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Are disasters a result of poor urban development strategies?

The accelerating pace of urbanization worldwide has led to the proliferation of sprawling cities and megacities. As populations concentrate in urban centres, the strain on infrastructure, housing, and essential services intensifies. Rapid, unplanned urban growth often results in encroachment on natural habitats, disruption of ecological balances, and increased susceptibility to disasters. The recent flooding and […]

The accelerating pace of urbanization worldwide has led to the proliferation of sprawling cities and megacities. As populations concentrate in urban centres, the strain on infrastructure, housing, and essential services intensifies. Rapid, unplanned urban growth often results in encroachment on natural habitats, disruption of ecological balances, and increased susceptibility to disasters. The recent flooding and water swelling in densely populated areas in urban centres serve as poignant reminders of the consequences of unbridled urban expansion.

In the approach to urban development, it is imperative to transcend the conventional boundaries that compartmentalize retail, residences, and parks. The paradigm must shift towards a holistic vision that encompasses not just physical spaces but the very essence of human life, the delicate balance of our environment, and the profound influence a thoughtfully crafted built environment can wield on our collective future. Urban development must be viewed in its entirety, an interconnection where people, climate, and sustainability converge to create not just spaces, but thriving ecosystems that endure and evolve for generations to come.

There are a lot of key factors that play a role in urban vulnerability:

Inadequate Infr and Poor Land Use
One of the key contributors to the vulnerability of urban areas is the inadequacy of infrastructure and land use planning. Many cities, especially in developing nations, need more infrastructure to cope with the demands of a growing population. Poorly planned land use, characterized by haphazard zoning and unchecked construction in high-risk areas, exacerbates the impact of disasters. The collapse of buildings during earthquakes, for example, often stems from inadequate construction practices and lax building regulations.

Climate change & extreme weather
The spectre of climate change looms large over contemporary urban development. Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events pose significant challenges to cities. Urban areas ill-prepared for these changes face a heightened risk of disasters such as floods, heat waves, and heavy rain.

Lack of Disaster-Resilient Housing
Housing is a fundamental aspect of urban development, and the type of housing stock prevalent in a city can determine its resilience to disasters. Inadequate housing, often found in informal settlements and slums, becomes a breeding ground for disaster vulnerability. These areas are typically characterized by substandard construction, lack of proper sanitation, and proximity to high-risk zones. Disasters, therefore, result in a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable populations.
Disasters lay bare existing economic disparities and social inequities within urban landscapes. Those with the means to rebuild and recover swiftly often reside in well-planned, affluent neighbourhoods equipped with a robust infrastructure. Marginalized communities and low-income areas, bear the brunt of disasters.

For Sustainable Development
Overlooking building capacities has led to the disconcerting scenario witnessed in regions such as Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, resembling precarious stacks of matchboxes, starkly illustrating how we've exploited natural resources rather than using them to our advantage. The architectural and design community needs to acknowledge the ramifications of rampant development, where the fragility of the natural environment is sacrificed for the sake of unchecked expansion. We must align our practices with a philosophy that underscores responsible urban development. Achieving a harmonious balance between human habitats and the natural landscape necessitates a shift towards sustainable, context-sensitive design principles that prioritize ecological resilience over unrestrained growth.

Addressing the root causes of urban vulnerability requires a paradigm shift in urban development strategies. Sustainable urban planning is essential, guided by resilience and environmental stewardship principles. This involves comprehensive land use planning considering the natural environment, upgraded infrastructure to withstand shocks, and incorporating green spaces to enhance climate resilience.

Investments in disaster-resilient housing and infrastructure are imperative. This includes strictly enforcing building codes, retrofitting existing structures, and incorporating nature-based solutions, such as green roofs and permeable pavements, to manage water and reduce the impact of floods. In urban development, a reasonable approach mandates the preservation of natural lakes and water bodies, integrating them into urban strategies rather than building over them. The imperative for large-scale housing necessitates a shift toward concentrated mass housing planned across designated zones, optimizing square footage to accommodate more residents while minimizing scattered developments.

Examining successful models such as Shanghai and Hangzhou, known for their adept handling of higher urban appetites, underscores the efficacy of such controls in achieving a harmonious balance between growth and sustainability.

A conscientious approach involves a careful evaluation of settlement patterns, with a proactive stance on minimizing settlements before the commencement of construction.
This deliberate effort not only enhances the quality of life for residents but also caters to the influx of tourists who frequent the area every year.

Prioritizing the preservation of green spaces, explicitly incorporating trees with robust root systems, is essential for replenishing groundwater and preventing soil runoff, thereby ensuring the stability of the land. Crucially, the key to success is proactively developing areas to align with their specific appetites right from the planning stage.

These tanks are meticulously designed to facilitate the gradual and controlled release of water, ensuring a sustainable and timed recharge of the surrounding Earth. This innovative solution aligned with the project's drainage plan and furthered our commitment to responsible environmental practices. The deliberate effort to store water on-site mitigated the risk of overburdening existing drainage systems and showcased our dedication to executing projects with precision and environmental consciousness. This success has instilled a high level of confidence in our team, knowing that our actions align with sustainable practices and contribute positively to preserving the environment.

The recent upsurge in disasters is, to a significant extent, a consequence of inadequate urban development strategies. As cities continue to burgeon, the need for holistic, sustainable, and resilient urban planning becomes increasingly urgent. Balancing the imperatives of economic development with environmental sustainability, social equity, and disaster preparedness is the key to building cities that can withstand future challenges. By learning from past mistakes and embracing innovative, forward-looking approaches, urban areas can evolve into beacons of resilience, ensuring the safety and well-being of their inhabitants in the face of an uncertain climate and a dynamic urban landscape.

The author is is Principal architect, STHAPATI

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