CLIMATE CHANGE: “I don’t think the planet will die. I think the earth is too powerful. She’s lived through hotter times, colder times, she’s lived with dinosaurs, without dinosaurs, she’ll live with human beings or without human beings, WE ARE DISPENSABLE.” — Vandana Shiva
To be on the brink of destruction of the Earth’s food, water and climate systems, without even realizing the severity of our predicament, is what distinguishes today’s generation.
For the gravity of our situation to be understood however, we must first understand the root cause behind this change taking place around us. When Solar energy gets absorbed at the Earth’s surface, some of it gets radiated back, as heat, into outer space. However, the “Greenhouse Gasses” present in the Earth’s atmosphere catch this outgoing heat and send it back to Earth. This is known as the “Greenhouse Effect”.
Out of all the Greenhouse Gasses, CO2 is considered to be a major one. These gasses absorb and radiate heat in all directions resulting in it getting trapped at the Earth’s Surface, impacting our Climate. Scientists have observed that since the dawn of the Industrial Age, the proportion of Greenhouse Gases has risen, giving rise to the phenomenon of ‘Global Warming’, in short, Climate Change.
Impacts of Climate Change
Many impacts of climate change are already visible, i.e. extreme weather events, glacier retreat, changes in the timing of seasonal events, sea-level rise, the decline in Arctic sea ice extent, etc.
Architecture and Climate
Since the time Humans existed, so have their dwellings. So how is it that today, in the 21st century, these very dwellings are contributing to the end of our existence?
There is no short and easy answer to this. Global Warming is believed to be the root cause of climate change today and is attributed, by scientists, to the rise in levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. It is widely believed that there are TWO main causes for globally rising CO2 levels
- Deforestation, and
- Industrial emissions.
Role of Architects In:
We are in the midst of one of the greatest human migrations that our world has ever seen — that of humanity from rural areas into cities.
The Dawn of Urbanization:
By 2050, it’s estimated that three of every four people on Earth will live in cities, with many of them settling in these mega-urban centres. Michael Bloomberg recently referred to this century as the “era of cities.”
Rapid spurts of Urbanization though, create a highly emphasized need for structures, which are usually met with a supply of glass box skyscrapers on the one hand and tin roof settlements on the other. Trees are cut down to build both these boxes, whose windows are shut to the macroclimate outside, and dwell in an entirely new electronic dependent microclimate on the inside.
To elaborate, Glass-fronted structures are popular within the urban built environments, as they provide a striking addition to the city’s skyline and give a great view from inside the building as well. It also makes sure that the building has plenty of light. But the sunlight also brings in tremendous amounts of heat. As there is no place for it to naturally escape, the building tends to heat up. To combat this problem, air conditioning is universally used.
However, in contrast, we see that thousands of years ago, ancient civilizations worked with earthly materials to build homes. Solutions were created to integrate the habitable space with the surrounding Macroclimate.
The need of the hour today is for Architects to draw from the past and integrate traditional building techniques to today’s functional requirements. Each structure should be designed as a solution, which is in sync with the region and its natural climate. An excellent example of this is the Maeslantkering – a storm surge barrier on the Nieuwe Waterweg, in South Holland, Netherlands. Controlled by a supercomputer, it automatically closes when Rotterdam is threatened by floods. Part of the Delta Works, it is one of the largest moving structures on Earth.
Below are some more examples of pioneering architectural designs.
The original urban growth model, from the first cities up until around 1750, was created by three powerful influences.
- growth limits based on the distances that people could walk or drive a horse-drawn vehicle,
- a location near a river or harbour and
- fortifications to protect from armed invasion.
Thus, there was a natural limit on deforestation as cities started around harbours and did not stretch out far. However, with the advent of Industrial Era and the invention of roads, highways, railways and eventually, the automobiles, aircraft and so on, the radius of easily commutable distances increased and soon this led to forests on the fringes of cities getting converted into urban settlements.
Automobiles without a doubt are a major factor contributing to the high amount of CO2 emissions. Yet in today’s fast-paced city life, with time being precious, how does one convince commuters to give up on the fast pace, comfort and convenience that a car brings to their commute. Clearly there is a gap between what is good for the planet as opposed to what is comfortable. Architecture can help bridge this gap.
To give an example, the urban growth model adopted by Vancouver in Canada uses a very innovative approach. The city through its design has provided its commuters with various alternatives, to the car, that are economical, time, comfort and environment friendly. The design of roads has a lane dedicated for bicycles with its very own grass cover. To promote walking and jogging the sidewalks have been designed to contain several small cafes and lounging pads, which serve as meeting and resting points. Public transport has been made easily accessible and all of this, in turn, has led greatly in the reduction of the use of automobiles. Thus, a well-designed city can contribute to building the health, wealth and happiness of its dwellers.