Building the Green City of the Future: Inclusive Technologies and Inclusive Materials

There is an immediate need to develop engineering materials the disposability of which is deemed as important as their durability, strength and functional performance.

Our houses and our cities: Built to exclude nature

Humans began building houses to keep rain, moisture, wind, heat, and cold out and to keep themselves safe from other animals. As we evolved and moved to cities, we began to pave the ground with water-impervious materials and pipe water to our homes. We also began creating technologies that met our desire for comfort. We began to use air conditioners that, in inverting the natural environment (cold in the summer and warm in the winter), represented a marvelous triumph over nature. Born two-legged animals with the ability to walk, we nonetheless invented wheels, wheelchairs, cars, and lifts. With the last two technical contraptions, which Leon Krier called the two sanguine mistakes committed by modern man,[1] we can now run and climb while sitting! While the effects of these behaviors on our legs are for other forums to ponder, their effects on cities have been phenomenal, creating widespread sprawl, both vertical and horizontal.

Cities are built of materials that nature is unable to assimilate on its own. In cities, animal and plant species are dying and resources for living gradually being depleted. In fact, animals other than man have deserted the city, regardless of their habitat—land, water, or air. With a socio-economic realm that seeks to dominate by building a system that excludes as much of nature as possible, our urban society has forgotten the value of the natural.

The house and the city have become the antithesis of the tree and the forest in principle, in form and function as well as material and technology use. Cities have encroached upon forests, wetlands, and prime agricultural land, interfering with their provision of ecological services to urban residents. Disorderedly urban growth has converted regions around cities into haphazard settlements; disturbed agricultural and natural resource systems; increased environmental degradation, water scarcity, and social stress; and yielded land, water, and air pollution as end products.

We have concentrated wastes around cities. First, we polluted the water, then the air, then the land, and now we are even polluting the thermal environment through climate change. Four out of the five elements and environmental entities—water, air, land, and heat—now lie polluted, a state attributable to the unassimilated, unprincipled, and un-sequenced mixing of materials and technology. With radio, electrical, and other communicating waves, even that last region of the environmental envelope— space—is at risk of getting polluted.

Instead of living in harmony with nature, we have sought and continue to seek to exclude and conquer it for our socio-economic benefit and comfort. The technological and material choices we have made have helped human civilization reach where it is today, but this pathway has incurred heavy ecological costs of huge consequence to the biological being in the Homo Sapiens Urbanus. South Asia’s haphazard urban expansion, for example, has overwhelmed its rich nature-respecting heritage and converted rivers and streams into sluggishly flowing cesspools.


Inclusive technology from nature

Though we have about 6,000 years of experience living in towns, urbanism is an ecological infant. Natural ecology is a complex chain of interlinked, balanced, and stable sub-systems, and relationships among the elements of this system have played out for 4.2 billion years.[2] In stark contrast, urban ecology is just beginning to take form. However, it already shows a dynamism in which many sub-systems appear open-ended. Urbanism’s key characteristic is concentrative as it systemically brings together both populations and economic activities. Urban ecology opens space for nurturing ideas and innovations, supports cultural hues and social colors, creates opportunities, offers services, sustains, and even thrives on heterogeneity. Yet the present urban ecology is distant from the diffusive character observed in the five constituent elements and environmental entities—sky, air, energy, water, and earth—that make up the natural world.

The technologies we have chosen for living and servicing urban life, including building materials and other systems, have been developed as cycles comprising inputs of energy and materials as well as outputs of targets and waste. This choice is not linked to natural processes or to other living and non-living elements of nature. Resource use at the input, process, and output stages has led to the concentration of waste in the five elements of nature within which urban space is evolving. Not only have we learned nothing from the ways of nature, but we have also exceeded the capacity of nature to disarm the wastes that urban lifestyles and processes put into its fold. The interactive, supportive, and interpenetrating characteristics of nature are missing from the present urban scheme of things.

Nature has nurtured, developed and continued only those technologies which use the output of other natural processes as inputs and whose products and process outcomes are partly assimilated in order to re-initiate processes for new outputs. While putting the process in motion, each output becomes an input for additional cycles to be put into motion by agents in nature responsible for other outcomes. This waste-free approach of linking outputs to multiple users and usages (e.g. different life forms and their survival needs) makes nature green in more ways than one. We should not limit our understanding of green as just the color of chlorophyll. On the contrary, nature instills a “chlorophyll property” of myriad facets in its action points along with its many ecological cycles. In nature, we can also see umpteen examples of processes that include roles for living forms and their metabolic systems as chains of sustainability.

