The smart city concept does not have a concrete definition. But surely, urban planners promise to improve quality of life with the use of advanced technology. For instance, installing sensors for universal monitoring finds a place at the top of the smart city development priorities. Ensuring that the gathered data helps cities run smoothly while streamlining operations. In the line, there is IoT, AI, Robotics that is being used to address issues like traffic, pollution, crime etc.
It is ironic here that we all talk about the adverse effects of the dramatically increasing use of smartphones, laptops, etc. But do we focus on the accelerating use of smart city technology? Without proper consideration, mass production of these could increase carbon emissions – instead of solving the problem. In fact, many smart city projects have faced an extreme backlash from the residents. Sidewalk Lab’s high-profile transformation of the Quayside area of Toronto and mass refusal to live in a smart city in Mexico are clear examples.
Besides, the urban landscapes quoted as ‘smart’ are increasingly more vulnerable to adverse weather, floods, unbreathable air among other problems. This is the result of an unhealthy disconnect between humans and nature. So, we need to connect cities and live symbiotically with nature. The idea comes from Julia Watson, a landscape designer and Columbia University professor.
Even today, there are many people around the world who are living symbiotically with nature – retaining the ancient wisdom. Cities can learn from them and apply low-tech ecological solutions to drainage, wastewater processing, flood survival, local farming, pollution and more. These have worked for indigenous people for thousands of years without any need for sensors, computer servers or additional IT infrastructure.
From The Journey Of Julia Watson
Recently, Watson wrote a book called ‘Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism, published in 2019. The book gives an intense insight into the history, philosophy and engineering behind climate-resilient infrastructure developed by native people. It analyses all of this through the lens of architecture.
Watson’s seven years of research has gone into creating this book after visiting the places that she has presented in the form of case studies. She began the exploration by visiting the rice terraces in Bali, Indonesia which is locally known as ‘Subak.’ For centuries, the local communities have built green steps in the volcanic mountainside for farming. They have applied a sophisticated irrigation system that benefits from the natural watershed. Rains leach minerals from the volcanic soil and subterrene canal system transport water and natural fertiliser to the rice farms. As Watson says, this system is one of the most biodiverse and productive rice-growing lands on Earth.
Just like this one, we have explored three other places from Watson’s list. This will help you with a clear picture of connecting cities with nature.
The Living Bridges Of Meghalaya
Meghalaya (meaning ‘abode of the clouds) is a state in North India that gets the highest rainfall in the country. It is one of the wettest places on Earth adorned with beautiful green valleys and deep gorges. The hills in the region are home to the Khasi tribes for centuries. Over time, this community has developed an intimate relationship with the surrounding forests which apparently seems to be a natural wonder.
Ages ago, the Khasi tribe invented a natural way to cross the raging waterways and connect the secluded villages. This gave birth to living root bridges during the time when there was nothing like modern construction materials. To begin with, tree trunks of Ficus elastica are planted on both sides of the riverbank to build a strong foundation. Gradually, over a period of 15 to 30 years, the Khasi tribe string the roots of the trees. This is done across a temporary bamboo scaffolding to connect the banks, hence forming the living bridge. Slowly, humidity and foot traffic together help compress the soil and the tangle of roots grow thick and strong.
These living bridges become more resilient over time and can survive centuries. A mature bridge is able to bear loads of up to 35 people at a time. Whether it is flash flooding or storm surges (common in the region), it withstands them sturdily. As per Watson, this low-cost and sustainable way can help reduce urban heat island effect by spreading canopy cover along the streets. Roots can be directed into trusses that integrate with the architecture of the street. Moreover, it can also preserve its native use during seasonal floods – with these bridges flowing over water in cities.
Constructing Houses With Reeds
The marshlands at the confluence of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates in Iraq are home to the locals called Ma’dan people. They are also known as Marsh Arabs.
Reeds grow abundantly in the area surrounding the marshes. Therefore, this woody perennial grass is used by the Ma’dan people for constructing their homes. The reeds are wrapped in bundles to build columns, arches, and walls – the supporting structures. Impressively, a reed house can be erected in just 3 days time. Sometimes these houses also float on islands known as “tuhul”. And depending on the rising and falling water levels, they are moved from one place to another. The re-erection takes less than a day. Although the material used is simple, these homes have a lifespan of up to 25 years. But they need proper maintenance.
During Saddam Hussein’s reign, the Ma’dan people persecuted for housing people who the government regarded as terrorists of the state. The marshes drained to an extent where much of the Ma’dan people had no option but to move to find adequate food. This led to a reduction of half a million of the population to 1,600 at the turn of the century. After the fall of the regime, the dams were broken, reviving the marshes to approximately 50% of their original capacity. This paved the way for the regrowth of the Ma’dan culture.
As opposed to steel and concrete, the reed is an extremely low-cost and sustainable solution to building homes.
Waffle Gardens – A Sustainable Farming Technique
Zuni people in Mexico grow “waffle gardens” to catch, store and manipulate water for desert crop farming. Their farming villages inhabit valleys surrounded by Jurassic, Triassic and Early Cretaceous mudstone mesas. Since the origin of Zuni, their survival was dependent on what the land provided. So, they developed various farming techniques that helped them tackle the variable availability of water and incompetent soil quality. Some of these include terrace gardening, dry-land farming and run-off agriculture. The fields were strategically placed on alluvial fans allowing the farmers to catch and redirect runoff and nutrient-rich sediment from upper watersheds.
On a smaller scale, each Zuni household maintained a waffle garden. First, they level the garden to ensure each spot receives an equal amount of water. Then, water is allowed to infiltrate the dry soil. Once the land is wet, waffles are created by building small walls. The traditional method is to make waffles by hand using a flat piece of sandstone. This results in the creation of box-size depressions that concentrate water available near plants while strongly resisting winds.
As an excellent source of compost, the Zuni use a mixture of forest soil and sheep manure to grow the plants efficiently.
A Lesson For Smart Cities
Helga Fassbinder points out the use of electric cars, touted as sustainable. She is an urban planner, political scientist, writer, and a former professor at the University of Technology Eindhoven, The Netherlands, and University of Technology Hamburg, Germany. She writes that the introduction of electric cars is a decision involving the premature replacement of fossil-fuel-powered cars. The deployment is justified with an increase in energy efficiency and reduction in emissions. Yet, smart cities have neglected to consider the resource consumption and emissions produced by the production of new electric cars. What about the consumption of raw material for electric batteries? Likewise, each tech-oriented roll out in cities needs better attention.
The examples discussed above, and many more can help cities rethink the urban landscape instead of exploring beyond, one must know what is actually needed. Watson emphasises that we must learn from this wisdom to shape the future cities before all of this is lost forever.