Lessons from Harappa: How the Design of Cities Could Help Mitigate Climate Change Risks


Covering Climate Now on News18.com

If one were to glance sideways while stuck in Mumbai’s infamous traffic – on the Western Express highway or at a signal on Peddar Road or Kemp’s corner – what would you see? The hoarding with a famous actress sipping a mango drink, or another featuring an actor imploring you to purchase a vest?

Look closer. Mumbai, like every other city in India, is dotted with advertisement billboards – large, imposing and overarching. Or as architects describe them, ‘energy-sucking black holes’.

"A single commercial hoarding uses 60 to 120 fluorescent tubes for illumination. Every night, they stay on during the hours when most people are asleep," points out Yatin Pandya, founder of Footprints E.A.R.T.H, an Ahmedabad based architecture firm.

"This amount of energy can provide electricity to 300 houses for three hours," he adds. In 2018, to incentivise the use of solar energy to light up billboards, the Maharashtra government had announced a fee rebate of 10%. But few have taken up the offer.

The physical embodiment of modernity, cities are also symbols of humanity’s insatiable aspiration for better living, at the cost of the environment.

Occupying just 2 per cent of the world’s total area, cities generate the bulk of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Home to 55 per cent of the world’s population, they misuse energy in apartments, offices, roads and public spaces and destroy ecosystems.

"Buildings last beyond us, so the mistakes in making them will perpetuate for times to come," says Pandya.

Experts told News18 that Indian architects are emulating US designs to build infrastructure in big cities, while the need of the hour is to create our own design ethos that is not only in sync with our environment and topography, but also takes into account the climate crisis that we find ourselves in.

Should Indian cities grow tall?

The past few decades have seen skyscrapers spurt in Indian megacities. But these soaring monoliths of glass and concrete might not be the right way for India to grow, says sustainable architect Ashok B Lall.

"We should think horizontally, not vertically…There is a nutty idea, that we don't have enough land...and the conventional wisdom prescribed that the way to grow is to grow tall. This isn't true," he says.

The impact of the taller buildings in energy consumption, as well as, the consumption of energy in their very construction, is 25 per cent greater than if we were to build four-storey high structures.

Taller buildings also harm a city’s plans of using solar energy. A four-storey building allows the roofs to be clear to catch enough sunlight. “If you were to devote say 60 per cent of the roof area in four-storey high buildings, to capture sunlight, and convert it into solar power, you are likely to meet somewhere around 80% of your electricity demand. That's a future we should leapfrog into," says Lall.

With the larger cities in India too densely populated, with its tall buildings – experts hope that smaller - tier 2 and tier 3 - cities could lead the way.

It isn't just the height though, the materials used to build skyscrapers also make them non-sustainable. "The glass facades of these buildings are the biggest design culprit. Glass ingresses the maximum amount of sunlight. In India, the sky component is high so it causes heat radiation. The inside of offices with glass windows get way warmer; it is like the greenhouse effect," explains Pandya.

The trapped heat converts office buildings into solar cookers. While this works well in the colder cities of the west, in India’s heat it results in the excessive use of air-conditioning along with greenhouse gas emissions.

The footpaths facing these skyscrapers also witness higher temperatures since the sun reflects off from the facade of these buildings.

In India, with cities registering higher temperatures annually, the impact of such flawed architecture can be grave. A 2017 analysis by the India Meteorological Department and the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras had found that Delhi’s heat index registered a higher growth rate, while compared to the national average, increasing at 0.6 °Celsius per decade in summers and 0.55 °Celsius per decade during monsoons.

An analysis by a Delhi-based non-profit, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), found that Delhi’s summers and monsoons are hotter by 3.6°C and 3.3°C on the heat index when compared to the 1950s. Doctors too, claim that exposure to such extreme heat can cause regular health issues like cramps, and exhaustion to deadly hazards like heat stroke. Under such situations, skyscrapers are only aggravating the problem.

