It’s a ‘torcher’!

Activists, architects, citizens, and wildlife conservationists shed light on how our cities are currently grappling with climate crisis, and suggest sustainable solutions for a safe future
 It’s a ‘torcher’!

CHENNAI : In the white, frosty expanse of the Arctic, the north Sami community has over 200 words to describe the condition of the snow, from intricate snowflakes to a frozen crust. The mere word ‘snow’ cannot possibly capture the seasons of winter, and a plethora of connections with other species. Missing in dictionaries, these indigenous vocabularies are shaped by nature and pepper the lives of communities like the Samis and Inuits. However, in the looming climate crisis, these 200+ conditions of snow and the words are bound to disappear.

In this coastal city that has never seen snow, in this crisis, would we also forget words like ‘kadal’ (sea), ‘olini’ (powerful current in artisanal fisher vocabulary), or ‘maanga maram’ (mango trees)? Fifty years from now, how do we imagine our cities, climate, and vocabularies to be? Can we map our cities better to retain our topography and nature? How do we counter the buzzwords of climate change and global warming beyond just paper and combative on-paper policy?

Crisis incoming

Growing up, climate-related disasters were limited to newspaper articles accompanied by graphic snapshots of dry land, washed-out cities, or grief-stricken residents. At home, dozens of soft, long-skirted Tsunamika dolls filled my mother’s cupboard, bags of rice lined our school corridors waiting to be sent to flood-hit Kerala in 2018, and Cyclone Gaja washed away a hometown library that introduced me to pulp fiction. Near Madhya Kailash, a mural caught my eye: “We never thought that a wave could tear us apart.”

The wave-like looming crisis has torn communities apart. According to the 2024 World Migration Report, over 216 million people across six continents are projected to move within their countries due to climate change, by 2050. India, in 2019, recorded over five crore disaster-related displacements, according to estimates by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Community. As Chennai battles excessive heat this season, and other districts drown in downpours and reel from 12 rain-related deaths, the question of building climate-sensitive cities comes to the fore.

CE talks to architects, citizens, conservationists, and activists about how they imagine future cities.

“In the next 50 years, May in Chennai will be unbearable. Like floods cyclones and tsunamis, a heatwave should be declared a disaster. It is currently not classified under disaster and you cannot claim any compensation under the National Disaster Management Act,” explains G Sunderrajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal, an NGO. He adds that gig workers, daily-wage workers, and street vendors should not work during peak hours, and be given due compensation for loss of livelihood.

The government has taken various steps in the state to mitigate the heatwave from readying hospitals, and advisories, to setting up green canopies at signals and water pots at several locations. But climate change is inevitable at this rate and cities must focus on bringing down urban heat islands, says the activist. “Though we harp on mitigation strategies, we should work on adopting it,” he adds.

Shekar Dattatri, a wildlife and conservation filmmaker remarks, “Given the way things are going, social unrest triggered by environmental conditions is not far off anywhere in India. We need to act decisively to avert major calamities in the coming years. Both the leadership and the public have to act. However, India’s decision-makers are seemingly asleep at the wheel, and there is too much public apathy.”

He adds that in ancient times, India had one of the most enlightened attitudes towards the natural world. “Today, decision-makers view conservation as an impediment to development, which is extremely short-sighted. Despite all our technological progress, we are still entirely dependent on nature for all our basic needs. So, to view conservation as an act of charity towards nature, or as a luxury, is ecological ignorance. Given the environmental challenges that lie ahead, we should rekindle a reverence for nature and work towards its restoration, rather than pursuing unbridled economic growth at any cost. This needs long-term vision and political will, which is sorely lacking.”

Climate-resistant cities

As summer rolls in so does the blistering heat, the orange alert and ‘feels like 45 degrees’ alerts, and reports on kathiri veyil. “We have started facing the effects of climate change and other environmental degradation. A lot of this has happened owing to our abject lack of concern for the environment,” explains senior architect AR Kurian George Vattakunnel.

Kurian argues that realms including architecture have the capacity to address climate change and environmental degradation but require human-centric planning. “It is important to visualise the city as composed of neighbourhoods bordered or otherwise provided with large green lungs, neighbourhoods to be visualised as intimate clusters with walkable streets and spaces of repose. Such visualisation while planning will ensure that the individual is recognisable within the social fabric of intimate clusters and does not suffer the ills of isolation that are faced today. This will go a great distance in making our cities resilient when faced with calamities whether they be health-related, climate-based or any other,” he says, adding that designs must keep in mind regional climates, tweaking buildings to gain heat in colder zones and allowing constant passage of breeze in humid areas.

From heatwaves to floods, it is the marginalised communities that are hit. “If you look at the city map, where is the vegetation and high green cover? You can see the inequality there. For example, the land with high value has a large number of trees in the locality, and it is inhabited by only people who can afford it,” says Iraianbu Murugavel, an architect.

Climate change is not just a global issue, it can be seen as a social justice issue, he adds. “Marginalised people have pre-existing conditions of inequality in terms of economy or distribution of resources. To be in a healthy environment itself is a privilege. People talk about sustainability and sustainable practices changing the world, but often, it has been made costlier,” he explains, adding beyond spatial designs, inclusive development is crucial.

In 2023, Wangari Kurai, a Kenyan climate activist, said, “In our local language, Kiswahili, global warming translates to: ‘Alarm, alarm! The world is on fire.’ This is something the whole world needs to hear.” As we move beyond buzzwords, action on ground is key towards addressing this alarm.

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