Why is Ecosystems Thinking important in Urban Design?
Updated: Jul 11
A shift is required ‘from seeing parts to seeing wholes, from seeing people as helpless reactors to seeing them as active participants in shaping their reality, from reacting to the present to creating the future.’ - Peter Senge
Have you heard of the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana or Rajiv Awas Yojana? These were flagship missions of the government for Housing projects. Their core target was to provide housing for all and that every citizen in India has a proper shelter. It has been six to 10 years since the implementation of these missions. But, despite these efforts, why do we see jhopdis, jhuggies, slums, or other such informal settlements in our cities? This is because of the symptomatic treatment of the issues. They need to be dealt with at their root cause. So, what is a better way to deal with this? Here, the main issue is with lack of political rights over production-consumption, and unaffordability. But the government's focus is to plan missions to provide housing.
The traditional reductionist mindset breaks down wholes into parts and acts on those parts in isolation. In contrast, a systems thinking mindset recognises connections between entities. It acts on them at a systemic level.
Ecosystems thinking is a form of systemic thinking. When applied to the domains of a city, it deals with urban ecosystems. Urban specialists consciously borrowed the term ‘ecosystem’ from the subject of ecology. They did so to understand, represent and compute the complexity of urban systems. Ecosystems Thinking gives us a functional understanding of the city. It is based on interactions. It provides a fresh perspective on design needs and how we could think about our cities. One way to think of the functions and benefits that urban ecosystems provide is to think of the services they provide.
Ecosystem services and Cities
Ecosystem services are the benefits that we derive from the ecosystems in our city. These are services generated by urban ecosystems, both natural or man-made. Natural like clean air, food, recreation by natural ecosystems like Urban greens and lakes. And benefits like transport, healthcare by man-made ecosystems like housing and energy systems. These ecosystems of the city have a substantial impact on the quality of life in our cities.
Among others, two typologies of ecosystem services specifically operate in the spatial domains of a city. These are Habitat functions and Provisioning functions. The ‘Habitat function’ deals with the shelter or the housing aspects. And the ‘Provisioning function’ deals with services like water, air, food, sewage, and energy. They have systemic interdependencies and are in a continuous dynamic with the city. They are fundamental necessities of our day-to-day life. Thus, the core function of governance is to regulate and provide these services to society in an equal and democratic manner.
Traditionally, their governance is instrumentalised by the domains of politics, anthropology, participatory practices, and spatial agencies. Politics has evolved to cater to its activities. Anthropology studies them as rudimentary elements of society. Participatory practices focus on their delivery. And spatial agencies focus on their design. So, these modalities are primarily obligated to take care of shelter and provisioning services.
However, if we take these services in isolation, they establish cities as purely man-made ecosystems. With a scarcity in the provision of proper services, the concept of ‘ecosystems’ legitimises the need for better housing and service supply in cities. The question then is, how can we provide these services to people considering the factors of scale, delivery, and equity?
Since provisioning services can be a part of the urban ecosystems, the city can help individuals and their families through it. Otherwise, it is not under individual capacities to fetch these services for themselves. In the prevalence of informality, the provisioning services are informal. This is why efforts to improve their affordability condition may not resolve the issue, as they do not ensure enhanced shelter. However, through ecosystem thinking, we can legitimise these needs. It can become a method for low-income citizens to negotiate with the state. And for the state, it can act as a channel to enact their strategies for these communities.
To address the issue of scale and delivery, we will have to rethink how we construct infrastructure and deliver services. Ecosystem thinking is one possible tool. Its ability to recognise relationships and interdependencies within an urban ecosystem can be used to deploy services at scale. And with people as active agents in the ecosystem, co-creation and equity can be achieved. In the absence of the state’s capacity to provide these services by itself, a large part of it could be jointly produced by the citizens and the state. So, if we adopt the concept of ecosystems thinking and build upon the logic of cities as man-made ecosystems, Co-production emerges as a better-placed alternative to the traditional top-down methods of delivery.
Co-production as an alternative
At the World Architecture Festival, architect Patrik Schumacher presented a plan. The plan focused on how to make social housing provisions more efficient. Schumacher advocated the removal of regulatory elements and privatising public space. Geographically the context was different here. But his thinking is relevant to places where governmental processes dictate the means of production of housing. He says, “All top-down bureaucratic attempts to order the built environment via land-use plans are pragmatically and intellectually bankrupt.” He further reinforces the logic that 'Habitat' has always been negotiated along with its four pillars of the ecosystem.
