In the world’s second-most populous nation, at the outset, it is tempting to assume that too many people contribute to a problem that is already manifold and propel climate change into its irrevocable stage. However, despite a radical increase in India’s total carbon emissions over the past decade, the per person carbon emission has hardly shifted for the worse. Despite global efforts to curb the looming threat of the climate crisis, large corporations with expanding agendas continue to author the future of our natural environment.
Indian architecture finds itself in an age-old dilemma in the thick of climate change – reverting to passive carbon design or implementing technological advancements to mitigate growing emissions? Both arguments lend to the same conundrum; they claim to possess the silver bullet to resolve a crisis with multitudinous origins. Most success stories in carbon mitigation come from local firms reforming residential spaces at significant personal expense, but few examples are available at the urban scale.
Architectural activism makes little room for climate refugees’ voices displaced by the storms ravaging Indian coasts and scorching our heartlands. Despite a cultural attachment to the underdog, grassroots movements and new-age firms rarely make it past local journalists, and political agendas frequently overshadow their cosmic efforts. With the architectural community and its minimal involvement in political affairs, the innovative carbon-negative design is often only headlined within the community. It does not catch the attention of the audience it desperately hopes to serve.
Under new climate laws implemented by decade long efforts from grassroots movements, most developers look for low-cost interventions to reach primary targets. Although these interventions are successful by reverting to passive cooling strategies, they barely dent the scale’s carbon numbers. As India’s second most carbon-intensive sector, architecture needs to rethink its design methodology from part to whole. The new method involves ensuring that individual units are sustainable blocks that fit into a larger urban plan capable of mitigating, preventing and protecting its citizens from climate change and its impacts.
At an urban scale, cosmopolitans like Hyderabad have doubled their development radius in the past thirty years, expanding horizontally and vertically. They continue to grow to house an incoming urbanising population, thereby inflating real-estate costs and investing minimally in public infrastructure. Neglectful design that has no regard for the natural environment and the people it sustains is no longer a viable option with the targets set by climate scientists for 2030 to ensure a liveable planet.
Architectural reform to fight the climate crisis involves three crucial steps: prevention, mitigation, and protection. Such a reform would require cross and interdisciplinary approaches with students and faculty, local institutions, government officials, professionals, non-profit organisations, and community groups. Architecture and urban design would have to reconsider transportation, food networks, and energy systems while simultaneously offering affordable housing, economic growth, and employment opportunities.
Linear approaches and delegations in design have carved out dangerous bubbles of ignorance in all architectural professions’ subsets. At a local and central scale, citizens require collaboration, activism, and a complete overhaul of stringent policies as if their lives were dependent on them because, for the first time in modern human history, they indeed are.
Intensely urbanised cities making no efforts to create sustainable, affordable housing cannot accommodate refugees from drowning coastal regions, scorched agriculture lands, and others affected by climate emergencies. Existing replanting instructions from governing bodies will take decades to sequester the increasing carbon. Existing urban development plans emphasise relentless expansion, driving top-down industrial economies further up, and beautification processes. Climate change agendas restrict themselves to urban tree planting, conserving the few and scattered restricted natural zones, and dangerous quick-fixes like oil-balling that do little to protect us from ongoing and incoming natural disasters.
The COVID-19 pandemic, an outcome of exposing wildlife to urban spaces by destroying their habitats, laid bare the glaring flaws in our current design models and their inability to withstand change, let alone disaster. Our public infrastructure struggled to cope and serve in this tumultuous time when people were in desperate need of civic spaces, social infrastructure, and quality urban grounds. The pandemic is a glimpse into a future where the climate crisis will create many obstacles to a safe and healthy environment if we do not act quickly.
Immediate changes require new green bye-laws that rigorously implement sustainable and carbon-neutral or carbon-negative codes at all design scales. Ever-expanding cities and rural spaces with record-breaking sales in private vehicles and acres of impervious asphalt parking lots must be outlawed to redirect funding for new public transport investments. Planting individual trees in dead spaces between buildings is a part of the solution and not the solution itself; Large, spread-out, and accessible lung spaces with diverse local flora are vital for carbon sequestration and public health. When combined with resilient infrastructures like berms, they become indisputably critical in climate change resilience.
While implementing passive and new technologies to brace ourselves for our future, architectural activism must make space to advocate for the populace they serve. All country citizens are architecture and urban design clientele as we shape the urban fabric that they will reside in for generations to come. Our designs and brain-storming charrettes must transform into platforms that advocate for their health, safety, and economic well-being. Architecture schools must provide vocational training infrastructure and facilities to prepare residents and shapers of our infrastructure for the economic shift towards green-jobs.
Designers have shaped the way humans have perceived their environments since the first neanderthal pointed at a cave for shelter. For the first time in our history, we face a challenge that poses as a profound opportunity to provide environmental protection, human equity and fair economic distribution to all. Top-down approaches will ensure the benefit and protection of a selected few in a country with beguiling diversity. Radically reforming architecture today holds the potential to unlock a new renaissance, and the only way towards that goal is together.