What can we learn from pre-carbon cities?

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As cities grapple with how to achieve both mitigation goals and implement adaptation plans, architect and researcher Dr. Sandra Piesik argues that there is a lot we can learn from vernacular materials and local knowledge.

The urban development agenda of today points to strengthening links between urban, peri-urban and rural areas through integrated national and regional planning. As cities face twin challenges of lowering emissions and coping with the impacts of climate change, there is much we can learn from “Habitat” cities, pre-carbon cities, those that evolved and developed from local knowledge, materials, in response to very specific climates and conditions.

Some of the oldest cities in the world existed before the 19-century industrial revolution, and long before we started to calculate carbon. Commerce, economic viability, food security—and neighborhoods that coexisted with nature—were all a reality, and not utopian concepts.

A deep understanding of local climate

What was smart about them? The builders of Habitat cities had a deep understanding of their climates, and knew how to adapt their built environment to their immediate surroundings. Drinking water, local renewable resources, economic self-sufficiency, and the manifestation of a material culture that often-reflected local religion, were some of the key drivers.

The desert climate, for example, produced “compacted cities”—cities with dense urban morphologies—which featured thick mud walls to provide thermal mass and cooling. Tribal neighbourhoods were woven between natural oasis ecosystems with an incredible wealth of biodiversity.

People living in the tropical climate of Southeast Asia produced examples of cities that could live with floods and water. In this instance, building on stilts was the most sensible solution for flooding. They have learnt how to use water to their advantage for transportation and trading.

The indigenous people of the Colombian city of Manizales developed earthquake-resistant lightweight buildings for their city, that sadly, were replaced by colonial buildings without earthquake-resistant characteristics, which led to tragic consequences.

The historical cities of Scandinavia had sustainable houses constructed from local timber and with regional designs, until the arrival of standardised approaches to city planning and the mechanisation of construction sadly changed them forever.

Social infrastructures

These vernacular urban interventions demonstrate that in the past, inhabitants of cities had a thorough understanding of their surroundings and worked with them. What made Habitat cities so successful, apart from their economic and agricultural sufficiency, was the socio-ethnographic DNA of these cities. The built form reflected the social structure of a family unit, tribe, cast, or clan. Strangers were welcomed, usually on the peripheries, and in an organic and unplanned way, these cities demonstrated social cohesion.

Aerial view of white buildings in cityscape

UN-HABITAT defines in the World Cities Report 2016 on Urbanisation and Development persistent issues and emerging urban challenges due to increased population which are: urban growth, change in family patterns, increased residency in slums, and informal settlements, climate change, exclusion, rising inequality, and an upsurge in international migration.

Agenda 2030

Feeding the half of the world’s population that resides in urban areas poses another challenge, especially if unemployment in rural areas becomes unemployment in cities. Adaptation of Agendas 2020 and 2030 is probably the fastest way to achieve progress. They both recognise geography (in the developed and developing world and in Annex I and Annex II countries) as well as adaptation, mitigation and technology transfer. Agenda 2030, for example, states in the Sustainable Development Goal 11: Support positive economic, social and environmental links between urban, peri-urban and rural areas by strengthening national and regional development planning”.

Written by Dr. Sandra Piesik.

Sandra Piesik will be a panellist in the “Greening the City” session, as part of the Climate Innovation Summit organised by Climate-KIC at the La Fabbrica del Vapore, Via Procaccini, Milan on Monday 30 October. 

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 “HABITAT: Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Planet”edited by Dr Sandra Piesik, is the culmination of years of specialist research. An international team of more than 140 leading experts from 50 counties, from a diverse range of disciplines, examine what the traditions of vernacular cities and architecture, and its regional craftspeople around the world, can teach us about creating a more sustainable future. Published by Thames & Hudson: 5 October 2017

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