Barcelona vs Chennai – Sustainability of my lifestyle by Monica Galindo

BarcelonaI would like to start this series of reflections, talking about my way of living in India compared with Spain. I believe that to assess the change in culture and the daily life associated with my life in India, carries consequences for the environment and my own understanding of how I can improve my lifestyle to become more sustainable.

The idea of sustainability focuses on ways to live better and more fairly, with fewer resources to reduce the pressure that humans exert on the Earth and ensuring that future generations live in a better environment, with sufficient resources and a more equitable existence.

The problem of sustainability requires a general response in the hands of society, industry, Governments and individuals acting collectively. Unfortunately, it is not enough to think that technology or laws can supplant the lack of resources. The solution will not come standardized and cannot be extended to overall behavior, but will only work through a variety of different responses that depend on each culture and environment. This is because each society has a different way of life that affects the environment differently.

According to climate change experts, the problem of global warming of the Earth is accelerated by human activities. These generate variations in the concentration of atmospheric gases, causing an increase in global land temperature which results in the melting of the polar caps, sea-level rise and the “desertification” of the planet, in general terms. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2004, a 36% increase of carbon dioxide from 1750 is due to the burning of fuels and deforestation. A 130% increase of methane is due to the burning of fuels, cattle, rice cultivation and the landfills and an increase of 17% of the nitrogen oxides is due to the cultivation of agricultural land, animal farms and chemical industries.

The first activity in order of importance that alters the atmosphere, is the production of meat for food on top of the consumption of fossil fuels. In Spain, a day in which one does not eat meat is rare. In India, a large part of the population is vegetarian. My diet has changed completely, from eating meat almost every day to only about once a week. Eating vegetables and avoiding packaged products is the first rule to be a little more sustainable. A sustainable approach that focuses resources only on soil for the cultivation of grains for human consumption and not for the raising animals would permit much more food for human consumption by redirecting higher quality resources that could eradicate human hunger in the world. This would also create more food without using chemical fertilizers, which are known to accelerate agricultural output at the cost of degrading the soil’s natural nutrients, thus reducing the pressure on land and water for irrigation.

The daily food in Shilpa’s Office is vegetarian and comes packaged in plastic containers from the restaurant, so it takes associated emissions for the consumption of fuels for the production and reuse of plastic. Two times a day, when it comes to coffee, I use disposable cardboard glass, representing a total of 48 glasses per month, which is more than 20 plastic bags! Looking at the streets full of garbage, the unfortunate result of throwing garbage anywhere is the result of a general lack of civic discipline, which is fueled by the indiscriminate use of single-use disposable containers. It is important for India to think about reducing waste and conserving clean public spaces. It is necessary to change behavior in India, to be more responsible. Simple efforts that can make a collective difference could include bringing food in a non disposable container and using a reusable cup rather than the disposable container, which would take very little personal effort and a collective breakthrough.

Speaking of recycling, in the street or in any establishment, the use of disposable packaging is extended, not only in the use but also in the way of getting rid of them on the ground. I am personally unable to throw anything on the ground but have completely forgotten about recycling! Unfortunately there are no collection centers or containers in my neighborhood to recycle material but in Chennai there are people who pass by my houses collecting plastic, glass and paper. It is interesting to see how the economic and social necessity supplies a much needed service to reduce the impact of a lack of governmental infrastructure necessary for recycling. In this aspect, I must find ways to recreate my previous habit of recycling in Spain. I wonder if improving the appearance of my recyclable waste will make it more appealing to the hardworking men who come to my neighborhood to collect recyclables?!

The use of fossil fuels associated with transportation is the second largest source of pollutant emissions in the atmosphere. If I analyze my transportation in Chennai in relation to my hometown  – Barcelona – the result is that my consumption is much higher in Chennai. During the monsoon walking to the Shilpa’s office is really difficult as the streets are flooded and makes for a real adventure! It is like an unimaginable trek for those in Europe, considering all the streets have effective sewer systems. In Chennai, I go to all my meetings by car due to the lack of a safe, reliable and efficient public transportation system. Some days I am guilty of taking an “auto-rickshaw” because I am late. However, for even a slightly little long trip within the city I have no other choice but to use the rickshaw due to lack of information about the public transport system. In general, I tend to use personal transport, because it is cheaper than in Barcelona. Barcelona offers greater choices for modes of transport and there is public pedestrian space from the point of view of mobility. In Barcelona, I would normally walk, or take the bus or subway, in addition to my other choices of the tram or bicycle.

In Chennai, traffic is overwhelming and walking is a real risk for pedestrians due to the lack of sidewalks or the poor condition of those that do exist! In general, there is a lack of preservation and maintenance of public spaces. The sidewalk is used as a podium to place small sales of vegetables, utensils, ice cream, etc., and quickly becomes a street market. There are people ironing, mending shoes, chairs, sewing. Much of the commercial life of the Chennai, or the informal sector, as we say in Europe is carried out on the sidewalk, which loses its purpose as a space connector. Interestingly, while sidewalks accommodate a part of the city’s economy, it has lost the primary use as a connector space but serves another kind of socially necessary space for the city’s economy. A real shame is not to use them because the abundant trees in Chennai provide much needed shade from a fierce Sun, in a climate where the average temperature is 25 degrees and the traffic is chaotic and intense! Pedestrians must walk on the road where moving all vehicles, with the risk of being hit at any corner, there are no traffic lights and the car takes precedence over pedestrians. Pollution of air and noise associated with this congestion are serious and will probably cause many future public health problems.

From the point of view of sustainability, the design of the city is very important to ensure that citizens can be responsible for choosing the means of transport and can live better. Since 2004 the city of Chennai has drastically reduced the percentage of travel on foot and by bicycle, due to the lack of pedestrian connectors, bad design of public transport and the huge growth in extension of the city without planning.

Another very important point is my consumption of water. And here my conscience is relatively quiet because after washing clothes by hand I recycle “gray water”, which is generated from washing clothes, to the toilet cistern. I use only about 40 litres of water compared to the daily 100-110 litres consumed in Barcelona. But I have not been able to reduce the use of detergents, toothpaste and other cleaning products. Since this activity is quite heavy and takes away a considerable part of time, more of Indian society can save more water not only enough through collective consciousness, but by the availability of water recycling technologies in every home.

I will not dwell much more because the analysis might lead to many more areas of everyday life. I would like to open a path for those who consider that these aspects are relevant and want to give their opinion on the subject. Sustainability is not easy, it is not a slogan nor can it be enabled purely by technology. It is a way of life, and to act on it depends on each one of us. Societal value is the most important thing one can do to improve our environment. It is a big step for all of us but carrying it out is definitely what we should do in India and around the world.

About the Author: Monica Galindo is a Senior Design Architect at Shilpa’s Chennai office. She is from Barcelona, Spain and received her bachelors in architecture in 1996 from the Universitat Politecnica De Catalunya in Barcelona and a Masters in Sustainable Architecture from the Valles School of Architecture in 2010 also in Barcelona. She was a Professor of architecture at ETSAB, Barcelona between 1996-98 and was a practicing architect between 1998 and 2009. She joined Shilpa Architects’ Chennai Office in early 2011.