultural dimensions. But a new dimension has risen recently - that of environmental issues. As cities and urban areas grow, the demand that it places on its hinterland for resources and for land to absorb the wastes it generates, goes beyond its administrative boundaries and covering areas beyond even national boundaries. Called an "ecological footprint," it is now becoming a key indicator of urban sustainability.
Ecological footprint nlyses has shown that, for example, that London needs a land area that is equal to the entire UK to support it; Tokyo requires a land area 3.2 times the land area of Japan as a whole.
A deeper and broader understanding of the environmental implications of urban activities and consumption patterns, and of the local beginnings of global environmental problems, has resulted in a rethinking of how we look at cities and urban areas - and of the built environment within these areas.
Developing and instituting environmental management systems or EMS for a building or a cluster of buildings, is becoming increasingly popular in order to reduce the environmental impacts of such structures, whether, for example, through the consumption of energy or through the use of building materials. The EMS fosters a systematic and holistic approach to managing a building's environmental impact.
Another tool - Life Cycle Assessment - is enabling a cradle-to-grave approach of understanding the material flows into the built environment and the savings that can be instituted. Indeed, a more detailed and comprehensive approach is necessary, starting from the design and construction stages to the use and demolition stages: a conception-to-resurrection approach that takes all stages, and effects and impacts into consideration, including what happens when a building has to be demolished - that stage too has an environmental impact!
But buildings do not exist in isolation. Individually and collectively, buildings and other structures form an intrinsic part of the urban fabric, constituting what we can call a city. Therefore, the environmental dimensions of cities are equally important in order to contextualize the ecological ambience within which buildings exist.
The complexity of managing the local environment in cities and urbanized areas, present a challenge that goes beyond the capacities and capabilities of any one urban stakeholder - whether governmental or non-governmental.
This calls for a complete and comprehensive rethinking of the way we look at cities. Much as we look at mountains, and rivers, and deserts as ecosystems, cities are now being looked at as urban ecosystems where resources are used, processed and wastes are generated. Looking at cities as 'sustainable ecosystems' enables the objective, multidisciplinary study of urban and economic systems based on the integration of scientific, technological, environmental and management disciplines.
Cities are now being looked at as urban ecosystems where resources are used, processed and wastes are generated.
Looking at cities (and its natural and built environments) as sustainable ecosystems is critical in providing a long-term vision for cities based on sustainability. It empowers people and fosters participation and inter-generational equity. It recognizes and builds on the characteristics of cities including their human, cultural, historic and natural systems. Besides environmental dimensions, an ecosystem approach also helps achieve long term economic and social security. It enables communities to minimize their ecological footprint, and enables continual improvement, accountability and transparency. Effective demand management and appropriate use of environmentally sound technologies for cities can be systematized, and a range of approaches and tools can be used to assist cities adopt such sustainable practices. On the whole, it recognizes the intrinsic value of biodiversity and natural ecosystems and their protection and restoration from within an urban perspective.
These issues are critical to the professions represented here today -architects, planners, developers and designers. All of us have a role to play - we need to go beyond our buildings and designs, and remember to contextualize our work within a larger urban ecosystem. By doing this, environmental impacts can be reduced, and less resources consumed, in order to achieve broad long-term sustainability: both at the level of a building and at the level of a city.