The ancient wisdom embodied in Gopatha Brahmana highlights the singular position of plants (green) in nature as follows: “In cloud is rain realized, nourished to fullness and continued. From rain, herbs and plants are materialized and, nourished to fullness, and obtain survival. From herbs and plants are animals materialized and nourished to fullness and obtain survival.”. Whether they live in cities or in caves, humans need air, moisture, land, and plants to survive. Greenways are natural ways to deal with the present urban state, which is dry, hot, and grey. In a green city, natural processes keep things moist, cool, and livable.

The greening of a city would turn our un-ecological present around, and ensure that its interaction with nature, its economic functioning, and its social construct would be changed to function like a tree, that is, to use solar energy and share its benefits with all other life and plant forms. Greening a city is about maintaining harmony with nature and its air, water cycles and land, while, at the same time, using materials and methods that respect and work with nature.


Inclusive materials from nature

Modern science characterizes good building materials in terms of their compressive and tensile strengths; hardness and brittleness; failure under stress and strain; electrical, magnetic, optical, and thermal properties; and resistance to corrosion and temperature stresses. Using the logic of abundance, building materials are expected to be based on the eight elements that make up as much as 98% of the observable portion of Earth’s land surface—oxygen, silicon, aluminum, iron, calcium, sodium, potassium, and magnesium. Traditionally, oxides, silicates, calcite, and kaolinite (minerals, rocks, sand, and clay) have dominated as building materials. Today, as an examination of any modern building demonstrates, metals, ceramics, and polymers (natural and man-made) make up the majority of construction materials. Durability attained through strength and resistance to natural weathering has come to be the most desired characteristics of this material. Since the presence of water is key to weathering in nature, science and technology see water as the number one enemy of material durability. How unnatural the technologies and tools developed on such a premise is made clear by reflecting on the fact that no life is possible without water. Such an approach can only lead to un-ecological states.

As Fitch has rightly noted, “concepts of technological obsolescence, of objects becoming useless economically without reference to any residual physical utility, are modern inventions, the result of the industrial revolution”.[3] Over recent years, the ‘technology’ industry has literally thrived on obsolescence. This technological revolution has led to the development and application of highly durable materials, establishing the production of solid waste and the use of materials that do not age or physically deteriorate over time as defining features of twentieth-century urban development. There is a discrepancy between the durability of waste and the fast pace of technological development: while technological development has made the economic life of artifacts short, it has lengthened their physical lives. Plastic bags, for example, have an economic life of an hour but a physical life of 1,000 or more years.

Similarly, the economic life of a reinforced concrete building can be as low as 30 years in vibrant economies, but its structural life may reach 100 years and its physical life, several centuries.[4] The long residual physical lives of artifacts and materials far beyond their economic lives make waste pile up, constituting a major liability to the assimilative capacity of the earth in the future. The profitability of the “tear it down and start over” philosophy makes for the unprecedented waste of building materials in many urbanscapes. Only a century after the advent of the technological pathway, we already have giant junkyards of concrete rubble around towns and cities. Whether or not, ecologically speaking, the earth can tolerate the accumulation of physically durable materials with no economic value is a question of serious concern for the future. In the same way that carbon emission has become an unintended consequence of the industrial revolution, material waste is a terrible side effect of urbanization as we know it.


There is an immediate need to develop engineering materials the disposability of which is deemed as important as their durability, strength, and functional performance. Similarly, there is an urgent need to augment the porosity of material to water so that currently employed water-excluding systems are replaced by inclusive ones at appropriate points. Unless water-inclusive materials and technologies are used in the buildings and systems that serve a city, modern technologies cannot possibly develop an ecological loop. We must become aware of the importance of learning from nature, and develop science and technology, not to conquer and change nature as we did in the past, but to transform it and use it in ways that will enable us to live in harmony with the natural world[5] and its diverse life forms.


[1] Krier, L. (1998). Architecture: Choice or Fate. Windsor UK: Andreas Papadakis

[2] This is according to Western estimates. Hindu calendars put the age at only 1.95 billion years.

[3] Fitch, J. M. (1992). Historic Preservation – Curatorial Management of the Built World. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

[4] Some time ago, scientists at MIT reported that they were developing concrete that could, theoretically, last 16,000 years and that this material would be a marvel for engineering and technology. The horror that this mistakenly named ‘green high-performance concrete’ would be to the future of the city can be easily gauged.

[5] Ibid.  Morishima (2010)

This is an abridged version of the paper BUILDING THE GREEN CITY OF FUTURE “INCLUSIVE” TECHNOLOGIES AND MATERIALS by Sudarshan Raj Tiwari presented as THE ISET PLATFORM LECTURE September 2014.


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