Social, cultural and, economic production are the pillars that support this ecosystem. They are built around the civic systems. These systems ensure the provision of housing and services even to the most frugal strata of society. But, socially-driven processes bring the notions of housing-for-all into the picture. They disrupt the existing knowledge systems of self-regulation and local production. This results in the government taking control of housing and provisioning services. Thus, what was once decentralised and self-governed, becomes regulated. Uniformity across a vast geography is stressed on. This uniformity cannot adhere to local needs. And hence it has failed in providing adequate housing and quality services.
Without the ability to influence free-market mechanisms and without the political autonomy to organise and participate, the urban poor will always be affected. How? By systemic discrepancies. So, to get rid of these autocratic systems, we have to discard the top-down approach of governance systems. We will have to cultivate knowledge of self-governance and embrace co-creation.
Co-production provides power and political rights to the people. With it, people can create organisational subsystems within themselves. And, can operationalise the provision of ecosystem services in their community. It can equip them with autonomy and the opportunity to participate in urban processes.
Co-production simply implies that people come together and create things on their own. Co-production happens when people realise the value of something. This realisation often occurs through social movements. Upon recognition, the demand for products and services increases. Though it is not catered by the private or government sectors, it builds a force in the market. This, in turn, breeds self-regulating organisations and startups. These organisations further negotiate with market stakeholders. They convince them to enact policies and planning in their favor. In this way, social movements gradually influence the free-market mechanisms through co-production.
Imagine you are stranded in a village in a snow-covered valley. There is no electricity due to constant interruption in the grid, caused by climatic conditions. The snow breaks, tilts and displaces the poles on the street. It even blocks road connections to other villages. Now, imagine this going on for six long winter months. Welcome to Lahaul valley. Here, each day is a struggle in prioritising the basic service of electricity. In these bouts of electricity, what will you charge? Phone? Battery? And, even if you do, how long would it stay? This was a common problem in the valley. Residents of this village came together and looked for better alternatives. High altitude villages already have sun as their natural resource. They found that solar energy systems would be the best bet and they went for that, together! They created groups within themselves, which sought financing and procurement. They did not wait for the government or the energy companies to resolve their issue, they did this on their own. What appeared to be a helpless situation before was resolved through co-production.
The idea here is simple. The basic provisioning services should not need a formal mandate for procurement. Instead, through co-production, these services can be deployed at scale and equity can be ensured. Provisioning of services can be largely improved by two things. First, collective knowledge can be increased. And Second, People can be incorporated in the production-consumption processes. Therefore, in order to adequately provide for the masses, the cities of the Global South will have to relinquish their power. They will have to revitalise forms of production of knowledge, goods, and services. How? Through systemic thinking and co-production.
The socio-cultural capital can be tapped into through social movements. Systems and services can be co-created. Social movements, in themselves, are power mechanisms that can influence the market. At times they may contest with market forces but over time, they can become the strongest force of action. They can be used as tools to orient thinking and augment market mechanisms. Utilisation of social capital, and co-production of value services, through social movements, is an inevitable phenomenon. It is this phenomenon that will create sustainable built environments in the Global South.
About the Writer
Ajinkya Jamadar is an architect with an inclination towards Sustainable Development and Urban Ecologies. He has previously worked at Bangalore based architecture firm Biome Environmental Solutions. He is a graduate of the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal.
About the Editor
Srishti Mehta is the author of "From the Land of Mist and Snow: Haikus from Antarctica". She is a creative writer, editor and publisher. She is the Editor-in-Chief at Zeyka. She is a graduate of the St. Xavier College, Ahmedabad, and the H.R. College of Commerce and Economics, University of Mumbai (MU). She has been the India Ambassador of the International Antarctica Expedition (2018) with 2041 Foundation. She has diverse volunteer experience in natural field studies, explorations, and journalism with numerous organisations including the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Mumbai.
About the Illustrator
Ayadi Mishra is an undergraduate architecture student at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal. She is a writer, illustrator and graphic designer. She has experience working with An Architect, Ethos India, WPF Creatives, Nivedha Foundation, SkyManga. She has attended summer school at the Hunnarshala Foundation for Building Technology & Innovations, Bhuj, and has been a finalist in Solar Decathlon India.