What can we learn from pre-carbon cities?

As cities grapple with how to achieve both mitigation goals and implement adaptation plans, architect and researcher Dr. Sandra Piesik argues that there is a lot we can learn from vernacular materials and local knowledge.

The urban development agenda of today points to strengthening links between urban, peri-urban and rural areas through integrated national and regional planning. As cities face twin challenges of lowering emissions and coping with the impacts of climate change, there is much we can learn from “Habitat” cities, pre-carbon cities, those that evolved and developed from local knowledge, materials, in response to very specific climates and conditions.

Some of the oldest cities in the world existed before the 19-century industrial revolution, and long before we started to calculate carbon. Commerce, economic viability, food security—and neighbourhoods that coexisted with nature—were all a reality and not utopian concepts.

A deep understanding of local climate

What was smart about them? The builders of Habitat cities had a deep understanding of their climates and knew how to adapt their built environment to their immediate surroundings. Drinking water, local renewable resources, economic self-sufficiency, and the manifestation of a material culture that often-reflected local religion, were some of the key drivers.

The desert climate, for example, produced “compacted cities”—cities with dense urban morphologies—which featured thick mud walls to provide thermal mass and cooling. Tribal neighbourhoods were woven between natural oasis ecosystems with an incredible wealth of biodiversity.

People living in the tropical climate of Southeast Asia produced examples of cities that could live with floods and water. In this instance, building on stilts was the most sensible solution for flooding. They have learnt how to use water to their advantage for transportation and trading.

The indigenous people of the Colombian city of Manizales developed earthquake-resistant lightweight buildings for their city, that sadly, were replaced by colonial buildings without earthquake-resistant characteristics, which led to tragic consequences.

The historical cities of Scandinavia had sustainable houses constructed from local timber and with regional designs, until the arrival of standardised approaches to city planning and the mechanisation of construction sadly changed them forever.

Social infrastructures

These vernacular urban interventions demonstrate that in the past, inhabitants of cities had a thorough understanding of their surroundings and worked with them. What made Habitat cities so successful, apart from their economic and agricultural sufficiency, was the socio-ethnographic DNA of these cities. The built form reflected the social structure of a family unit, tribe, cast, or clan. Strangers were welcomed, usually on the peripheries, and in an organic and unplanned way, these cities demonstrated social cohesion.

Aerial view of white buildings in cityscape

UN-HABITAT defines in the World Cities Report 2016 on Urbanisation and Development persistent issues and emerging urban challenges due to increased population which are: urban growth, change in family patterns, increased residency in slums, and informal settlements, climate change, exclusion, rising inequality, and an upsurge in international migration.

Agenda 2030

Feeding the half of the world’s population that resides in urban areas poses another challenge, especially if unemployment in rural areas becomes unemployment in cities. Adaptation of Agendas 2020 and 2030 is probably the fastest way to achieve progress. They both recognise geography (in the developed and developing world and in Annex I and Annex II countries) as well as adaptation, mitigation and technology transfer. Agenda 2030, for example, states in the Sustainable Development Goal 11: Support positive economic, social and environmental links between urban, peri-urban and rural areas by strengthening national and regional development planning”.

Written by Dr. Sandra Piesik.

Sandra Piesik will be a panellist in the “Greening the City” session, as part of the Climate Innovation Summit organised by Climate-KIC at the La Fabbrica del Vapore, Via Procaccini, Milan on Monday 30 October. 

Register now!

 “HABITAT: Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Planet”edited by Dr Sandra Piesik, is the culmination of years of specialist research. An international team of more than 140 leading experts from 50 counties, from a diverse range of disciplines, examine what the traditions of vernacular cities and architecture, and its regional craftspeople around the world, can teach us about creating a more sustainable future. Published by Thames & Hudson: 5 October 2017

 
News you may be interested in
news
EIT Climate-KIC to boost innovation capacity in Cr...

EIT Climate-KIC is expanding its network with the creation...

