The Role Of Architects In Delivering Responsible Design
Everyone believes that growing cities are basic key to all our societal challenges and changes such as:
- Economic Growth and Job Creation
- Social Inclusion and Quality of Life
- Sustainable Development and Climate Adaptation
- Sustainable Land use Management and Soil Sealing Reduction
- Heritage Conservation and Green Innovation
Architects, Civil Engineers, Urban Designers, Urban Planners and related professionals need to be more aware of their roles and responsibilities in terms of providing better urban environments; and better urban environments start from better roads or streets; and better roads or streets start from better homes or houses.
1. What are the Current Challenges?
The challenges we are currently facing in India may be interpreted in different terms (environmental, economic, social, and cultural), although of course these never arrive in desolation.
Many housing & planning strategies have been directed at facilitating further urban development, in order to attract financing within all the major cities. Generally they have been reactive towards the formation of such phenomena rather than being forward-looking or new strategies that try to anticipate them.
The current economic environment provides a freedom to reassess our strategies. There have also been serious issues with regard to the provision of affordable housing; when available, it has often happened at the cost of good quality design.
There have been various environmental influences of city or urban development. Urban sprawl has occupied land wastefully, resulting in land sealing/locking and significantly impacting natural resources and ecosystems. However, there have also been some serious socio-economic consequences, the most pressing of which is most certainly that of fuel poverty.
There is an urgent need to reduce power usage bills and to involve the citizens in energy-saving measures by re-designing user behaviour, encouraging the reduction of excessive heat gains and losses in buildings. Tackling environmental challenges in an integrated manner implies the involvement of different professionals (Architects, Urban Planners, Urban Designers etc.) who may deal with different spatial scales in a better and holistic manner.
The Architectural profession has a key role in turning the current urban challenges into various opportunities.
2. The contribution of Architectural Profession
In the recent decades, Indian cities have focused their strategies on economic growth and, in the more recent past, on economic revival.
We can learn from the past experience of the traditional approach that relied on economic models at the expense of social and environmental outcomes. Furthermore, in today’s unsettled markets, cities can only partly rely on economic models to finance their social and environmental objectives (Refer Figure 1).
Economic growth needs a sound social and environmental context for it to flourish, and cities are today acknowledging the important addition of ‘social capital’, even more than ‘investment capital’. Such context must be a united and complete urban environment, not one that has been designed for a select few.
In the words of “Cities of Tomorrow”, “people form the core of cities; cities need to be designed for citizens and not just for the elite or rich, for the tourists, or for the investors. People should look this as the key asset and not as a social problem” (Refer Figure 2).
Architectural profession has a key role in spinning the current urban challenges into opportunities. It may do so in three distinct manners:
(RD I) “Through the design of urban environments, initiating from the basic home structure, design professionals or engineers shape individuals and their behaviour. They therefore directly influence the method of community formation that in turn lies at the basis of wide, inclusive governance structures”.
The arrangement of a community as a societal unit is a meaningful starting point in order to achieve the multi-scalar governance structure that is typical of contemporary cities and that operates on various levels, including both informal and formal structures.
(RD II) “Through the provision of expert knowledge in order to champion good design and empower individuals so as to facilitate bottom-up participation”.
In few countries, including Austria, the Netherlands, Germany, France and Slovakia, this expert role has further been inflated to the urban level, with the institution of the City Architect in the built environment. Such kind of approach can be a good option.
(RD III) “Through the production of integrated design interventions that address multiple requirements, notable of which are sustainable rehabilitation and renewal interventions. More specifically, the profession has a duty to support ‘energy democracy’, with significant environmental and social implications, especially in order to encounter fuel poverty”.
The nature of the profession involves architects in a ‘hands-on’ manner that is directly in touch with physical considerations ‘on the ground’, placing them in the best position to tackle urban challenges in a holistic manner. Cities are complex entities and need clarifications that may address, and resolve, multiple concerns from economic, socio-cultural, infrastructural, technological and environmental outlook.
Responsible design is a key determinant to achieving quality, robust and resilient urban environments that can face up to the manifold changes in the cities around us.
3. Role of Architects and the Responsible Design
The Architecture profession needs to target all its energies on the production, and delivery, of responsible design (Refer Figure 3), which are defined as:
- Integrated design: that starts off by addressing its larger context; that seeks to relate to context; that aspires to improve context; and that treats different project components together in a comprehensive manner.
- Energy-conscious design: that establishes the need to control and minimise unwanted energy gains or losses as a leading design principle; and that focuses on sustainable rehabilitation and re-use strategies.
- Inclusive design: that is attained through democratic and participatory processes, aided by expert knowledge provided by professionals; that centers on accessibility as a central means to achieve greater inclusivity.
- Adaptable, quality design: that is flexible enough to accommodate itself to changing individual and societal demands with minimal intervention; and that does not leave the binding relationship between the formation of quality urban environments and our quality of life.
Responsible design also directly relates to the “Smart City Mission” objectives of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth of a city. In order to achieve these objectives, however, we believe that there should be short- and medium-term targets in relation with longer-term goals. While smart growth and the more over-arching strategies should still be envisioned, therefore, we should not underestimate the power of smaller initiatives, which produce more tangible and visible outputs that people can feel the impact, and experience the results, of during their lifetimes. This is particularly relevant with regard to environmental issues.
The architectural and urban planning profession needs to acknowledge its responsibility in creating better environments at different scales, starting from short-term deliverable – producing better buildings and streets that increase the quality of life, pride and self-esteem of individuals. This sets the scene for interventions at the neighborhood and district scales – helping in the formation of community ties that could lead to more active citizen involvement. Consecutively, this could lead to bigger city-scale interventions geared towards the large-term objective to create better Indian and other cities at the strategic scale (Refer Figure 4).
The notion of ‘responsible design’ covers the spirit of ‘sustainability’ but gives it a more practical value. Inherent in this term is the notion of ‘responsibility towards future generations’. Equally inherent is the notion of ‘care’ – care in the supervision of resources (both natural and man-made); care of the potential impact (in whatever shape or form) that could be caused through a development; and, finally, care of (that is, sensitivity towards) the context within which an architectural project is located.
Responsible design is a key element to achieving quality, robust and durable urban environments that can look up to the diversified modification around us. So it is very clear that its the role of architects to deliver a responsible and efficient design.
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