City as an Ecosystem

By Deepika Khatri

I really want to see the city as an ecosystem,” says Bengaluru-based Chitra Vishwanath, one of the founders of architectural firm Biome Environmental Solutions. In the wake of the coronavirus and the transformation it has wrought, I’m struck anew by her vision that encapsulates what a city could be.

The Cambridge dictionary defines an ecosystem as ‘all the plants, animals, and people living in an area considered together with their environment as a system of relationships’. 

As the pandemic has transformed the face of life as we knew it, it has also demanded a rethink of how we have been living our lives and interacting with the city. In the news are reports of people in urban areas growing tomatoes, chillies and herbs. Gardening has new takers with people turning to it as a way to reestablish a connection with nature. Other reports cite a surge in balcony birding as people turn their attention to their immediate surroundings and the biodiversity that exists amidst buildings. On the street, cycling groups in twos and threes are visible every evening. Others are out walking to the local market where motorised vehicles were formerly being used. 

Implicit in these actions is a return to what in many ways feels essential—a connection to the natural world and the homes and neighbourhoods we inhabit. To be part of the many ecosystems that make up a city. It is a relationship that was subsumed by long commutes and packed schedules but the enforced pause brought on by the virus and subsequent lockdown has created new ways to remember these connections. 

As the lockdown now slowly lifts across India, a different set of questions present themselves: What makes a city liveable? What would it take to reshape the city in a way that would make it a thriving ecosystem?

These questions are critical because even as middle and upper classes have the opportunity to seek out new ways of engaging with the city, for millions of others, it has meant grappling with cramped and poorly ventilated housing with little access to water and sanitation facilities and no green, public spaces to go out to. These issues are not new. Instead, they are the very real consequences of rapid urbanisation which is projected to increase. A UN report states that between 2018 and 2050, Indian cities will grow exponentially, adding another 416 million residents to become home for 60% of the nation’s population. In a similar vein, a 2010 study by the McKinsey Global Institute said that 68 cities in India are predicted to have a population of 1 million plus by 2030. The pandemic has only served to make these issues and the inequities of cities more visible.

A Frugal City

In this context, Vishwanath’s vision for a city as an ecosystem is pertinent to the times because it stems from the idea of frugality—of living simply and non-extractively. She was influenced by Laurie Baker, a British-born Indian architect, who is also called the ‘Gandhi of Indian Architecture’ because of the work he did to address the housing needs of the poor in his over two decades of building. Underpinning his architecture was a profound respect for nature, an ethos he lived and practiced by minimising the kind of material he used and fossil energy consumption.   

Architecture of frugality is something Vishwanath now practices in her work. “The essence of frugality is that you build what you need but you don’t do something extra […] It’s like any animal which builds its burrow. How big a nest can you make for three chicks growing? That’s all you make. You don’t make more than that,” she says. For her, working in cities is crucial to bring them into the ecological schema. In other words, to build in a way that is respectful of nature and natural resources and in this manner, create an ecosystem starting at the household level.  

To actualise this, she points to five elements that should be addressed for any building: “The building should be built in a way that we know whether that development can provide for its water, can treat its own waste in the plot that they have, provide for most of its energy, provide for biodiversity, and provide for a little bit of food too.” Her home reflects this ethos in the way it is designed to use natural light, has its own composting unit for waste, a rainwater harvesting system on the rooftop and a terrace lush with plants and fruits. The green cover in turn attract birds, butterflies and bees. It is a living, breathing example of what biodiversity in the city can look like.   

Like Baker who valued traditional wisdom and integrated local building practices and techniques in his work, Vishwanath uses locally sourced materials for construction. Specifically, stabilised mud blocks which is made by mixing 5% of cement with mud or earth taken from the foundation of the building. “You can make these buildings and leave them exposed. So there’s no painting and there’s no plastering […] It minimises the embodied energy of the building,” she says.  Embodied energy is the energy required to make a product which includes the chemicals that go into creating it and then transporting it—a cumulative cost. Lesser the treatment and use of additional products, lower is the embodied energy of a building which also makes it more cost effective.  

Striking about this way of living is a deep understanding of the ethics of sustainability—that we are one of many species that inhabit the planet and have to live with rather that against this shared ecosystem. Or as Baker is quoted to have said: “Discourage extravagance and snobbery. Avoid opulence and show-off. Look closely at your prejudices and question them. Above all – use common sense!”

Reimagining the city

As the pandemic continues unabated in India, it becomes critical to imbibe ideas of frugality and to build ecosystems that nurture and support other life forms. Vishwanath suggests that already constructed buildings can become rich in biodiversity by converting grey terraces and rooftops into green spaces by growing plants which also reduces urban flooding. 

As India begins to come out of the lockdown, as part of the strategy to re-open metros, one of the measures being taken by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs is to issue an advisory with recommendations for adding bicycle lanes and pedestrianising at least three markets in every city. In different parts of the world, similar measures have been taken to help people adapt to a post pandemic world. In cities like Paris, 650 km of cycleways are being readied, while in the Colombian capital of Bogota, 78 km of streets have been freed of motorised transport. In Rotterdam, ‘hyperlocal micromarkets’ are being planned which are smaller, friendlier and easier to navigate.

Reimagining the city requires participation from all quarters to realise an ecosystem where no one is left behind. Where access to safe housing, water and sanitation is a right, where there are more green spaces than shopping malls and where children can safely ride in streets. A city which does not drain the earth of resources and is not built on the backs of those whose well being and existence is deemed irrelevant. Or something akin to Vishwanath’s vision, “[I want to] see the city as a forest, and not by just planting trees but planting them sensitively. I want to see sparrows back. I want to see a lot more butterflies and bees residing in the city. I want to see a lot more shared spaces. I want to see a lot more benches on the road and people are using it. I want to see more equity. I want a city where young people and especially women are out even at 12 in the night alone.That will be the best city I would like to be in.”

A vision that now more than ever feels urgent to enact. 

Deepika Khatri is one of the co-founders of The Curio-City Collective.