Urban designs to meet demographic challenge
India's population growth poses challenges for sustainability, but architects can contribute through efficient urban planning, preservation, and collaboration.
India surpassed China to become the world’s most populous country this year. India’s population trajectory presents significant challenges for environmental sustainability, resource management, and social development. Without foresight or planning, this phenomenon further exacerbates land degradation, water scarcity, air pollution, waste management, and biodiversity loss.
Population growth, urbanisation, and the environment are intertwined. Efficient urban planning, which is mindful of the social fabric and accommodates the needs of the growing population while minimising its impact on the environment, is the need of the hour. However, while population growth can cause environmental stress, it’s necessary to consider the broader context. For example, the per capita resource consumption and carbon footprint of developed countries is much higher than that of developing countries such as India. India also has the opportunity to learn from the excessive consumption patterns of developed nations, so that it can avoid that path.
Architecture needs to adopt a two-pronged approach for a sustainable future. One is preservation, which includes retrofitting and repurposing existing structures to help conserve resources, reduce waste, and preserve the cultural identity of cities. The other is collaborating across disciplines — with scientists and engineers, for example —to develop new and more efficient construction technologies. This is a field where we need to catch up with the world. Architects must transform how we build through research and innovation in sustainable building technologies, materials, and construction practices.
India’s population only needs 10% of its landmass to thrive. Urban designers and architects can contribute to sustainable urban planning by designing compact, accessible, and mixed-use developments that prioritise public transportation, pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, and green spaces to reduce urban sprawl and promote efficient land use. By locating residential, commercial, and recreational areas in close proximity, it becomes easier to provide public transportation options, reduce commuting distances, and minimise energy consumption.
Designing efficient and sustainable transportation options can subsequently influence policies for provision of infrastructure. Additionally, there should be a focus on developing pedestrian and cycling infrastructure so that the city can promote non-motorised transportation and reduce carbon emissions.
Architects already have a well-defined agenda of sustainable design—this includes optimising building orientation for natural lighting and ventilation, using energy-efficient materials and systems, and implementing renewable energy technologies, which can significantly reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. In a country like India, mechanical air conditioning use can be reduced by up to 85%.
Architects also play a pivotal role in preserving and creating green spaces within urban areas. Parks, gardens, and urban forests serve as recreational spaces, aid in temperature regulation and air purification, and contribute to the ecological balance. Green infrastructure such as green roofs, vertical gardens, and urban agriculture can be incorporated into designs. These features help mitigate the urban heat island effect, improve air quality and support urban biodiversity. Effective waste management systems are also essential to reduce the impact of urbanisation on the environment. Implementing waste segregation at source, promoting recycling and composting, and establishing proper waste treatment are essential planning requirements.
If harvested, one-third of the rainfall India receives can provide each person access to over 2,000 litres of water daily. The term “engineers for humanity” becomes relevant in designing sustainable water management systems. Engineers working with architects can address water scarcity and pollution in a sustainable manner. Encouraging rainwater harvesting, implementing efficient water distribution systems, promoting water conservation practices, and treating wastewater for reuse can help alleviate pressure on water resources and maintain water quality.
The government recognises the need for an overarching national development roadmap to mitigate environmental issues. Noteworthy policies for growth include the National Action Plan on Climate Change, Clean India Mission (Swachh Bharat Abhiyan), National Water Mission, National Biodiversity Authority, and others. While these are crucial for sustainable urbanisation, their successful implementation requires coordination among various stakeholders, such as government bodies, architects, engineers, urban planners, developers, community organisations, and citizens.
Sonali Rastogi is founding partner at Morphogenesis and a former member of the Delhi Urban Art Commission. The views expressed are personal