The shape of things to come
IS living a life which is naturally in harmony with one’s surroundings beyond our grasp? Those of us who choose to think so have probably given up, forever, on the possibility of having a natural way of living, perhaps accepted a life that subordinates us to the pressures and practices of an unnatural life. It is with this in mind that both Vikram Soni and I began by looking at cities from a completely new perspective, taking a cue from the fundamentals of evolution and living organisms. The city is a living thing and so should share some of its ethos with living beings, as is so simply and wonderfully brought out in the book, Naturally: Tread Softly on the Planet.1
All living organisms maintain a steady state reflected in their internal equilibrium – temperature, pressure, trace elements, blood plasma – what is known as homeostasis. A small departure from normal temperature and we fall sick. Scaling up, the earth also maintains such a steady state by keeping its atmosphere’s profile constant and so also the salt content of the sea water. This is the organizing principle of life in nature.
Cities fall at an intermediate scale between living organisms (like us) and the planet. So the question arises, can we have self-organizing, steady state cities? Cities should be able to manage themselves and be self-sustaining, with a single energy input – like food for us and the sun for the earth. So was born the idea of natural cities. This alternative possibility presented here can enable us to live a natural life in our cities that is in harmony with nature. This alternative is embodied in the proposal for Natural Cities which describes a new generation of urban settlements that can live in harmony with nature.2
The term ‘natural cities’ is applicable both to new greenfield settlements being created to absorb the growing migration in the Asian world as well as to existing cities, particularly mega-cities which need to regenerate themselves as natural cities. In the present climate of rampant urbanization, cities are inflating beyond scale and need a huge import of resources from a distance – this includes water and produce. This is very invasive and causing damage to evolutionary resources like rivers and aquifers. Natural cities simply restore the natural relationship that has always existed between human beings, their built environment, its hinterland and the entire natural world that surrounds us all – 2% of whose area we happen to occupy on a land mass that covers one-third of the planet.
At the heart of natural cities lies an idea that gives body to the philosophical concepts generally prevalent and commonly encountered in the daily lives, thoughts and beliefs of ancient indigenous people, some of whose cultures have been wounded, and an overwhelming number of eastern people. By such people I mean all people amongst whom there exists, howsoever weakly, a constant binding concern to retain that physical and spiritual relationship of inseparable unity that exists between themselves and the larger universe of nature. In terms of geography, many such people lived and thrived in the Americas, Australia, Central Asia, the Caucasus and India, Tibet, China, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Thailand together with other people of the East who share this concern as an overriding presence in their daily lives.
In these regions, there is generally found a special relationship between cultural practices and a deep respect for nature. There are differences in beliefs and attitudes about nature among these peoples and those who have existed in the western regions of the globe. Joseph Campbell has sought to articulate this difference in cultural domains more specifically: ‘Higher cultures’, he explains ‘are separated into two groups with the dividing line at Iran. Westward of this cultural watershed are the two provinces of Europe and the Levant; eastward, India and the Far East. In both the oriental provinces the essential belief concerning the ultimate truth, the ultimate substance, the ultimate mystery of being, is that it transcends all description, all naming and all categories.’3
In terms of soteriology, the logic of Buddhism, Sufism, Shamanism and other holistic beliefs is embedded, one way or another, in both the oral as well as the written cultures of those who are on one side of the cultural watershed as defined by Hajime Nakamura, who explains his use of the term ‘Eastern People’: ‘My reason is that among these four peoples (India, China, Tibet and Japan) alone did there exist, however imperfectly, a study of Buddhist logic… I believe that the various other peoples of the East have nearly the same ways of thinking as one or other of these four.’
The physical features of natural cities cannot provide a universal template for all situations. There can be innumerable versions and clones of natural cities. There is significant difference, for instance, between the design challenges and goals of regenerating an existing city into a natural city and one that is a greenfield project. Then again, the challenges to be faced for a natural city of one million are very different from those for a natural city of one hundred thousand inhabitants. It is likely that these multiple versions of a natural city could be held together by their commonly shared guiding principles discussed earlier.
