‘Sustainability needs to be integrated in the communities’
June 09 2013 12:11 AM
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* Dr Anna Gritching is seen with her students on a field trip in Qatar. As part of her teaching and research at Qatar University, she is looking at Food Security as a new paradigm for Urban Planning and Design. This involves examining how to integrate the production of food into the architectural, urban, and landscape design and also to design more productive landscapes.

 In a freewheeling interview with Rubina Singh, Professor Anna Grichting talks about the importance of symbiosis, of ‘thinking in systems’ and its importance to sustainable urban development.

 

Just as change doesn’t necessarily imply a change for the better, movement does not always denote a forward escalation in a progressive direction. Similarly, while urban development is a positive step forward, there are aspects which can add impetus to the thrust and value to the larger picture and make the pace of progress even more progressive.

Glance anywhere in Doha and there is one uniform feature that remains constant throughout the landscape — construction is everywhere, in one form another, as far as eye can see! Urban development and progress are more than just mere terms in Qatar’s environment yet sustainability is striving hard to become more than just a cliched term.

That Qatar is developing by leaps and bounds, there is no doubt! What remains to be seen is whether the movement is going forward in the targeted direction with desired results achievable at the expected time. What also remains to be seen is whether urban development and sustainability can have a lasting marriage in the Qatari landscape and a genuine commitment to each other will be far more important than mere intention.

One amongst the many germs of progressive ideas floating is the study of Urban Development and Sustainability at Qatar University’s Department of Architecture and Urban Planning.

While a few years ago the concept of working towards recycling plastic, glass and aluminum was gaining momentum in the international arena, followed by the trend towards ‘going green’ and ‘Green building’, the  world has progressed way beyond to now ‘thinking in systems’ to address the current needs and tackle the pace at which the planet is needing corrective measures.

Just ‘going green’ is no longer cool, the new buzz word is Blue! “Blue Design” creates places that go beyond Carbon Neutrality and add back to our world, in a new symbiosis between buildings and landscapes.

Symbiosis is the interaction and mutually beneficial relationship between two different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both.

Dr Anna Gritching is an architect and urbanist from Switzerland who graduated with a PhD in Urbanism from Harvard University. She teaches Architecture, Sustainable Urban Landscape Design, and Urban Regeneration and has previously taught in the Universities of Geneva and Harvard. Apart from her enviable academic achievements she is also a talented musician.

As part of her teaching and research at Qatar University, she is looking at Food Security as a new paradigm for Urban Planning and Design. This involves examining how to integrate the production of food into the architectural, urban, and landscape design and also to design more productive landscapes.

The measurement of successful design in the future will include the level of giveback the project generates for the intended users of the space as well as the greater global community. While landscapes are generally thought to be ornamental in nature, landscapes in fact can also be edible and productive, says Gritching. Excerpts ...

What does ‘thinking in systems’ mean in the context of urban planning and architecture?

Thinking in systems, among other things, is about maximising available resources while minimising waste and recycling to optimise benefit. In designing a villa and its surroundings, concepts that include how the household will be able to recycle organic waste and waste water in the garden or green roof terrace landscape should be considered.

Waste water from kitchen sinks and dishwashers can be used directly for watering vegetables growing in your garden, provided of course that we are using organic products for washing. In a way, a natural resource that is currently flowing into the waste drainage can be made useful rather than wasteful.

‘Thinking in systems’ is not merely limited to the structure of the building but also extends to accommodate its life cycle, the needs of the inhabitants and takes into account other benefits that can add value to the entire structure and the end result.

The whole idea behind thinking of urban land and design from the sustainability perspective is to create a regenerative system or a smart city where the resources go in and what comes out is reused and recycled, whether it is energy or water. The idea of system, when you think of food urbanism is about recycling water and organic waste.

From the perspective of permaculture, system’s thinking is also about plant species and their relationship to their context and climate. The focus of permaculture is not on each separate element but rather on the relationships created among elements by the way they are placed together; the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts.

 

How far is this concept being used in Qatar and what would help to make it more popular?

There is a rising awareness that we need to think more holistically, to integrate different types of knowledge and disciplines, and to act in a collaborative manner.

Ecological thinking and sustainability should not only be planned, designed, regulated at the top down level, it also needs to be adopted and integrated by the communities in Qatar, from young children who are the future stewards of the land, to elders who have the wisdom of the past generations.

