OUR CITIES – THE UNTENABLE JUNGLE
Jungle has an uncanny way of being sustainable; there is no misuse of the available resources and yet it thrives with the diversity of life. Each element is designed perfectly and in its entirety, natural stresses thrown at it are easily mitigated and balance restored without much ado. The ever changing landscape provides for all types and kind of species to live their life with equal opportunities and a natural order prevails. Can we all agree that a Jungle is an eco-system that provides for all, is self sustaining and despite its numerous challenges, manages to offer excellent support for life?
Man is a social animal and has his roots in the Jungle; he too is part of the nature and has successfully evolved over the years. The jungle protected the man and offered him equal opportunity to live in harmony with other living organisms. This interdependence with nature helped man become an intelligent life and gain knowledge, provide for himself better comfort and eventually lead a much sophisticated and better life.
Sometime in the human history, man lost touch with his roots and started using or rather misusing the nature for his benefit. He started building larger and larger houses, bigger and better (sic) cities and much more complicated system of living together. All that was fine up until the Industrial revolution, when the man became more powerful than the nature itself and could now influence it for his requirements.
Man lost the art of living in simplicity and in sync with the nature, became more materialistic and desired much more than was needed, this obviously resulted in problems and while trying to fix one of these, resulted in the birth of multiple other problems. The problems became more urgent and the important ones were left unsolved, until he got caught in the web he had created. There appears to be no solution in sight and the many offered by intelligent people are difficult to implement.
How & why did the man decide that the best way for him to live, was to be in a city and that the city should be designed in such a fashion? Of course many cities evolved from villages, but they seem to lack the design and function of the village, the cities became much more complex and no longer resembled villages. How come our cities grew mostly unplanned and the few that were planned, were done so poorly, resulting in the chaos that we happen to live in today. Why our great planners and intelligent people could not foresee and offer alternative designs? Most importantly, why our cities are so cut off from the natural order, when in the first place, jungle was our first home? Why cities are primarily designed for the man, when in fact the jungle is designed for every form of life? Where did we lose this knowledge and decided to live in isolation? Why did we not learn from our error and adapted our living to the changes?
Bob Marley sang about the nature of our cities and called them a concrete jungle, a resemblance to the jungle or our discord with it, either way our desire to be a part of the jungle and be with nature remains strong. There appears to be no similarities between a jungle and the city, albeit a notorious one, of being unsafe for present day man. A jungle on one hand is self sustaining and plastic in its design, whereas a city is more rigid and requires external influences for its sustenance.
Our cities are becoming bigger and the infrastructural needs are exerting much more pressure on the depleting natural resources, resulting in an imbalance which is making our cities untenable. Why are our cities growing? Yes, there is a growth in the population and influx of people from villages in want of better and more comfortable life, but then why aren’t cities designed for this growth and what could be a proper solution to this ever expanding problem? How do we perceive a new migrant into the city, more as a threat than extending a welcoming hand? Why have we become so insensitive and in-human? Our cities have changed us, turned us into a species that doesn’t like itself anymore.
What makes our cities appear t to be better than our villages? Is it the convenience of shopping or the availability of health services? Do our cities provide better social interaction, more entertainment options and educational facilities? Or do our cities provide better employability and more income compared to our poor villages? All these perceived benefits in a city comes at a cost, the cost of higher living expenses, higher commuting times, higher stresses on our physical and mental health, which in turn necessitates better health services, more entertainment and transport options, this further increases the stress on resources. We find ourselves in this catch 22 situation.
Do we really have a better life in a city? Do we interact much more socially and enjoy the many facets the city life offers us, or are we living in a constant struggle, a struggle for survival. Doesn’t this sound like a life in a jungle, but without the harmony?
What are the challenges facing our cities? There are so many, but the few poignant ones are traffic congestions, pollution, health problems, safety and crime, infrastructural demands, depleting resources, waste management, etc. and the ever increasing gap between demand and supply of these essential city requirements. Most importantly our cities are making us lost, we are losing our sense of being human and becoming and acting more like a zombie.
Are there any solutions to the problems facing our cities? There seems to be many options, but whether they are going to solve the issues or create new ones, is yet to be ascertained. From the option of building new and better cities to redeveloping the existing ones with better, greener alternatives are nothing, but ideas that only promises to solve the problem in the future with no clear outcomes. Probably taking a step back and re-looking at the problem in its entirety may provide some insights and help us come with practical solutions.
Our cities are not only homes to humans, but to also many other life forms, although the city was never designed to house them. There are birds of different varieties that generate hope & smile amongst us and then there are the creepy crawlies that evince fear and pain. Most of our cities are homes to many desired and undesired life forms and we all seem to live in harmony, something similar to a jungle. From the pets that we have to the rodents in our kitchens and sewer, from the beautiful flowering and shady trees to the irritating weeds that seem to spoil the looks of our gardens, we co-exist with other life forms. We need to understand that our life is a part of a much bigger cycle of life and it is impossible to live independently. In our endeavour to make our cities more human friendly, somewhere we have missed our connection to the nature and our roots.