Natural cities are an integral part of the entire natural world and continually restore their equilibrium by balancing their outputs with their inputs, thus sustaining the rest of the natural world by not depending on parasitically exploiting it for survival. Far from providing a comprehensive framework for the complex inputs required to construct these cities, there is an indicative glimpse of some of the important physical components that define such a city. One way to define it would be to identify some the key physical characteristics of a city that would exclude it from being categorized as a natural city.
Such characteristics would be apparent if the city had a population exceeding one million; no intention to use 100% renewable energy and continue to use power generated by diesel, coal, nuclear and any form of fossil fuel; no intentions of recycling 100% of its waste; unable to obtain most of its daily food needs from its own hinterland footprint and depending on its food being transported from distant hinterland regions of other settlements; no intention to be self-sufficient in its water supply but to rely on a parasitic arrangement where water is taken from another community and transported across many regions; and governance that is not transparent and does not support 100% renewability or have intentions to address removing un-freedoms to become a natural city.
Sustainability is both an ideal and a definition of abstinence for both the individual as well as the community at large. Sustainability practices that are an inseparable part of daily life in natural cities also define the levels of constraints to unnatural practices. Therefore, adopting it as a way of life poses a challenge to the individual and their inner beliefs and faith in the world around them. I would argue that the issue of sustainable living becomes a part of the faith of individuals believing in a larger commitment to the survival of the entire species. At the same time, an equal amount of responsibility is shifted to communities and governments to provide guidance at both the microscopic and macroscopic levels to a tenet that could become an article of faith for the community too.
The Asian cities of the future will need to be natural cities to accommodate a civilization where more than half its population will be living. An optimum natural city is a compact urban settlement made porous by agricultural cultivation located on the high ground besides the flood plains of the major rivers. It could have populations ranging from 50,000 to one million. These figures would need to be further refined by new sustainability evaluations. For instance, a country like India would need more than a thousand natural cities of varying sizes, both existing as well as new settlements by 2050, located near water sources such as on the edge of flood plains, across the whole country. Many of these would be existing cities regenerated into natural cities while others would be greenfield settlements.
We have worked out a blueprint for natural cities that are situated by the river flood plains.4 For example, Himalayan rivers have flood plain aquifers that are extensive sandbanks, over five kilometres wide and 100 metres deep and run thousands of kilometres along the river. Over one-third of this volume is occupied by water. What is special here is that we have natural storage with no evaporation loss and natural recharge from rainfall and floods that can provide quality water for millions of people. This is a non-invasive, perennial, self-sustaining solution that ‘preserves and uses’ this prodigious resource. Furthermore, natural cities are self-sustaining in vegetable produce and milk with an architecture of natural climate and temperature control. Their layout cuts commuting distances by over a half and provides green areas per person that is three times the norm in our cities today. This substantially reduces pollution and provides a health index that is hugely better. This will make them non-invasive and energy lean.
In the template currently being designed, a typical natural city occupies, approximately, an area of 15x15 kms. Out of its 100 blocks, each 1.5x1.5 kms, 50 blocks are dedicated to urban agriculture and the other half to urban development in the form of neighbourhood blocks. The flood plain adjacent to the city limits is also used for seasonal vegetable cultivation as part of the commons of the city.
The commons refers to resources that are collectively owned or shared between the inhabitants of natural cities and include natural resources, energy as well as aspects of community software and cultural practices that cannot be appropriated by individuals or groups of individuals. The commons in natural cities are the urban equivalent of village ownership (panchayat lands or shamlat space in India) of commonly owned lands used for grazing or fishing and irrigation.
Within the footprint of natural cities, the commons could include various aspects and properties used for cultural activities such as a music festival or a carnival or food fairs as well as heritage properties, religious structures and in some cases agricultural fields as well as the infrastructure that allows society in natural cities to function daily, such as electricity or water distribution systems. By including the city infrastructure within the domain of the commons, natural cities may choose to go against the current trend of handing over the infrastructure of the city to private operators for harvesting, generation and distribution.
