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Seen Unseen: The Biological and Social Networks of Cities – PART 1

The Tree of Life’ mural by Kavita Singh Kale.

Photograph: Melissa Sterry

Ancient though its origins are, the Tree of Life and its potent symbolism remain as relevant today, if not more so, than when it was very first conceived. A universal motif, adopted both by religion and science, across millennia, it illustrates that since time immemorial humanity has perceived the connectivity of all things, both seen and unseen.

The Tree of Life is by far the most simple, yet the most effective, therein successful metaphor ever created. Fundamental to its every incarnation is the notion of complex adaptive systems: of cause and effect at scale. Commonly employed to illustrate the connectivity of all living things, be that by Charles Darwin, or by the authors of innumerable ancient mythological and religious texts, the Tree of Life is a tool that helps us to understand our place in the world, both in the present, and the eternal.

Biological Social Networks Graphic

Collage featuring Tree of Life mural by Kavita Singh Kale, Seen Unseen project by K. Singh Kale and M. Sterry; Microscopic image by Melissa Sterry, Fungal mycelium and network diagram on Creative Commons License.

In February of last year, together with New Delhi based artist and filmmaker, Kavita Singh Kale, I joined peers from the United Kingdom and India in participating in a fortnight-long Future Cities lab based out of the National Design Institute in Ahmadabad. Sponsored by organisations including the British Council, our collective task was to provoke new thinking in and around the future city. Where better to start, concluded Kavita and I, than with the hearts and the minds of the people that will inhabit that city.

Over the course of a week we set about visiting as many communities as our schedule would accommodate, keen to meet the greatest diversity of people possible. We met with students, teachers and researchers at some of India’s most prestigious schools and universities. We met with local business and tradespersons, from street vendors, to shop and garage owners, and more. We met with architects, planners, engineers, and other built environment practitioners. We met with residents in some of the city’s poorest communities, including its slums. We found uncanny commonality in the hopes and the fears of they that we interviewed.
Common fears for the future included the erosion of personal space, and lack of access to critical resources, including clean water, housing and land. Air and noise pollution also factored high in our interviewees list of current and future concerns. Greater access to education was prominent on the list of hopes, especially amongst those in the poorest communities. But, of the things that mattered most to the many diverse persons we interviewed, one stood out and stood out by a mile.

Given the spiritual significance of flora and fauna within Indian culture and tradition, it is perhaps hardly surprising that biodiversity took pole position in the list of things people most wanted to protect for the future city. In some instances, interviewees specified particular species they wished to preserve, with bees, ants, elephants and cows fairing prominently, as well as plants with medicinal properties, such as Neem (Azadirachta indica). Most often, these individuals had a personal anecdote to explain why the plant or animal was of particular significance to them. Others expressed a love of flora and fauna in general, and most often these individuals were graduates that were clearly aware of some of the threats facing biodiversity, both regionally and globally.

Both during the interviews, and when in conversation with peers resident in the city, it became starkly apparent that many people feel entirely excluded from the process of making decisions about the future of the city, be it that city – their own city, or any other. There was a sense that someone else, somewhere else, was calling every shot, and doing so without regard for citizens’ concerns, let alone considering their hopes and their dreams. Fears that both commercial and civic decision-making is led by vested interests, be it for profit or for some other kind of personal gain, were commonplace. The fact that in 1915 Gandhi had established his first Ashram in Ahmadabad, and together with his followers pioneered then radical experiments in social freedom, democracy and self-sufficiency, added to the poignancy of the people’s experience of civic planning and management.

Walking about the city, and in particular its old town, it became acutely apparent how very ironic, arguably moronic, the predominant visual narrative of the ‘future city’ really is. For example, the historic architectures of the region embed many of the concepts now hailed as ‘innovative’ and ‘disruptive’, including but not limited to passive cooling, water harvesting, flood resilience (i.e. doorways elevated to above the level at which the annual monsoon flood waters commonly rise) and adaptability (i.e. the capacity to add height or width to a building). The historic architectures are social architectures, which embed myriad features that support social interaction, including balconies, verandas and windows that swing wide-open, therein enable residents to talk to their neighbours and to passers by on the streets below. But, humans aren’t the only species the indigenous architectures support, not by a long.

Images of Ahmadabad

By Melissa Sterry.

Ahmadabad is the epitome of the ‘urban jungle’. There are animals, domestic and wild, indigenous and migratory, everywhere you look. A bird spotter’s paradise, the city is home to an estimated 160 species including kites, parrots, hummingbirds, swallows, peacocks and more, and it’s not accidental. Today the city has one hundred Chabutros (bird feeding towers), but once boasted six hundred. Look skywards as you walk through the old town and you will see innumerable bird feeding trays suspended above balconies and windows. If taking a morning stroll, upon looking to the pavement you will see bird feed scatted abundantly. The buildings eaves and overhangs present ample nesting opportunities. But, birds aren’t the only fauna thriving in this city. Langur monkeys are a common sight atop walls and buildings, and strolling in troops about the streets. Palm squirrels are equally abundant, if not more so, indeed I spotted two-dozen in one street alone.

The squirrels

Palm squirrels in Ahmadabad by Melissa Sterry.

Domesticated animals are similarly integral to city’s fabric. Cows roam freely about the city streets, alleys and in some instances temples. Habitual by nature, the members of the city’s bovine community tread a daily morning circuit from one house to the next, as residents provide fresh greens. Some are even known to poke their heads through doors and windows if their morning’s gratuitous provisions are late, as if hurrying matters along! The city’s many other domesticated and semi-domesticated animals are cared for in similar fashion, wherein communities mobilize from the bottom-up, providing bowls of water, food and in the case of stray dogs, even mobilising to provide rabies shots when outbreaks occur.

On the surface of it, domesticated and wild animals roaming at will – including in the opposite direction of traffic on the city’s main roads – is a chaotic affair. But, take a closer look and you start to realise there are significant advantages to this way of life – advantages that become all too apparent when you look at the real estate development proposals for this region and for much of the developing world.

The predominant narrative of the future city centres on density, or to be more specific on skyscrapers, yet more specific still glass and steel skyscrapers. This we are told, and told repeatedly, is what ‘progress’ looks like. Let’s drop that narrative into Ahmadabad. For example, look at the photo collage below and compare the ‘progressive’ narrative – the shiny, sterile, grey and white building in the middle, to the historical narrative, as shown to its left, right, and above.

Photographs of the old city in Ahmadabad

By Melissa Sterry

As highlighted above, the latter is both socially and ecologically supportive, not to mention energy efficient, reasonably resilient (bare in mind those buildings have remained standing through numerous natural hazards, including a 7.7 magnitude earthquake in 2001, together with annual monsoon flooding), and adaptable (note the exteriors illustrate additional features have been added over time). Furthermore, the historical architectural narrative centres on local and regional building materials and skills, i.e. facilitates a lower environmental footprint and higher regional employment. The former – the shiny and sterile narrative – sadly fails on pretty much all of those fronts. For example, you can’t even see into its reflective windows, let alone open them; the effect is that of an impenetrable fortress. Likewise, a bird couldn’t so much as perch on that facade, let alone build a nest in it. No wonder then that the predominant future city narrative is tending not to resonate with all and sundry!

The wisdom of the crowd is evident, both in Ahmadabad and many other cities that I have visited of late, be they in the East or West. The problem is that all too often the crowd is ignored, and worse still, the pre-eminent reason would appear to be ‘assumed intelligence’, i.e. that someone, somewhere that somehow, goodness knows how, concludes that ecologically and socially obnoxious architectures are ‘the future’. Back to the Tree of Life…


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