Exploring Habitat Futures: Cultivating a discourse through imagination and demonstration

By Yana

Keywords — future thinking, participatory urban development, prototyping spaces

Context.

Urban development is a balancing act between formal and informal, planned and unplanned, and forces with conflicting needs and interests. The spatial structure of a city reflects the distribution of power, access to resources and inequalities that exist in these spheres. As the impact of climate change becomes increasingly evident, we need to rethink our notions of habitat and what constitutes development. Furthermore, it is critical that we notice who is included in the decision-making that shapes the city, and who isn’t.

How might habitat development be a shared conversation that is transparent and accessible for all?

This forms a core focus area in our work at Architecture for Dialogue. Here I will draw from some of our projects based in Delhi, to highlight the role of future thinking, provocations and prototypes in initiating alternative futures for the city.

Divergent-thinking.

From the spectrum of plausible and possible events that the future has in store, divergent thinking opens doors to scenarios that may at first seem unlikely. This is relevant in pursuing alternative visions for rigid urban systems that haven’t changed in a long time. Food systems are one such example. As food demand grows in cities, climate change and resultant unpredictable weather conditions endanger crop growth — testing agricultural systems for their viability and resilience.

As a city experiencing rapid urbanisation and soon to be the most populous in the world, Delhi offers a particularly relevant environment to study the future of food supply and agriculture. In response to openIDEO’s call for ideas, we put forth a vision for ‘Delhi Agro-city’ that imagines an alternative future when farmers and consumers co-exist in cities. Urban agriculture invites farmers to move to the city, prioritising local food production and giving urban dwellers opportunities to deepen their engagement with food systems.

The project puts forth this vision by way of speculative visuals. Freelancing farmers find their place in the city, working directly with consumer groups to cultivate in parks, backyards and rooftops in return for salaries. Farmers continue pursuing agriculture as a source of livelihood while accessing urban amenities like healthcare, education, and information technology. Seeking better nutrition, consumers help out with land, resources and effort — sharing responsibilities and setbacks in case of poor harvest and crop failures. Peer-to-peer barter exchanges become common, with automated blockchain platforms facilitating easy transactions.

Physical spaces in the city adapt to accommodate urban farming. Collaborative agriculture brings groups from different backgrounds and economic classes together and functions as the motor behind social change. 

Vegetable and fruit depots step in to act as interfaces between consumers and producers. The Urban Agriculture Institute serves as a place where different actors come together and form a shared ecosystem. 

Provoking thought.

How might we translate these visions into tangible discourses in the public domain? Installations and exhibitions offer an interface to share research findings and demonstrative visions with citizen groups. Artistic mediums offer an entry point to diverge from present-day realities and immerse in alternative realities that provoke thought and conversation.

The project ‘My house is ill!’ was an immersive installation inviting visitors to a home adapting to persistent air pollution in Delhi. Little is known about how pollution alters the safety of the spaces we inhabit every day. Households opt for air purifiers, staying indoors and cultivating gardens within homes, struggling to keep pollution at bay. Given this context, the installation raised essential questions at the intersection of architecture, ecology and behaviour to study air pollution within homes and present patterns that are otherwise unseen.

If your house could talk, what would it say? A network of particle sensors shares the health status of different spaces and offers real-time notifications and recommendations. 

When outdoor air is unhealthy all year round, virtual windows become the norm. Pay-per-view projections offer exquisite views without the risk of bad air.​

The imagination of a domestic living experience so visibly altered by poor air proved to be an effective provocation. Visitors engaged with the installation and reflected on the air in their own homes. Myths were busted, learnings shared and more questions followed. The installation channelled this stimulation to facilitate a discourse around public perceptions of air and what constitutes safety within indoor environments.

Power of prototypes.

In a way, ‘My house is ill’ was intended as a prototype of a future home adapting to poor air. Whether it is the future of a home, a street, or waste management systems, prototypes are cost-effective ways to test hypotheses and assumptions and design solutions, while helping imagination and faith in alternative streams of thought and approaches.

An example of this can be found in recent small-scale pilot projects conducted in various Indian cities around cycle-friendly infrastructure. Until recently, cycle infrastructure had little precedent in India, with local efforts having to rely on examples and models from European counterparts. In 2020, this started to change. As cycle ridership peaked during the Covid-19 pandemic, many Indian cities took the opportunity to acknowledge cyclists and expand the infrastructure dedicated to them.

Working with the New Delhi Municipal Council, the AfD team helped the city execute a six-kilometre pilot corridor — implementing temporary street design interventions to improve safety and experience for cyclists. The project was positioned as a tool to build awareness and test typologies of cycle infrastructure that would work for Delhi. More importantly, however, the project built confidence in city authorities and citizens to perceive cycle infrastructure as an achievable near-term goal — an important step in transitioning towards sustainable mobility futures.

Through the week-long pilot, citizens were encouraged to participate and share critical feedback. Cyclists were invited to share their visions of a cycle-friendly city and highlight things that stand in the way. 

Public art components in the project created delightful experiences — accelerating participation and enthusiasm by citizen groups. 

Ending notes.

The traditional role of a designer, architect or city maker is undergoing a transition. As architects struggle to ascertain their role and responsibility in climate action and social change (ourselves included), there’s value in acknowledging that there is much to learn from the people we design for, their contexts and from adjacent disciplines.

How our immediate environments could, would or should evolve — is a subject that is best addressed collectively. Participation of underrepresented user groups and stakeholders is steadily being acknowledged as an important piece of the puzzle. To drive this participation and to deviate from a linear process of urban development, demonstrations, prototypes and pilot projects emerge as powerful tools. Imagination is key.

As an urban practitioner and creative technologist, Abhimanyu Singhal’s work is focused on instigating dialogue around habitat and resource usage. He co-runs Architecture for Dialogue, a research+design studio that participates in projects across city-making, futurism, experience design and public engagement.


About the author: Abhimanyu Singhal is an urban practitioner and design researcher based out of Goa. He co-runs Architecture for Dialogue, a research and design collective that works at the intersection of city making, futurism and public engagement. In a short span of time, the studio has participated in projects across street design, food systems, water security, waste management and air pollution. For their work, AfD was recognised as one of the top 20 emerging design practices at DesignXDesign and their work is regularly featured on public forums and publications like Science Gallery Bengaluru, Designboom, First Post, Homegrown, and The Indian Express.


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