Some excellent work on frameworks for the commons has been done by the Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom who has explained the eight principles of sustainable governance of Common Pool Resources (CPR): (i) Clearly defined boundaries that exclude unentitled parties; (ii) Rules for appropriation and provision adapted to local conditions; (iii) Collective choice arrangements allowing for resource appropriators to participate in decision making; (iv) Effective monitoring by monitors; (v) Sanctions for violations; (vi) Cheap and easily accessible mechanisms for conflict resolution; (vii) Self-determination of local communities recognized by authorities; and (viii) For larger common pool resources, a layered enterprise set-up.
The whole city is surrounded by a forest to a depth of 1.5-2 kms beyond which lies the agricultural footprint of the city. The vegetable cultivation blocks are irrigated by canals which bring the water from sources which could be upstream of the river and connected back to it downstream. These canals of about 30 feet width punctuate the city and provide water to the urban agricultural lots and are designed as loops that return surplus water to the source. The location of natural cities on the high ground adjacent to the flood plains of major rivers ensures adequate year round water availability. These flood plains are their reservoirs of water, provided by nature free of cost and also their source of pure water.
Natural cites are largely self-sustaining in terms of its water, energy, food and governance. Its central concern is to be in balance with nature, which is part of our ancient heritage. Natural cites are agro-urban settlements. We are in the initial stages of developing a matrix for the evaluation of the cost and achievements of alternative solutions. GDP is just one of the factors in evaluating their potential quality of life.
For instance, the move towards self-sufficient energy is made by reducing the ambient temperature of the city environment by natural convection. In designing for self-sufficiency of water, designers contend that it is essential to recognize the presence of virtual water that can be cumulative. To produce one kilogram of wheat about 1000 litres of water are needed, but for beef about 15 times as much is required. A majority of the water that natural cities will consume is likely to be embedded in the cultivation of food.
The water requirements for natural cities, like all scarce resources, is managed by the community mechanisms for monitoring and quality. Managing water requires the implementation of steps and policies that relate to balancing water consumption with availability. Water is a finite resource which, unlike power, cannot be generated except by expensive desalination. Many natural cities will tap the water stored below the surface of the flood plains of rivers, use water harvesting of seasonal rain and monsoon, and recycle all water in use. Natural cities will meet their overall water requirements from within their ecological footprint, since its availability will determines the population size of a natural city. It has a closed loop water system for domestic, commercial and agricultural use. Each inhabitant requires 150-200 litres a day while agricultural and industrial demands on water will vary from region to region and from city to city. It is likely that agriculture will take up to 80% of the water requirements.
Basing our calculations on the work done by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, Urban and Ecological Footprint, a natural Indian city for a million people would require an agricultural hinterland of approximately 3000 to 4000 sq kilometres to meet most of its food and other daily needs. However, a more accurate calculation will be given subsequently when we come up with detailed blueprints for natural cities.
A natural city’s footprint is computed to consider its food and water requirements. Not all the food needed for a city can be sourced from the hinterland footprint. These shortfalls in the food requirements can also be calculated by using desirable calorie levels available from local organic food and the need to supplement the shortages from food imports into the footprint. Due to a need for different grains, for instance, the varied grain requirements of the inhabitants would be met from net imports from other regions. The marketing of local produce in natural cities would be done through farmer markets.
To enhance the proportion of locally available food in natural cities, each city fabric is made porous by the cultivated plots for urban agriculture. These plots, seen as chequered patterns on the Master Plan, are primarily for seasonal and perennial vegetables distinct from the crop supplies from the hinterland footprint of the city which are computed separately. For each block of built-up space, in the more complex model illustrated here, an equivalent areas has been set aside for food production. These areas have been distributed unevenly across the cityscape according to the assigned floor area ratio (FAR). Different densities of built-up spaces relate to different sized agricultural plots.
