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Seen Unseen: The Biological and Social Networks of Cities – PART 2

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Street scene in Ahmadabad by Melissa Sterry

Back to the Tree of Life…

None of the individuals that Kavita and I spoke with on our investigative travels about the city were experts, per say, in complex adaptive systems. None, to our knowledge had developed sophisticated algorithms that could crunch every conceivable social, ecological, and economic number such as might inform the ideal future city. And yet, they ‘got it’; they understood that there is that which can be measured and monitored, tested and prototyped, patented and promoted, and then there is that which can’t. There is that which is, to all intense and purposes, unquantifiable: the unseen.

Ahmadabad boasts several notable depictions of the Tree of Life, including the world-famous stone carving at the Sidi Saiyyed Mosque. However, the image we found to be the most poignant in reference to our project depicts the tree as a mirror image, in which the size and the shape of that below – the root system – reflects that which is above – the trunk and the branches. The visual narrative was a clear reference to one of the most fundamental concepts within both religion and science; that of opposing, yet complimentary forces – life vs. death, light vs. dark, material vs. immaterial, and so on. Take away a tree’s root system and, having toppled over first, it will slowly die, as it becomes starved of the nutrients essential to its existence (a matter those touting ‘urban forests’ comprised trees on balconies and roof tops might like to contemplate for while).

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Buildings and bird feeders in Ahmadabad by Melissa Sterry

Limited though our time in Ahmadabad was, Kavita and I felt compelled to create a means of communicating the unseen: the belief systems and the values that underpin people’s daily lives, yet which appeared casually brushed aside in real estate developers plans; the complex, shifting ecological networks comprised indigenous, migratory, invasive and domestic species, and their interplay with the city’s material and social systems, much of which remain unstudied, therein unquantified; the material flows in and out of the city, therein its wider environmental and social footprint, from the nano to the macro scale; the intangible ties between past, present and future, which, whether represented in civic and commercial development plans or otherwise, will ultimately shape this, and other cities destinies.

Kavita observed a small tree growing out of a wall adjacent to a busy road near to the design institute from which we were temporarily based. In close to proximity to one of the areas in which we’d conducted our research, she concluded she’d found the perfect canvas for the ‘unseen’. Having gained permission from the owners of the wall, she set off with paints in hand to create a ‘Tree of Life’ mural. Throughout the time the artwork took to create, a great many passers-by took an interest. Comprised flora and fauna from near and far, wild and domestic, together with protective spirits inspired by the popular deities of Indian tradition, the ‘Tree of Life’ mural resonated with young and old. Indeed, some local rickshaw drivers were so very taken with the work that they requested stickers of its icons to place in their vehicles, such that they could promote it, and its meaning, to their passengers. Yes, we went viral, but in the physical, not virtual sense!

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Tree Shrine in Ahmadabad by Melissa Sterry

This past year, various outputs of our ‘Seen: Unseen’ project have been shown at exhibitions in Ahmadabad and New Delhi. Having recently signed a publishing deal, Kavita is currently working on a children’s book that will extend the project’s impact yet further, and our fingers are crossed that a short animated film will follow (sponsors are most welcome to get in touch!). For my part, I’ve shared insights gleaned from our research work in Ahmadabad with peers across both industry and academia via several keynotes in the UK, US and Asia, and I am using the data gathered to inform ongoing urban futures research projects.

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Stray dogs sunning themselves on the streets of Ahmadabed by Melissa Sterry

In conclusion, easy though it is to grasp at popular perceptions of the future city, to be reductionist, and to rely on ‘assumed intelligence’ (i.e. someone, somewhere has all the answers!) in reality this approach has failed, and failed badly, time and again. Most often, decisions that are led by assumed intelligence are underpinned by ego – by the desire to appear ‘an expert’. This matter becomes all too apparent when listening to many a panel discussion at future city themed events, whereupon it’s not uncommon to hear speculative statistics born of relatively linear equations referenced as ‘fact’ (i.e. the global population ‘will’ be X in year Y). Assumptions serve none but they that have something to sell, be it themselves or their product or service, i.e. a vested interest. For example, we’re commonly told that urban ‘density’ will be a virtue. Now where might that notion have come from? Is it science fact? No, it’s not. Indeed, were we to map out the full spectrum of advantages vs. disadvantages of density, not least in respect of human mental health and wellbeing, social cohesion, biodiversity, resource security and resilience to natural hazards, we’d find fewer, not more skyscrapers virtuous. But of course, not if you’re in the real estate business, because the more homes that can be built on your land, within the ‘business as usual’ model, the more bucks in your bank account. Indeed, as the occupancy rates of the world’s very tallest buildings generally illustrate, when it comes down to it, as former RIBA president Angela Brady recently commented, some such buildings are little more that architectural ‘willy waving’; “mine is bigger than yours”. No wonder then that the most diligent of city thinkers this past two centuries have generally veered away from the density model.

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Water vessels for animals large and small on the streets of Ahmadabad by Melissa Sterry

While not classically considered a ‘biome’, that is precisely what the city is: a home to myriad species, some permanent, some passing, of which we are one. Historical architectures, notably the vernacular, are generally socially and ecologically inclusive, wherein they have evolved to meet local needs, wants and circumstances. Globalization boasts many virtues, including the ability to migrate innovations about the world at great speed and scale. However, all too often this results in acts of imposition, wherein it’s assumed that ‘one size fits all’, as we see in the case of the building façade that was referenced above. Why are ecosystems so very varied about the world? Why does a species evolve one way in one place, but another in some place else? Because, that’s what 3.8 billion years of evolution has found to work best.

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Unbox Labs 2014 banners at the National Institute of Design in Ahmadabad by Melissa Sterry

Therein, as we ponder the future city, may we do so in the context of its locale. May we seek to create that which is more, not less life-supportive, and at the city, regional, national and global scale. May we harness the wisdom of the crowd (and not just they that are tapped in to the digital superhighway) in making civic decisions, and recognise the advantage of doing so. May we reconsider that which is tried and tested over decades, centuries, indeed millennia, as well as that which has just stepped out of a lab and into a press release. May we think long, hard, and critically about that which we cite as our rationale for supporting one architectural narrative, or in the wider sense, one idea, above another: whose data is it anyway? Above all, may we consider that for all that we can see, there is, and in equal measure, that which we can’t. But, that like a tree’s roots, it is the invisible – oxygen, gravity, love, and more – that holds the very fabric of our existence together.

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