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Global re-thinking

The new slum, space colonies orbiting Earth, eco-cities built from scratch, ‘back-up’ capitals for emergencies… RoryOlcayto presents an overview of the world’s most radical sustainable design ideas

A horror story to suit the times played out on Halloween this year: the seven billionth member of the human race was born. Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, says the planet could sustain just 2.5 billion people if we all consumed US levels of grain (800kg) per person per year. There just isn’t enough land to grow the grain we’d need. But if we all lived like Indians, on 200kg per year, the Earth could handle 10 billion humans.

This is just one of many statistics we use to focus attention on the developing world and to remind ourselves of Western excess, which we talk about lots but do little about. (Global emissions rose again in 2010, after a small drop in 2009, the first full year of recession.) And it’s maybe why, in the world of design and construction, noted thinkers like Stewart Brand and celebrity opinion formers like Kevin McCloud have taken such an interest in slums. They think you should live like Indians too: it’s the current big idea in urban sustainable design. High density, fully recycled, multi-function shanty towns built by residents, with no involvement from planners, architects or contractors, have supplanted the sci-fi eco-city.

‘Squatters are now the dominant city builders in the world,’ says Brand. ‘They are the world’s most efficient users of energy and materials. They recycle everything themselves, and provide extensive recycling services for the city at large. Dharavi, the biggest slum in Mumbai, has 4,000 recycling units and 30,000 rag-pickers.’ McCloud was converted during his visit to India in 2009. ‘There is a tremendously elastic attitude to what is theirs, what they own, and how they work in and use space,’ he said of Dharavi’s residents, for a Channel 4 programme broadcast last year.

It is no coincidence that slums are being reassessed during a global recession. Visionary ideas are out. In the West, when money is especially scarce, retrofit is the new buzzword: refurbishing older buildings to make them more energy efficient. Popular culture reflects this. Two of this year’s Stirling Prize shortlist were retrofits: Allford Hall Monaghan Morris’ Angel Building, and the Royal Shakespeare and Swan Theatres by Bennetts Associates.

Elsewhere, instability in financial markets has seen off ambitious projects. Masdar, a zero-carbon city in the desert alongside Abu Dhabi airport designed by Foster + Partners, has been massively cut back. The ambition was for a six square-kilometre walled city with 50,000 residents and 1,500 businesses. Last October, Masdar’s developer said it was scaling back the zero-carbon targets of the $22 billion project. Today, the city amounts to just six buildings. And only weeks ago plans were shelved for a headquarters that would make more energy than it consumes. The building, officials say, ‘will now be built in phases, in line with market demand and economic conditions at the time’.

China, too, is stalling. Its premier zero-carbon project, Dongtan, designed by Arup in 2005, is another grand vision on the scrapheap. Proposed for the island of Chongming in Shanghai, it was conceived as a city for half a million people. At the time, Arup’s press release sounded like the future. ‘Dongtan will produce its own energy from wind, solar, bio-fuel and recycled city waste,’ we were told. ‘Clean technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells will power public transport. A network of cycle and footpaths will help the city achieve close to zero vehicle emissions. Farmland within the Dongtan site will use organic farming methods to grow food.’ Yet nothing was built in the years that followed, and by 2009 it was dead wood. Arup doesn’t even mention it on its website anymore.

Both Masdar and Dongtan have their detractors, and many are happy to see them fail, but these projects captured the imagination of the industry. They at least looked like bold ideas for a new century. In the 1970s, as awareness of the growing population developed into panic, the imaginative response was even greater than in recent years. With NASA’s support, Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill proposed space colonies, and proved we had the know-how to build them. ‘Wonderful places to live; about the size of a California beach town and endowed with weightless recreation, fantastic views, freedom, elbow-room in spades, and great wealth.’ Don Davis’ artwork, commissioned to popularise these projects (as did Brand’s 1977 book Space Colonies), is astounding: pastoral landscapes wrapped inside a doughnut structure curve upwards into the distance, with low-density townscapes and discreet hi-tech unfolding before your eyes. Thousands of these giant orbital spacecraft would be built, creating an inhabited ring to encircle the Earth.

It was an idea clearly too far ahead of its time. Today it would be considered extravagant to waste time even developing such a proposal. Yet sometimes we need to be bold. Japan, at least, is willing to think big. Its government, in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami earlier this year, has unveiled plans to build a second Tokyo which would administrate should disaster strike again. The five square-kilometre site – codenamed IRTBBC (Integrated Resort, Tourism, Business and Back-up City) – will contain facilities for parliament and ministries as well as offices, resort facilities, casinos and parks, and a 652 metre-high office building. Hajime Ishii, a member of Japan’s ruling Democratic Party, said at the launch: ‘The idea is being able to have a back-up, a spare battery for the functions of the nation.’

We need to reconsider if there really is that much to learn from slums. Residents rarely pay tax for example (it’s why sewage infrastructure is rare) and the model itself has a built-in flaw, as Brand himself writes: ‘Over time the tarpaper shacks are rebuilt of masonry, four and five stories high. The homes eventually have refrigerators, TVs, washing machines, and computers. Motor scooters multiply. Air conditioners require new levels of electricity.’ Indians don’t want to live like Indians, they want to live like Americans. All of us, however, should be thinking like the Japanese.

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