‘Natural cities’ is in a preliminary stage of design. It needs to be shared with governments, peer groups, community practitioners and individuals to enable the idea to be part of a link in a growing web of awareness around the globe about the value of living naturally. While this introduction to natural cities is somewhat of a skeletal one, in the absence of adequate networks it lacks an institutional structure, material real time opportunities, finances and technological and operational knowhow to enable coordinating its values with the world wide thinking about new urban ecosystem that are currently being discussed in a number of forums.
All the nuts and bolts that are required to convert the idea into a national solution to urbanization are potentially available. For instance, India has excellent scientific and institutional access to its natural resources to monitor them. It also has ample skill levels in scientific, evaluation and information technology disciplines that could create an overlap between government and non-government groups to initiate the necessary modifications and adaptations to begin sponsoring development through natural living in natural cities.
Natural cities get designed and built in a series of phases. Initially they begin by absorbing the fresh migrations that seek to go to existing metropolitan cities. In the next phase, they would be designed in ways to provide alternative capability employment to the young agents of change living in metropolitan cities, by attracting them with a much more sophisticated sustainable living environment. In the third and following stages, as the number of natural cities increases across the country, the settled populations in the existing cities will begin to migrate to natural cities, thus beginning the process of depopulating the mega-cities down to sustainable levels.
Living naturally does not need the use of mind-boggling technologies. It simply consists of living in non-invasive ways that makes it possible to live ones daily life in a more natural, simple and non-toxic way as part of contemporary life. Living in such a natural way involves reducing overall consumption and surplus accumulation, and reducing our dependence on artificial enhancers of energy production to satisfy insatiable tastes and the use of chemical enhancers on food and body, choosing instead to give the highest priority to living an organic, ecological friendly lifestyle that is inherently part of a life that benefits each family, the community at large and, of course, the earth. Natural cities evolve constantly through their adaptive modes of governance and varying sets of rules crafted to fit varying situations. There will be evasions and corruptions and the rules will need to constantly adapt to minimize them so that the entire process is not undermined or exploited by its rigidity.
The book, ‘Naturally’, takes us through a multitude of non-invasive solutions for the planet to set up a scheme for living that is not injurious for the planet. As pointed out in the book, natural cities are self-organized, complex living organisms. They evolve from the obsolete remnants of 19th century cities that have become a contrived part of Asia’s urban world, irretrievably unsustainable and governed by outmoded economic and planning models centred on wealth accumulation that is indifferent to poverty. The declining charisma of these cities can regenerate in natural cities and new development models can be transformed into an ever-expanding awareness about prosperity with natural ways of living.
Dealing with the immediacy of daily crises, it would seem that proposing an idealistic idea such as a natural city is some pie in the sky. Most of our leaders are content to let developed country minds occupy themselves with ideas and concepts about the future and, therefore, ignore the warnings of approaching disasters. Fortunately, there are some exceptions. The idea of natural cities has been taken seriously on board by a group of farmers and social activists from Andhra where the state government is proposing to build a new capital city called Amaravati. Its concept and designs have been prepared by consultants from Singapore because the administration wishes to replicate Singapore in the future Amaravati which has been located on the banks of river Krishna. No greater disaster can be foretold for this proposed city located in the flood plain of the Krishna. The farmers and activists are agitating for a natural city, a city for the future and have already convened meetings in Andhra and Delhi to promote natural city alternatives. They have also taken their case to the National Green Tribunal. It seems that natural cities are here to stay.
1. Vikram Soni, Naturally: Tread Softly on the Planet. HarperCollins India, 2015, p. 109.
2. Vikram Soni, Romi Khosla and Arjun Bhagat, Natural Cities, YouTube, 2012.
3. Joseph Campbell, The Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays 1959-1987. New World Library, California, 2007.
4. Vikram Soni and Arvind Virmani, ‘Natural Cities’, The Economic and Political Weekly 49(19), 10 May 2014. ‘Natural Cities’ in Vikram Soni, Arvind Virmani and Romi Khosla (eds.), The Place of Nature in Tomorrow’s City. ISOLA Publications, 2015. Proceedings of the 8th Isola Conference, Bhopal, 2012.