How we build today will determine the future of our species: Jaya Dhindaw, urban researcher

Urban development expert Jaya Dhindaw of WRI tells us how we need to envision cities to protect the planet from the effects of climate change.

April 16, 2024, saw Mumbai reel under a heat wave with a maximum temperature of 39.7 degree celsius at the Santacruz observatory. At 6.3 degrees above normal, this was the highest temperature recorded at Santacruz in ten years. These abnormally hot conditions continued to plague Mumbai with the megapolis experiencing a second heat wave towards the end of April. Neighbouring Thane hit 41.3 degrees during this period.

Mumbai was not the exception and it seems like extreme heat has become the norm across the country. Delhi recorded a hazardously high temperature of 52.9 degree Celsius at the end of May followed by Nagpur at an incredible 56 degree Celsius.

Jaya Dhindaw, an urban development professional and researcher, who works as Executive Program Director, Sustainable Cities And Director, WRI India Ross Center, discusses the impact of climate change, and the urgent steps needed to protect our most vulnerable populations, in a two-part interview.

In this first part, she tells us the reasons for rising temperatures and how today’s choices will impact our tomorrow.

Jaya Dhindaw, drab development professional
Jaya Dhindaw is an urban development professional and researcher.
Pic credit: Jaya Dhindaw

2023 has been the hottest year since global temperatures started being recorded. How have we come to this stage?

It’s a combination of many things. It’s about the way in which we have urbanised and grown. In the case of India, there’s a lot of concretisation that has happened in just the last three decades. Many cities have grown outwards, outside of their municipal, planned, formal boundaries, and they’ve grown in a very unplanned manner.

As a result, the blue green infrastructure is impacted, as water, trees and open spaces, have been reduced and replaced with built-up spaces. For example, in Bengaluru, from where I am, about 85% of the blue green infrastructure of the city is encroached upon by built-up (spaces), right? So that gives you a sense of how much has been encroached.

How does climate change and how does it impact?

We are going to be experiencing these kind of events more frequently, not just in India, but across the globe. Basically this is the perfect storm where everything collides –   urbanisation, poor planning, loss of natural systems and increased human density.

And then on top of that, the economy is set up to be more industrialised and to produce more GHG emissions. The impact that it has on climate change and the progression at which that is happening is further exacerbating the situation that we are in.

Read more: Push government to implement all welfare measures in Street Vendors Act : Lekha Adavi

A lot of infrastructural development is happening in Mumbai such as the coastal road, Atal Setu and more metros. How will it impact climate change?

It’s almost like an opportunity to do better, but we will have to drastically change the ways and the status quo of how we’ve been growing and how we’ve been developing so far. For example, two-thirds of India’s 2050 infrastructure is yet to be built. So what that means is that the way in which you build this infrastructure, whether you choose coastal roads and highways and flyovers, versus investing in pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, and public transport, will determine whether things are going to get better or worse.  

In such a scenario, what can be done to curb the effects of climate change?

There are two facets to it. There is the mitigation part, where you’re looking to reduce GHG emissions. So basically, all the activities, the inputs into the system—you look at points at which you can reduce emissions. That can be the way you manufacture, from your energy consumption, to the waste you produce, to transport modes that you’re using.

And then there is the adaptation side, which is dealing with what we are faced with right now – the heat that’s there right now, the water scarcity, the urban floods that are common in the monsoons – and that happen year after year. So the point is, how we are going to build and grow next will determine our outcome as a species. 

Read more: 25,000 suffer heatstroke, 61 dead: India reeling under heat

What building and urban design practices should we adopt for sustainable growth?

We do have the opportunity to do better. We can look at development patterns and growth, that is more sustainable, more resilient, low carbon, and inclusive. And the inclusivity point is especially important.

So, if we are going to build in a way that is respectful of the environment, respectful of nature, and respectful of biodiversity, we can still achieve growth. It’s just going to be a different kind of growth with different metrics- beyond GDP.

If you are going to build mass infrastructure, like the metro line coming up, you must look to bringing jobs and appropriate densities closer to that infrastructure, thus reducing the amount of time and money people spend travelling. People will hopefully use that infrastructure and your emissions from cars and other private vehicles goes down.

About 35 billion square metres of new built-up space is going to be created in India, in the coming two decades. And the question is, are we going to make buildings with glass facades, high-emitting materials and try to air-condition them all?  Or, are we going to look at things like locational efficiency, passive architecture and alternate building materials and designs that are climate resilient? That requires a lot of thought and changes in business as usual scenario.

How can we do it differently?

It requires a reorientation of the current economic order and production patterns and materials, for instance – cement, concrete, bricks and glass. Those are your big materials. But if you’re required to produce something very different, which lends itself to better built environment and ecological outcomes and energy efficiency, then that is a better trajectory.

So it’s all about the choices that we will make. If we turn the economy on its head and change current production and consumption patterns, there is still hope for a better coexistence of people and nature with climate co-benefits, in a way where everyone thrives.

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