| BASIN - News No 11. March 1996: BASIN and the city summit |
Building, Shelter and Sustainable Urbanisation
Hundreds of millions of people live in desperate conditions in cities and towns around the world. They have little opportunity to earn a secure living, and conventional urban management systems cannot cope with their needs. It is therefore hardly surprising that debates leading up to Habitat II are dominated by talk about safety nets for the most vulnerable, and about human rights. Whilst these are fundamental in any society, it seems unlikely that the gap between diverse ideologies and conflicting vested interests will be substantially narrowed in Istanbul. Thus it is vital that attention is also given to promoting practical ideas that offer some hope of satisfying the basic needs of people around the world.
These basic needs are shelter, income, food and energy. People who live close together in towns and cities depend on basic services to deliver water and power, to take away waste and for transport. As well as homes, they need buildings for work, for education, for trade and for leisure. Cities are growing so fast that there is, inevitably, a massive demand for building materials - and for appropriate management techniques to assemble them. It is therefore essential to learn to do more with less.
This ever rising demand for raw materials and components cannot be met by conventional energy-intensive centralized methods of production. Neither can those in need of housing and community facilities afford to pay the asking price. The state can no longer provide and - except in centrally planned economies - won’t even consider providing. Hence new solutions have to be found. The best approach is to promote new ways to link people’s needs with people’s capacities. In exactly the same way as international trade and industry thrives in a supportive environment, so too does local initiative.
Locally appropriate solutions depend on local coordination of information, skills, finance and social organisation. Whilst the ingenuity and adaptability of people is not to be underestimated, the critical assistance they need is to learn how to make the best use of the natural resources and latent talent they have available. And this is a dynamic need. Communities grow and their needs are constantly changing.
The Vancouver Summit urged the public and private sectors to investigate and promote new ways to process raw materials and to develop low-cost building systems. Two parallel, often inter-related strategies have been pursued. One has worked on scaling down the processes and products of large scale manufacturing systems. The other has built on local wisdom and traditional building practices, aiming to improve the performance of local materials and to adapt essential rural designs to urban lifestyles.
Some experiments failed - experiments often do. But one clear factor is emerging. If the people who are supposed to benefit from a strategy have no part in developing it, there is much less chance of that idea succeeding. On the other hand many of the products and processes which were once (rather dis-missively) called ‘appropriate technologies’ are now an accepted part of the building industry, particularly when they are used flexibly and with regard to local conditions.
For example, mechanically pressed blocks made of soil stabilised with cement are used throughout the world. They are popular wherever timber is scarce and the climate calls for buildings with a good thermal performance. And they are good business for the small labour intensive factories that local entrepreneurs have set up to make them. Cities don’t have to be built with concrete blocks.
Similarly, tens of millions of a new type of lightweight concrete roof tile have been sold in the past decade. The tiles are an ideal alternative to metal sheet roofing; they can be made locally in small factories, they look good and they are very durable. Conventional concrete tile manufacturers, saddled with the massive investment cost of big factories have been known to manipulate the market in an attempt to squeeze out these new competitors. Lacking the power to fight back, these fledgling businesses have needed nurturing.
Portland cement is a wonderfully versatile binder, but strong and durable buildings can be built without cement. Buildings both grand and humble have stood for centuries without it. Clay and lime, to name but two alternative binders are perfectly adequate for small buildings especially now that traditional knowledge of mortars and plasters is being enhanced with the best of modern science and technology. These materials are appropriate for most urban building, and they don’t need to be made in vast energy-intensive kilns, as cement does.
People are constantly coming up with new ways to use local materials - and doing more with less. This creativity has to be supported. Training, technical advice, research grants, low cost starter loans, tax holidays, non-restrictive building codes; these are just some of the incentives which the now well-established big businesses have themselves needed in the past.
Governments and local authorities have a vital role to play in ensuring that information about socially and environmentally useful technologies is available. they have a responsibility to develop policies and regulations which do not restrict the use of new materials and methods of building unnecessarily. They should encourage local initiatives and help enterprises to adopt and adapt the best technologies from around the world. And new research must be promoted. At the same time private and non-government organisations already committed to promoting sustainable development should redouble their efforts. There must be an equal partnership between experts and advisors on one hand and the local people who must make these ideas a reality, on the other.
Finally, ways have to be found to persuade the trans-national corporations and mega-industries to re-align their enormous productive capacity to match global limits and to the real needs of people in cities, towns and rural areas.
