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India’s Built Environment Is A Goldmine Of Possibilities

The odds in the Built Environment space seem to be stacked against us; there are too many variables to be controlled before we can even begin thinking about other issues

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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 its population – challenges which are exacerbated a billion-fold owing to the sheer size of our population.

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 before we can 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 percent, 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 percent 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 considerable impact on us - on accessibility, efficiency, productivity, well-being, on our moods and our social structures. The way the Built Environment is conceptualised decides who stays in and who gets left out. In short, it exerts an influence on (and in turn is influenced by) individual, cultural, social, as well as on economic aspects; on the micro and the macro. And there are individuals, organisations, cities, who are recognizing this, responding to it and consequently shifting the established practices and form of Built Environment as we know it.

Case in point, 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 Cold harbour 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, are usingthe process of architecture design as a way to give voice to the communities - healing and bonding them in the process – ensuring 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 Environment. India has its own numerous examples of micro-pocket excellence in Built Environment, people who are fundamentally redefining the narrative and compelling others to take an ecosystem perspective to any design, building, planning, and preservation initiative.

So what’s the key takeaway in all of this? It is that for any output to change, the inputs have to be reconsidered. The domain of Built Environment must differ from that of planning, civil engineering, architecture, in that it should bring in all the above disciplines together and then some. Architects, designers, planners, policy makers, engineers must work in close association with social scientists, political scientists, psychologists, economists, public health professionals, and environmental practitioners to seamlessly integrate an understanding of the context, people’s habits, behaviors, mindsets, preferences, with cultures, history, and environment. The sun is setting on the reign of the starchitect as form and extravagance takes a backseat to an increasing expectation for the Built Environment to support functional efficiency in the form of physical activity, healthy lifestyle, social cohesion, safety and security, equitable access, and environmental restoration. The golden opportunity for India is to harness the power of its youth population, bring together their diversity of energy, ideas, and perspectives, welcome minority subgroups into the fold, dissolve the redundant and reductive boundaries, provide an enabling environment, and witness magic unfurl.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Garima Aggarwal

The author is the Director – Anant Fellowship, Anant National University.

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