|BASIN - News No. 13 - February 1997 : The Great Habitat Debate (BASIN-GTZ-SKAT, 1997, 31 p.)|
Hundreds of millions of people live in desperate conditions in cities around the world. They have little opportunities to earn a secure living, and conventional urban management systems cannot cope with their needs. It was therefore surprising that debates leading up to Habitat 11 were 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 are 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. 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 dismissively) 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, this 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, nonrestrictive 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 pay 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.