Guiding the management of technical change at every level of the construction industry is one of Habitat II’s most urgent challenges. BASIN will be represented at the NGO Forum and at the main conference in Istanbul by people from the members agencies. We look forward to seeing you there and to continuing this discussion.
The Focus theme in this issue of BASIN News is appropriate building technology and local initiative. We have selected articles which explore the many challenges of inadequate human settlement which are so starkly apparent throughout the world. Whilst it would have been possible to choose a number of success stories, and to spin out the reasons why others should try to copy these best practice examples, we have deliberately avoided this glossy approach.
Sumita Sinha’s article about brick making in India makes the point very forcefully that a technology deemed appropriate in one place can have disastrous consequences in another. Traditional brickmaking in West Bengal is very energy intensive because the kilns burnt tropical hardwood and only produced a few bricks with each firing. New kilns have been introduced, and they work well in other parts of India, but in Bankura district they have caused many people to loose their livelihood, they have caused pollution and they have destroyed fertile agricultural land. Some of the wealthier people in the region have now got brick houses, and some trees have not ended up as brickmaking fuel. But at what cost? This improved technology seems not to be locally sustainable.
Another study, this time from Papua New Guinea, is a report of recent research about the way that people living in a slum in the city of Lae want to live. It concentrates on the sort of materials they use now and what they would like use if they could. Over half of the people asked said they bought their building materials from rubbish dumps. And if people could afford to buy new materials it turned out that many would choose those materials which appeared impressive in order to raise their social status rather than materials which function better. Traditional materials such as thatch were out of the question.
The next article about a housing project in Costa Rica tackles one of the myths of modern building. The myth is that permanent buildings can only be built with materials that last for ever. Houses made of earth, or timber, or with thatched roofs are dismissed as temporary and not suitable for towns and cities. Some of this ignorance finds it way into laws and building regulations which just add credibility to falsehoods. There are timber buildings in Scandinavia which have lasted for centuries, and thatched roofs in Africa which are over 50 years old. And there are bamboo houses in the Americas and Asia which are permenent by any definition of the word. They hardly need any maintenance, they do not fall down in earthquakes, they look modern and they are functional in every sense of the word. This article is about how modern bamboo building have been introduced to Costa Rica and how the project has benefitted by the best that modern science has been able to add to the timeless values of traditional craft skills.
South Africa has a massive housing crisis. This is one of the most visible features of the apartheid inheritance. The new government there is promoting a laudably equitable housing policy, but it is struggling to find ways to deliver on pre-election promises. This BASIN News article clearly spells out what needs to be done to promote a people centred process. First and foremost, the authors insist that the innovation which exists amongst the poor should be treasured as the most valuable asset available to decision makers, planners and implementors. The article presents a comprehensive list of strategies to ensure that peoples’ own capacity and enthusiasm is supported. In particular it recognises that this support has to straddle the worlds of housing rights and alternative technologies. People cannot build with bricks alone.
The last two articles are success stories. Parts of these stories have been told before in previous issues of BASIN News, but they are worth repeating. Finding ways to assist people to put their own resources into improving the slums that seem to be growing all around the world is one of the major challenges for the coming decades. These articles describe the different styles of a common approach that is working in Kenya and in Argentine.
In Agentine the authors describe a system in which a new type of concrete block has been introduced to help reduce local construction costs. The process of introducing a novel technology has been well integrated with other important elements of housing improvement, such as housing finance, the role of women, and the necessity for self-help approaches. High quality training courses in all aspects of slum improvement, including the production of durable building materials, is considered to be a mark of the success of this work.
In Kenya, in the last of the articles in this issue, the authors highlight the issue of security of tenure. If people are sure that they are not going to be evicted from where they live they will invest in making it more comfortable. And they will put in time to improve the local environment. In the Tanzania-Bondeni slum foreigners played an important part in this process. German planning experts introduced Voi residents to a land tenure system which works well in parts of the eastern United States. And they helped them to adapt this Land Trust model to the unique legal and regulatory frameorks in Kenya. The results are gradually emerging as people in Voi are now starting to improve their own houses and their neighbourhood.
It is impossible in one issue of a magazine to adequately cover the subject of urbanisation and the built environment. Everyone has their own perspective and a unique story to tell. And a great many people have offered to write it down for publication in this issue. We have not been able to publish all the articles that were offered. Not because they were inadequate in any way, but simply because there is not enough space in this magazine. Our sincere thanks to those who have written to us, and we hope that you can recognise your views reflected here.