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Jan 01

 

Auroville: what kind of future city? 

- by Alan

 

Auroville Today examines the latest thinking about making cities more livable and sustainable, and asks if we have anything to learn from the urban renewal movements which are becoming increasingly influential in the West.

Here's a paradox: for the first time in history more than 50% of the world's population live in cities, yet surveys demonstrate that many city dwellers would prefer to live elsewhere if given the chance. Why?

 

The answer lies in understanding how and why cities have evolved.

 

Cities past and present

The first cities were constructed at least 5,000 years ago. People chose to live in cities because of the need to defend themselves against enemies, but also because cities, in their density and diversity, offered a more diverse, stimulating and cultivated lifestyle than that of smaller social units. It's no accident that the term 'civilization' comes from the same root as 'city'. "People come together in cities in order to live," wrote Aristotle. "They remain together in order to live the good life".

Which way will we go? 

 

Medium density apartments
in Vikas

 

or 

 

 

suburban housing in Surrender?

 

 

Most early cities were small: when Greek cities approached about 10,000 they tended to throw off new colonies, as if they sensed that a larger unit would be unmanageable. By the Middle Ages cities in Europe, the Middle East and China were becoming larger, often approaching 50,000 inhabitants. These cities were high in population density, yet they were friendly places because they provided, through their squares and secluded streets, plenty of opportunities for people to meet each other and experience community. From a modern point of view their inhabitants lacked many conveniences yet, as urban historian David Morris points out, "there is solid evidence that their standard of living compares favourably in many respects with that of our own era. For the vast majority of people today, attaining the living standard of the typical medieval city inhabitant is still a distant dream."

The industrial revolution created a new kind of city. As the mill and factory owners constructed thousands of cramped, featureless dwellings for their workers, cities expanded enormously and their ethos changed. Now profit became more important than culture, mobility more important than social interaction. This was reflected in the fact that the volume of traffic within and through cities increased exponentially, public spaces were reduced, and urban architecture became more functional, linear than the 'organic' style of the medieval city. The great buildings of the modern industrial city are banks and office blocks rather than the cathedrals and temples around which pre-industrial cities coalesced. The industrial city remains the dominant model today. However, some of the old cities of India, China and the Middle East, have preserved more of their medieval fabric, and along with that a greater sense of community.

As city life became less pleasant, it generated a reaction. In the late 19th century, the new discipline of town planning saw high-density living as an evil, responsible for major health and social problems. Consequently the concept of the 'garden city', a city of parks, private gardens and generous spaces around dwellings, was born. The garden city, in turn, spawned the concept of 'New Towns', relatively low-density settlements where strict zoning principles were applied to ensure that residential areas were separated from places of work and industrial manufacture.

New Towns were most popular in Europe. Meanwhile, in post-1945 America, the government provided loans to city dwellers to buy homes in newly constructed suburbs: at the same time an extensive freeway system began to be constructed. The result was a mass migration from inner city areas to the suburbs, and the continuing development of those suburbs along the routes of major roads in what has become known as 'ribbon development' or 'urban sprawl'.

The worst of all possible worlds

The consequence of all these developments is a worst-case scenario. The suburb, as urban planner Peter Newman describes it, "is the most unsustainable form of settlement yet developed" because detached houses with large gardens take up an enormous amount of land which could be used for agriculture, the distances between residences and shops often means that car ownership is essential and low-density settlements weaken the sense of community. Meanwhile many inner city areas have become vandalized ghettos for the poor and marginalized.

Traditionally there was a reciprocal relationship between a city and its surrounding countryside: the city provided a market for the farmer and rural artisan. However, today's megacities, whether of the East or West, have entirely distorted this relationship. To sustain their enormous metabolisms, these cities suck an enormous amount of energy - in terms of food, petroleum, raw materials, labour, intellectual capital etc. - not only from the surrounding countryside but also from countries far away. The pollutants and waste they generate are then 'externalised', released into the air, the soil or the seas to poison the lives of those far beyond the city limits. "In the name of progress, development and growth," writes Satish Kumar, editor of Resurgence magazine, "modern industrial cities have embraced the manipulation of nature, the subjugation of people and the exploitation of the countryside."

Reviving cities

How to change this? Urban activist Richard Register points out that the problem is not with cities per se, but with the way that we conceive of and build them. For potentially city living has a lot of advantages. Their higher population density means that there are lower costs per household for services, there is reduced demand per capita for land (an apartment in a medium-rise building has only one eighth of the ecological footprint of a detached suburban home) and there is the possibility of minimizing transport use. Moreover, the concentration of production and consumption makes for more efficient use of resources.