EIT Climate-KIC to boost innovation capacity in Croatia, Greece and Lithuania
news
EIT Climate-KIC aims to slash industrial plastic u...

EIT Climate-KIC and partners have launched an exciting programme to...

EIT Climate-KIC aims to slash industrial plastic use through innovation in digital tools
news
City Finance Lab to launch beginning of June

A new initiative run by South Pole Group and...

City Finance Lab to launch beginning of June
news
Fresh boost to industrial symbiosis in Europe

EIT Climate-KIC has teamed up with five partners to...

Fresh boost to industrial symbiosis in Europe
news
Europe’s annual climate innovation summit to be ...

The 2018 Climate Innovation Summit, Europe’s leading event on climate...

Europe’s annual climate innovation summit to be held in emerging green finance centre Dublin
news
Pollution-sucking ‘smart’ trees bring clean ai...

Recent installations of the pollution-sucking CityTree in London and...

Pollution-sucking ‘smart’ trees bring clean air to London and Brussels
news
New project aims to mobilise Europe on ‘drawdown...

EIT Climate-KIC, together with the German Energy Agency (DENA)...

New project aims to mobilise Europe on ‘drawdown’
news
Mainstream climate change into post-2020 funding f...

EIT Climate-KIC is calling on the European Commission to...

Mainstream climate change into post-2020 funding framework, Climate-KIC urges European Commission
news
New European research-backed programme aims to inc...

EIT Climate-KIC is to launch an ambitious forestry innovation...

New European research-backed programme aims to increase sustainable forestry
news
EIT Climate-KIC Spain boosts new national public-p...

EIT Climate-KIC Spain is playing a major role in...

EIT Climate-KIC Spain boosts new national public-private partnership for climate action
news
EIT Climate-KIC aims for truly pan-European reach

Europe’s leading public-private innovation initiative focused on climate change...

EIT Climate-KIC aims for truly pan-European reach
news
EIT Climate-KIC CEO urges mayors to consider their...

Cities must consider the infrastructure and environmental legacy that...

EIT Climate-KIC CEO urges mayors to consider their role in boosting climate innovation
news
Solar start-up praises EIT Climate-KIC’s assista...

EU-backed start-up incubation programmes such as EIT Climate-KIC’s Accelerator...

Solar start-up praises EIT Climate-KIC’s assistance on clean energy live stream
news
European Commission report on Sustainable Finance ...

The European Commission’s High-Level Expert Group (HLEG) on Sustainable Finance...

European Commission report on Sustainable Finance affirms its commitment to climate action
news
EIT Climate-KIC innovators featured in Forbes 30 u...

Six EIT Climate-KIC innovators have been honoured in this...

EIT Climate-KIC innovators featured in Forbes 30 under 30 Europe List
news
New EIT urban mobility and manufacturing innovatio...

The European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT), the...

New EIT urban mobility and manufacturing innovation communities launched
news
European innovation body offers support to Portugu...

EIT Climate-KIC is calling on leading business, educational and research...

European innovation body offers support to Portuguese and Lithuanian regions
news
Europe’s first open innovation platform for clim...

A new EIT Climate-KIC supported capacity-building tool for climate-smart...

Europe’s first open innovation platform for climate-smart agriculture launched
news
New study finds Climate-KIC and wider EIT Communit...

A new study has found that EIT’s Knowledge and...

New study finds Climate-KIC and wider EIT Community delivering significant impact for Europe
news
Climate-KIC start-up SOLHO one of Europe’s Top 5...

Climate-KIC start-up SOLHO was one of four winners honoured...

Climate-KIC start-up SOLHO one of Europe’s Top 50 innovators
news
Innovative solutions sought for urban challenges

Climate-KIC’s Urban Challenges programme is seeking to support start-ups...

Innovative solutions sought for urban challenges
news
Climate-KIC supported start-up ZOLAR completes €...

• Sunstone Capital, Statkraft Ventures, Partech Ventures and Tim...

Climate-KIC supported start-up ZOLAR completes €4m financing round