Is it possible that we intentionally design our cities with these other life forms in our mind? Will this help us in becoming more sustainable and bring us much closer to our roots and help alleviate the issues of stressful living? There are many theories that proposes just that, having farms and fruit gardens as part of our bustling cities, similar to a village, where the jungle forms a natural boundary, our cities can also develop such forests or pockets within, that encourages growth of other living beings, maybe independent of humans or maybe not. Taking an example from jungle life, we too can try and create an atmosphere of interdependence that leads to energy conservation, reducing pollution, helps in natural garbage disposal methods and also provides for growing food within the city itself. Maybe humans may need to be re-trained to live within this natural atmosphere, but then we are very adaptable and we’ll be pretty successful.
Our cities or part of cities are designed for a specific function, but do they really function in the way it was envisaged? As a designer and an Architect we are trained to ensure that the functionality is balanced with the aesthetics for the space designed, but when it comes to our cities, reaching that goal appears to be an impossible task. The whimsical and unpredictable nature of human workings does not guarantee that the spaces or cities designed for better human lifestyles will ever meet those requirements. In the process of trying to make things easier for everyone, we end up making the human lives more mechanical and geometric. These designs do serve the purpose in providing for the needs of the humans, but forget to gauge the emotional, mental and happiness quotient of the people living in a city. In the inclination to create something exclusive and aesthetically pleasing, we tend to forget the impact of our creations on the subconscious minds or cognitive abilities of the inhabitants of our cities.
“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us,” deliberated Winston Churchill in 1943 and now our neuroscientists and psychologists have confirmed that our emotional quotient is affected by the design of the city and its buildings. An example of a 1950’s Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis, Missouri, with 33 featureless apartment blocks resulted in social dysfunction and increase in crime. It was identified that the wide open spaces between the blocks of modern high-rise buildings did not encourage a sense of belonging, created greater rift and hence increased the crime rate.
“Urban Living can change brain biology in some people” as mentioned in the article by BBC on “The hidden ways that architecture affects how you feel”
Human beings are complex living forms, much so due to their sense of intelligence and their dependence on it. Predicting the outcome of a designed space used by an Individual is extremely difficult and many a times impossible. One design fits all, may not be the right approach, but unfortunately that is how, our cities are designed. How do we make living in a city a joy, creating healthy, happy and productive individuals?
Vancouver is frequently considered as the most popular and best city to live in, has building designs that provide views of the mountains, forest and ocean to the north and west. Green spaces such as woodland, reduces some of the stress of living in a city. Nature provides a sort of complex visual environment that stimulates our brain and reduces stress. We have always known this, our roots come from the jungle, yet we have alienated ourselves from it.
Apart from creating social stress due to the lack of social bonding and connect to the neighbourhoods, we find our productivity dipping. Ironically cities are brimming with humans, yet we do not find meaningful interactions, resulting in a sense of loneliness and lack of belonging. This results in making humans indifferent, sometimes to the point of even being insensitive. Crime increases due to the lack of cohesion and bonding between city dwellers, further resulting in loss of human resources.
Human resource is the biggest resource in a city and its only sustainable aspect, lower human productivity results in un-accounted economic losses and additional burden on health expenses, which in turn makes the city less progressive. Designing a city that allows for humans to live and perform to their optimum as well as contribute towards the economic growth of the city, is essential.
How do we make our cities more humane, more sustainable and much happier? It is imperative that we introspect, relearn the acquired knowledge, learn and study the jungle once again and try to bring in the sense of balance and sustainability that our jungle offers us.
A smart city is useless unless it addresses the issues of human living at the grass roots level. Living in a city should provide a sense of belonging, create happier citizens, provide for equal opportunities for every individual, even for new migrants, should be stress free, healthy and productive. Achieving these will help in promoting cities as being better than villages and ensuring overall development of humans. Providing wi-fi and solving the infrastructure problem or building better roads, more schools, more hospitals, etc. will help, but not solve the problems. In fact, the more we build the more complex our cities become. Our cities are unsustainable in terms of the resources that we consume, but also in terms of the human resource that seems to be losing its productivity. Somewhere humans and cities became one, cities do not exist devoid of humans and humans need cities to survive. Healthy, happy and productive humans create better environments, more suitable for better living.
Architecture and Design will surely help, but understanding the impact of these design elements on the psyche of the people and how in turn they will use these spaces effectively is to be researched and understood, before proposing any solution. Alternative sources of energy will reduce the burden on the consumption of our natural resources, but they do not make our cities happier or safer or reduces the stress of living in one. An out of box approach is needed here to really understand and deal with the issue of living in a city as a wholesome problem. Maybe integrating the jungle with our cities could be one of them.
About Architect Ravi Siddhartha
Mr. Ravi Siddhartha is a Professional Architect with about 18 years of experience in Design and Project Management of various kinds of Projects. He is registered with Council of Architecture (C.O.A.), India and a member of Indian Institute of Architects (IIA).
Mr. Ravi Siddhartha completed his Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch. – Honours) from IIT-Roorkee (formerly University of Roorkee, Roorkee) in the year 2000 and ever since has practised Architecture in Hyderabad, India. He has worked on various Projects including Pharmaceutical Industries, Automobile car showrooms & Workshops, schools, office interiors, residences, etc.
Mr. Ravi Siddhartha has designed and managed building construction projects across India and has developed an expertise in the field of Architecture, Design and Project Management.
Mr. Ravi Siddhartha is also a visiting faculty with JNAFA University (JNAFAU), mentoring young Architectural Students and sharing his expertise and experience with them.
This article was first published in Indian Institute of Architects (IIA), National Convention souvenir of 2017 and is reproduced here with the permission of the Architect Ravi Siddhartha.