So far, all the organic waste from households in Doha goes into the bins and then on to the landfill but if we start composting, then we can reduce what ends up as waste in the landfill and instead use it productively.

We have to factor in the extremely hot weather in Qatar and also support the community to learn how to compost as well as source suitable recycling bins before it can be taken up.

The main challenge at the community level is to spread the knowledge and to create the conditions for action. There are people in the community who are already adopting sustainable practices in their daily life, however, they are far and few between.

 

How can urban development and sustainability go hand in hand in the context of the Qatari landscape and how are students at QU learning to adopt this concept?

Sustainable urban development involves thinking creatively and systematically. QU students have used these concepts to create designs using rooftops to plant food. Even a shopping centre, for example City Center Mall in Doha, instead of having a flat roof which contributes to the urban heat islands can be designed to have a green roof which will actually help to insulate the building, reduce heat emissions, and produce fruits and vegetables which could even be sold for profit.

The idea behind the concept of food urbanism is that you are reducing the food-print, which considers carbon emissions related to the transportation of food for large population consumption over long distances, keeping in mind the extensive energy consumption in transportation.  It is also about building more food security because the more food that people can actually grow for themselves the more independent they can be.

 

But in desert areas in the Middle East, particularly in Qatar, is food cultivation in this way a feasible prospect?

I think it is feasible and is being practiced already. There are examples of Indian expats who develop extensive vegetable and fruit gardens and the Qataris themselves have farms where they grow food. There is also great potential in the workers housing.

A majority of them come from rural communities in their countries, so you would actually be giving them the opportunity to improve their living environments and to produce and eat healthier food. People’s lives can be improved through healthier food options as organically grown food is healthier and has less chemicals, and being more aware of our food habits can also combat obesity.

 

What can be done to make this concept work at the wider community level?

Media and mass communication mediums focusing on these topics, films, documentary’s, television programmes on the subject etc can help spread awareness and get people thinking and acting in daily life in ways that contribute towards making Doha a ‘smart city.’ We need a place where people can actually learn these fundamentals, possibly through community workshops and other such initiatives.

We are planning to develop a small community garden with the students at Qatar University and I also hope to work on my compound with my neighbours to recycle waste and grow more food. More initiatives can also add value to the concept.

 

What opportunities are available for QU students of Urban Planning to expand on these concepts?  

Two of our students in the Masters in Urban Planning and Design programme at Qatar University are going to participate in the Gulf Research Meeting in Cambridge University in July to present this work and hopefully set up a Gulf regional hub where we can work with other universities and interest groups on how these ideas can be put into action.   

 

What changes at grass-root level could help to take the concept of ‘Thinking in systems’ further?

First and foremost, it needs to become a part of the design curriculum so that when students are designing, they will start thinking in systems and implement it, irrespective of whether they are designing a shopping mall, a house or a palace.

Also, we are working with a local NGO – Sprouts Middle East - who specialise in Permaculture with whom and we are planning to develop a small community garden at Qatar University as well as to provide educational workshops for the students and later the community. We are also looking for funding opportunities to involve more students at QU in Food Urbanism projects.

 

SUNDAY CONVERSATION

In a nutshell

Thinking in systems, among other things, is about maximising available resources minimising waste, and recycling to optimise benefit.

“Blue Design” goes beyond Carbon Neutrality to actually add back to our world, in a new symbiosis between buildings and landscapes.

The measurement of successful design in the future will include the level of giveback the project generates for the intended users of the space as well as the greater global community.

While landscapes are generally thought to be ornamental in nature, landscapes in fact can also be edible and productive.

Ecological thinking and sustainability should not only be planned, designed, regulated at the top down level. It also needs to be adopted and integrated by the communities in Qatar, from young children who are the future stewards of the land, to elders who have wisdom of the past generations.

The idea behind the concept of food urbanism is that you are reducing the food-print, which considers carbon emissions related to the transportation of food for large population consumption over long distances, keeping in mind the extensive energy consumption in transportation.

Food Urbanism can contribute towards more food security because the more food that people can actually grow for themselves the more independent they can be and it also contributes to Carbon Capture.

People’s lives can be improved through healthier food options as organically grown food is healthier and has less chemicals, and being more aware of our food habits can also combat obesity.

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