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Sustainable Cities: Smart Future, Meet Passive Past

3p Contributor | Friday January 17th, 2014 | 3 Comments

As a lead-up to Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, Jan. 18-25, Masdar sponsored a blogging contest called “Engage: Cities and Sustainable Development.” The following post was a runner-up.Smart Cities Sign

By Antony Kisilo

A sustainable city is organized so as to enable all its citizens to meet their own needs and to enhance their well-being without damaging the natural world or endangering the living conditions of other people, now or in the future.

​Smart technologies have actually been used in the past and have proven to be successful at improving civic sustainability, but in many thriving cities, their underbellies – the transport, sanitation, energy and building technology – are filled with rot and decay.

To look one hundred years into the future, we really need to look back one hundred years to learn from our predecessors. The reality is that there is nothing new under the sun. For example, our forefathers in my country Kenya utilized rammed earth, sun-dried mud and twigs for construction that had near zero embodied energy, used pit latrines as a waste management technology that recycled nutrients back to the soil, captured water from fresh springs, and swam in warm, clean and unpolluted lakes. People worked and lived with natural materials within their environment and gave back to the environment. Now that’s smart.

What amazes me is that all over the world, we have evidence of ancient cities fighting drought with passive filtration and boxes within cities that partially purified the rain water runoff towards the city dams. These somehow mundane solutions are looked down upon as irrelevant as the issues being faced in our cities include more toxic levels of impurities. But who says we cannot improve their passive systems as opposed to centralized power-hungry water treatment systems that end up creating more dependencies and require need of more natural resource?

Why is it so hard to get back to our roots and redesign around principles that have worked for centuries as opposed to experimenting with the lives of our future generations? Now, I have to admit that cities’ populations have expanded exponentially since the second World War and shall continue to do so for the foreseeable future. However, a smarter population empowered at the individual level can actually solve local city problems through local interventions. Human destiny will be played out, and the future of the biosphere will be determined, at the local level.

A smart city needs a smart population. As an architect, I was trained to understand the area of the usable space we are carving in our environment, but I have found it myopic to view the world through this lens as there is much more to living than the thousands of square feet we develop. Cities have a life of their own and keep growing and changing in reaction to the basic needs of individuals in transport,  sanitation, water and housing.

Amazing satellite cities have been planned and built to be sustainable and smart, and we can thank the design of ancient cities and natural resources for the sustainability of these cities. Thanks to cities like Masdar, we can almost walk back in time to a desert village, with all the passive systems in place that are sustainable, but in this century.

Image credit: Flickr/Smart Cities

Antony Kisilo is an architect based in Kenya.


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  1. January 17, 2014 at 6:52 am PDT | stacyfeldi writes:

    true. I find it funny that modernity’s nature is that everything new is valued and old is not. There is so much effort in reinvention. But I guess it is like the actions of a child grown into an adult, on a larger collective stage. You are so sure you do not want to make the mistakes of the last generation that it is only much later that you recognise the achievements and how some of them were more efficient or organic than the new shiny ones you were running to implement. I wonder if it is a feature of those who grow up with the different perspective that living in a developing country brings. I grew up in Botswana and whilst Botswana and Kenya would be seen as some of the more prosperous and developed countries in Africa, the mix of old and new is much more stark than the long established world in Europe. Equally, we forget that words like technology were in use prior to them being only related to machinery of a specific design or bringing a particular image to mind. We forget that in our quest to problem solve what we think is a new issue that therefore needs new solutions. As you say, nothing is every really new.

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  2. January 20, 2014 at 9:02 am PDT | Ty Morrison writes:

    Observation seems to be a forgotten tool for many designers.

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  3. February 04, 2014 at 16:14 pm PDT | Robert Haverlock writes:

    It comes to show you that Technology is sometimes overrated! Think Passive and the world will be “someones oyster”!

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