Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Future of Human Civilization

The future of the human civilizations is going to be largely defined by the character of its future cities. This is especially important to reflect on at this point in time as humanity reached a special milestone this century by becoming a majority urban species. In 2007, for the very first time in our history, humankind has become a majority urban with more than half of the world’s population living in cities. The phenomenal rate of urban growth, increasing from 13% in the 1900’s to 29% in 1950, reach over 50% this decade.

Nevertheless, India is still a majority rural nation. Today Approximately 300 million people inhabit urban areas today and make up about 30% of the population. But urbanization is projected even in our country and India will be more urban than rural over the coming decades like other parts of the world. As a result India has a tremendous opportunity to leap frog into a new urban model by learning from the mistakes and succeses of the more urbanized geographies of the world.

Cities represent both the finest and most terrible aspects of humanity today. Today’s Cities are full of poverty, but they also offer the best way to rise above this challenge. Cities are also at the centre of the environmental crisis; but they represent the best way for human being to share resources efficiently and in a fair way. Cities are important destinations of education, culture, commerce and economy. Cities are machines for making collaboration easier and encourage innovation and creativity. On the other, problems of overcrowding, crime, diseases and so forth is likely to be intense in cities. So those are the two paths that India has in front of it as we get set to deal with imminent phase of urbanization.

The current set of Indian cities is evidently failing. In many ways, they represent the worst aspects of urbanization. The dire and unbearable conditions of our cities have been a result of piecemeal and small-scale interventions to gradually worsening conditions over a long period of time. They are a result of a complete lack of long term strategic thinking. I am desolately going to declare that many of these cities will collapse in the next few decades if the current trend of short- term and quick fix style of thinking continues.

But the prospect of following this same small- scale and short term thinking while India gets ready to deal with an unprecedented rate of urban growth in the coming decades is even gloomier.According to the United Nations World Urbanisation Prospects, the next two decades alone will see the migration of 197 million Indians moving into urban areas. India’s cities will have to deal with a massive influx of tens of millions of people at a speed unparalleled in history.

So we still have the control in our hands. We can take on urbanization head on; and make most of the best components that cities represent and create a future that is inclusive, environmentally friendly and healthy. But if we don’t make a strategic plan to address this trend – we are likely to be creating a gloomy future of social inequity and civil unrest; a future of grave environmental and health crisis. Remember that Urbanization is an irreversible process. The thinking or the lack of strategic thinking on our part at this point may not be visible straight away but they can be fatal in the long run. We have already had to deal with consequences of unplanned growth as seen in the decaying cities of today. Let us not go down that failed path as we get set for the future cities of our nation.

We have to learn from the failures and success of cities and develop a grand and bold vision to tackle the impending urbanization. Below are some of the principles we need to adapt to turn cities into opportunities.

Compact cities & high density

Studies indicate that compact high density cities utilize half as much energy and generate half as much air-pollution per capita vis-à-vis a sprawling city. According to estimates, the resident of a high-density Dutch city produces 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide pollution a year, compared with 20 tonnes produced by a Canadian counterpart in a standard low-density city. Compact, high density cities are also said to be more economical given that infrastructure, such as roads and street lighting, can be offered more cost-effectively per capita .Also ,urban sprawl brings about the repetition of hospitals, schools, and many other public services and institutions. Larger and more equitable distribution of services is possible in dense compact cities. The merging and amalgamation of a number of urban facilities and public amenities makes way for many specialized conveniences that are currently not cost-effectively achievable. These services are also far more economical in a compact city vis-à-vis a low density city.

Liveable cities

Urban space like parks and squares are often given low priority in planning, but they add to a great extent to the value of a city. “Hard” spaces such as squares, plazas, and courtyards present the platform for public activities. “Soft” spaces such as parks, gardens, lawns, and eco-preserves offer vital reprieve from the brutal urban environment and function as spaces for leisure activities.

These elements have a huge impact on the appeal of a city. European cities are good examples of grand urban spaces. During the Renaissance, European architects had focused on systematically studying and shaping of urban space, as though the city itself were a piece of architecture that could be given an aesthetically pleasing and functional order. Many of the great public spaces of Rome and other Italian cities date from this era. Parts of older European cities were also rebuilt to create elegant squares, long street vistas, and symmetrical building arrangements. And till this date these European cities are considered amongst the most beautiful world cities.

Also, the great cities of the world are all by nature essentially great places to walk. Walkability is the most critical element of a good city. Creating walkable cities is a great way to address the environmental crisis of our era. In addition, more people on the streets mean a more superior opportunity for social interaction and thus an excellent way to create a socially inclusive community. A walkable city will also add to the aesthetic, sense of character and vibrancy of a city.

The Green city.

Energy Conservation and efficiency will be the hallmarks of the future great cities of the world. Eco Cities will promote the restoration of creeks and water bodies. Living streams, shorefronts, wetlands should also be protected. Proper waste management, pollution control, energy conservation, rain water harvesting and ground water recharge are also one of the essentials for eco friendly urban cities.

Increased energy efficiency in transportation systems is another element gaining importance. Many countries are already developing improved fuel-efficient automobiles that can be integrated with urban mass transit arrangements. Important developments in energy storage and propulsion, such as electric, fuel-cell and hydrogen systems, are also in progress.

Mixed use Communities

Encouraging planning with walkable mixed use neighbourhoods rather than single-use enclaves like a residential complex or an office park is also key to a vibrant and efficient city. Mixed use planning endeavours for a strong relationship between where people work and where they live. Mixed-use developments allow people easy access to work, public functions and services such as schools, hospitals, restaurants and parks. Mixed-use developments affords is more convenient as it promotes shorter commute times, helps create a walkable community and forms a 24/7 urban environment which is safer. If a general store exists below a residential building you only have to go downstairs to purchase an item for your daily existence, a quart of milk, or rent a video, or get a slice of pizza, etc. These mixed use cities will also help societies become less dependent of automobiles thereby reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. It also integrates housing of all sections of the society and age group thereby creating a more unified culture in the society.

By Prathima Manohar