The Indian government has, in the past, tried to introduce smart architectural design for sustainability – but these too are riddled with flaws. One such endeavour was LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for green buildings, with Maharashtra leading.

“Although well-intended, the LEED rating system doesn't work well for us. The corridors of these buildings are dark for no reason. LEED, when it was introduced required air-conditioned buildings to consume 20 per cent less energy, but if you use no AC, you are no good. Then you won't get the certificate," says the architect.

Often, it is the slums within a city that are the most energy efficient. Several studies, from across the world, have pointed out how climate change puts people living in slums most at risk from disease and urban heat.

But despite governments treating them as eyesores, the high population density and the need for its residents to travel less makes slums highly efficient in terms of energy expenditure.

“Slums need not be seen as a problem," says Yatin Pandya. "Almost half of Mumbai's population live in slums, and the area they occupy is roughly around ten to twelve per cent, and still we call them a problem? The remaining 50% per cent of the population use almost 90 per cent of the land, and we say that is fine," he says.

Pavements and mix-use districts

When Sanjay Prakash, principal architect at SHiFT Architects-Studio for Habitat Futures, gave up his car three years ago to lead a more sustainable life, but things didn’t go as planned. “The difficulty was that our cities are so oriented towards cars, that as a pedestrian and an asthmatic, it was very difficult for me to be on the road, on foot. There are no footpaths, emissions are too high, and the pollution levels just flared up my asthma,” says Prakash.

Indian cities are the breeding ground of emission generating automobiles. In Mumbai, there were reportedly 32 lakh cars by November 2017. Delhi, had a total of 1.09 crore by March 2018, including 70 lakh two-wheelers, as per the Delhi economic survey.

As cities stretch their boundaries, residents move to suburbs for cheaper rents which forces them to commute regularly thus adding to the existing issues of road congestion and worsening air quality (11 out 12 most polluted cities on WHO's list is in India).

Prakash pointed out that public transport should replace the car-owning model to reduce emissions. “Public transport should give good quality at higher prices. The main reasons for giving public transport should not be low cost, it should be low emissions," the architect says.

Another good way is to go back to walking, or 'sauntering', as naturalist author Henry David Thoreau liked to call it. In the past, Indians would saunter to their work because everything was at walking distance. But that practice is almost extinct now. “It was one of the awful side effects of zoning by-laws that we lost the art of walking," lamented Pandya, arguing that “decentralising cities” could incentivise walking, thus reducing emissions.

“Preventing people from moving very far from their place of work is one solution. We can have mixed-use districts as they have in Singapore, where one lives in the same building they work in,” added Prakash.

Bureaucrats and politicians have typically reacted to issues on the road — such as traffic violation, lack of space for the pedestrian — by turning to flyovers. "In most Indian cities, not even 30 per cent of the travel is done by cars. So, a city with many flyovers though touted as a successful modern city is actually a failure of a city because it panders to individual car owners, which it should not," says Prakash.

Homes With Indian Roots

There are lessons to be learnt from the past too, especially in home architectural designs. "From the time of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, the genealogy of Indian homes had been deep long structures in the back, with narrow fronts, and internal courtyards. This could pack many houses per street, which meant that things would be by and large in a walking distance, reducing the need for travelling," says Pandya.

Traditional ventilation, like windows with three sections, is energy-efficient and should be incorporated in modern housing, so can awnings/projections that would shade the buildings from sunlight. Most importantly, the use of local materials is a must.

"It is more energy-efficient if we don't invest in lorries, transporting materials from various parts of India. Nowadays, people even get marbles from Italy... imagine the energy waste in the whole process. There are so many alternatives available locally," says Pandya. Apartment buildings should not be more than four to six storeys high, because vertical segregation is not only bad as a design plan but can also detach you socially. Another thumb rule is to minimize the use of concrete, steel and aluminium, say architects.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story. This is the second story of the series.