In recognition of this fact, a new movement aimed at revivifying existing cities and creating 'sustainable' new ones has grown up in the past 30 years. Variously known as urban ecology, neo-urbanism, the eco-city or sustainable city movement, it attempts to make cities once again places of exuberance and community by "making them greener and more human" (Peter Newman). This involves, among other things, creating high-density but diverse neighbourhoods where homes, shops, public spaces and offices are intermixed. Each neighbourhood would be well-served by public transport, but many smaller roads and streets would be traffic-free to allow them to become the 'outdoor rooms' which are such a valuable feature of medieval cities. Pedestrian and cycle paths would run everywhere: in fact, everything would be arranged to discourage the use of private motorized vehicles, for these are one of the main sources of air and noise pollution (and social alienation)in cities today.

In the new type of city people would live in close proximity, but architecturally there would be much greater variety in styles of construction. However, the 'language' of a particular neighbourhood or bioregion would be preserved through the use of local materials and indigenous stylistic details. In between high density clusters there would be squares, parks and other public spaces. The natural environment would be brought back into cities through opening up creeks and rivers which had been buried under concrete, through restoring wasteland and through extensive tree planting.

Proponents of sustainable cities argue that the city has to become far more self-sufficient in terms of resource and energy generation and waste disposal. This means everything from encouraging greater food production in the city itself to promoting the widespread use of renewable energy sources, recycling and energy conservation.

Social sustainability is also encouraged through the intermingling of different economic groups and cultures: this avoids the ghetto effect and stimulates a wider sense of community. Finally, while the 'neo-urbanists' argue against zoning (except for heavy industry) because it results both in uneconomic transport use and the creation of dead areas outside the hours in which zones are used, they believe that a city has to have well-defined limits to avoid urban sprawl.

The relevance to Auroville

How far is this relevant to the proposed city of Auroville? In many ways, Auroville is a special case. Auroville began by restoring rather than by laying waste its environment, and the designated city area is very small so that accessing different parts of it is not a major problem. Again, a city which puts Matrimandir at its centre is clearly not based upon the same premise as the industrial city.

In other respects, the present reality and plans for the future already incorporate many of the eco-city recommendations. City parks and forest corridors will ensure that the city is green, while existing settlements in the residential zone already employ renewable energy systems, low energy construction materials and natural waste recycling (although not to the extent that neo-urbanists would wish).

Having said this, there remain areas of concern. Medieval cities like Siena or Oxford are welcoming because they are human-scale and constantly offering the unexpected. Small, winding alleys suddenly give onto secluded squares; the fašade of one building is picked up and played upon by the fašade of the next; in the midst of busy streets there is an enticing glimpse of a river or open fields. These cities have not been designed by a town planner. They have evolved out of the myriad experiences of generations who shared, however, a common sense of community and a commitment to a particular place. Neo-urbanists designate these 'organic' cities.

The question is, are we in Auroville with our present rather fragmented sense of community (and zoning principles which will ensure that shops, cultural arenas and residences are kept separate) able to create such organic spaces? Or will we take the failed New Town route of 'engineering' social spaces which attract nobody?

Again, a city planned for 50,000 in such a small area will need to be quite high-density. Yet relatively few Aurovilians seem ready to live in such close proximity at present, preferring the unsustainable suburban model of large gardens and thirsty lawns even within the designated city area. Then again there is the question of architectural style, the 'language' which identifies us as a community rather than as clusters of individuals. Cities like Siena in Italy had a 'pattern language' which enabled great diversity to be expressed within an overall unity. Auroville as yet lacks such visual cohesion, reflecting more the different styles and preoccupations of various architects.

Then there is the question of the roads. Today, aspects of the 'Galaxy' plan are retained in the planned configuration of the feeder roads which will sweep in regular arcs through the zones. As these 'geometrically pure' roads take no account of the landscape or of human-scale perspectives, this seems to represent the triumph of aesthetic over organic principles of growth.

Finally there is the matter of the means of transport. At present Aurovilians have grown accustomed to using private transport - the consequence of living in a community where facilities are spread out over miles of dusty roads. As more and more facilities are located in the city area itself such private transport should become less of a necessity, particularly if a good public transport service evolves. But old patterns may be hard to break.

Perhaps the main effort at present, therefore, should go into preventing the proliferation of motor roads (and motorized access) in the city. This could be achieved by clearly defining 'no-go' areas, and by creating a comprehensive, shaded and well-maintained network of pedestrian and cycle paths (in a city zone the size of Auroville's it should be possible to reach anywhere by cycle within 20 minutes).

Can Auroville be a model?

When Mother spoke of Auroville as 'the city the earth needs' it seems she was referring to the need for Auroville to spiritually embody and resonate principles of human unity and truth. Yet in terms of modern India, which contains not only some of the biggest but also some of the most polluted cites on the planet, it seems reasonable that Auroville should also find practical ways of alleviating these problems by developing practices and techniques which can be replicated in urban India. For as the proportion of humanity which lives in cities continues to grow, it's time to recognize, as the town planner Harley Sherlock puts it, that cities must become "the major ingredient of any ecologically sustainable way of living in the 21st century".

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