Despite the fact that it became the capital of our nation fairly recently, (in 1911, before which it was Calcutta), Delhi has been the epicenter of political, cultural and architectural activity throughout history. Numerous settlements were established before, during, and after the Islamic rule, in the area commonly called the ‘Delhi Triangle,’ bound to the south and the west by the Aravalli Range, and to the east by the Yamuna River.
Soon enough the city became synonymous with growth and opportunity, as it continues to be to date. So much so, that in 1985, the National Capital Region Planning Board Act acknowledged the National Capital Region to extend far and beyond the boundaries of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, and include the satellite towns of Gurugram, Faridabad, and Ghaziabad, amongst others — as Delhi alone was unable to absorb the increasing number of migrants. To offer some perspective – the population of Delhi alone stands at 1.9 crores, as of 2011. However, when we take into account the neighboring regions, this number rises to 4.6 crores. Hence it is reductive to study Delhi in isolation.
The Yamuna served as a medium of transport and trade, a source of freshwater, as well a positive influence on the soil fertility and climate of the region, in olden times. However, in today’s date, the river receives 800 million litres of largely untreated sewage and additional 44 million litres of industrial effluents each day. Only 35 percent of the sewage released into the river is believed to be treated. The source of such a devastating change can be accredited to the city’s rampant growth in population, as well as rapid industrialization.
There is a direct correlation between a rise in population and the lowering of environmental standards, public health, as well as the quality of life. A rise in the population, as well as the population density, implies more housing, and a greater need for connectivity – such as intra-city roads and metro networks, thus increasing the overall need for infrastructure. As per the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) officials, 30 percent of air pollution is caused due to dust that emanates from construction sites. It is important for us architects and builders to acknowledge the role we play in such a scenario.
One of the main problems faced by many large cities all across the world is that of high rise buildings. These buildings cause extreme damage to the environment while they are being constructed as well as post-occupancy. They require a much deeper excavation compared to conventional buildings, which causes numerous adverse changes to the soil – such as a reduction in the base flow, rise in the groundwater temperature, and contamination of soil and its fertility, to name a few. It also puts the neighboring building’s pre-existing foundations and structural stability at a risk.
Construction and demolition activities contribute to windblown dust problems, known as ‘fugitive dust’, onto nearby areas which can remain suspended for numerous weeks. Multiple diesel-operated machines and generators are responsible for emissions of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxides.
Noxious vapors from oils, glues, thinners, paints, treated woods, plastics, cleaners, and other hazardous chemicals that are widely used on construction sites, also contribute to air pollution, as well as several respiratory complications. Air pollution influences not only our physical health but also our experience of the built environment. Buildings and landscapes become soft and gritty, losing their clarity, sharpness, and color behind a veil of smog.
Further, construction activities are also leading sources of water pollution. Surface water run-off carries pollutants from the site, such as diesel and oil, toxic chemicals, and building materials like cement. When these substances get into waterways they cause harm to the existing marine life. Pollutants on construction sites can also soak into the groundwater, a source of human drinking water. Once contaminated, groundwater is much more difficult to treat than surface water.
Lastly, construction sites produce a lot of noise pollution. Excessive noise is not only annoying and distracting but can lead to hearing loss, high blood pressure, sleep disturbance, and extreme stress. Research has shown that high noise levels disturb the natural cycles of animals and reduces their usable habitat.
In recent times, it is unfortunate to say that the approach of most architects has been that of ignorance and denial. Pollution is shrugged off as someone else’s responsibility – the government, the occupant, environmentalists, or engineers. Building regulations are bent and broken to suit the builder’s need and consumption ethics take the back seat. This is extremely evident in NCR’s IT hub regions – where cascading facades of glass and aluminium are a common sight – a material choice that is well known to exacerbate the condition.
Given the existing population trends, Delhi will overtake Tokyo as the world’s largest urban agglomeration by 2030 and have a population of 4.3 crores, and the NCR is expected to reach a baffling 6 crores. We can hope that with an increase in public awareness and diligent policymaking in the near future, these numbers shall be stunted to some degree, but there is still a dire need to recalibrate an architect’s individual approach to curb environmental pollution.
We need to remediate. Giving the buildings we create more meaning than the existing one of simple repositories of energy and resources. A term given to this ideal is ‘design activism’. In the future, buildings must assume a role in improving the interior and exterior environmental conditions. This can be done by architects making conscious choices of materials and design at every step – ensuring the health and safety of not only those who will be using the building but also those that will be constructing it.
Emphasis on building climate-responsive, sustainable, architecture that is in tune with the region’s existing ecological and cultural context is an architect’s social responsibility. We need to construct structures that are not only eco-friendly on their own – but also provoke a need for change, and encourage improved standards for all.