What makes a city?
A city should be filled with people. A 100 years ago or 1000 in some cases, when the concept of “city” might not have existed yet, that space or settlement still had people from different backgrounds – in terms of economy or occupation, origins, and in some cases, rituals, and religions. Maybe one day, someone came across an empty space or not-so-empty space and thought, “This is a perfect place to live.”
It could be a recently dried lake, like Kathmandu; now, the soil, full of magic, can grow as much grain and vegetables as you need or want. Or maybe it was once a forest, cleared to make streets and buildings, like Delhi. Or in most cases, like in Heidelberg, the origin of space gets lost with time as so many things would have happened in history that what space was like before people came into existence was never recorded, not even as a myth. But what remains valid in a few cases as the three cities mentioned above, is that a city would have been a kingdom of its own before modern politics came into play – before the idea of a unified nation instead of princely states happened.
What remains true is also that a city, no matter when it was born or where, is more than just a physical space, more than just a permanent space, and now after returning from the excursion, I keep wondering if it is also more than just a final destination space.
After returning back from a trip to Melbourne in 2017, I realized one thing – a city is always under construction1. That it remains an unidentified idea–constantly growing, moving, and storing memories. The excursion in Heidelberg (and comparing it with that in Delhi & Kathmandu) just cemented this notion for me more. A city, no matter where it is located, is constantly expanding – if not for just its growing population as a city attracts people from all over the places, a country in a case like Kathmandu or Delhi and the world in a case like Heidelberg, then also for modern technologies, ideas and so on. The face of the city is constantly changing, even in the old cities like all three, where modern houses are being built taking modern problems of climate crisis and energy usage into consideration.
During the Heidelberg Excursion, I realized another thing, a city always has hidden layers that are usually invisible to us, laypeople. Unless someone points it out or guides us through a curated tour, we miss stories and memories stored inside a city, what the squares and alleys went through, and what the windows and walls witnessed with time. And by doing so, we fail to read the city’s history, hidden in plain sight. If you do a city tour of Kathmandu Valley, a layperson will not notice the difference in the facade of the houses that belong to a different period of history. On the other hand, you will not understand the reason behind the Jharokhas in old Delhi. And you will not know about the former houses of Jewish people or what happened to them if you don’t know how to read German when stumbling into ‘Stolpersteine’ or stumbling stones, a project started by artist Gunter Demnig on the streets of Heidelberg.
This last excursion also made me realize something I probably knew but hadn’t seen clearly, which in one is a layered hidden meaning in itself. During our field trip to Bahnstadt, we learned about passive housing, using newer technologies like triple-glazed windows, thermally insulated building envelopes, and even creating micro climates to help reduce energy consumption and CO2 emission. Yet, most structures are built with concrete, including the artificial river whose foundation is concrete. During discussions, we were told that there was no groundwater recharge system as Heidelberg doesn’t have a water crisis like in Southasian countries. While efforts to have sustainable and environment-friendly habitats are commendable, this trip helped me conclude that cities don’t learn from their ancestors. In the case of Delhi and Kathmandu, the modern buildings follow international trends, more concrete than how the buildings were before. For example, the traditional mud tiled roofs have now disappeared from the cityscape of Kathmandu while the latticed balcony, Jharokhas have no space to exist in Modern Delhi. Both of these elements were adapted according to the weather and temperature of their respective cities. This is the same case with Heidelberg itself. While developing the new neighborhood, it seemed like they never looked at the old town and tried to learn from the old building or adapt them for modern living.
The use of concrete in all three cities is evident on the buildings and the streets. The open spaces in Kathmandu got concretized to convert them into buildings or parking spaces. The artificial stream has a concrete foundation making it impossible to have fish and plants like the river Necker in Bahnstadt. But what is missing is that nobody is taking the role of concrete in the impact of climate change. According to an article published in 2019 in The Guardian2, the floods in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and Houston after Harvey were more severe because urban and suburban streets could not soak up the rain like a floodplain, and storm drains proved woefully inadequate for the new extremes of a disrupted climate. The article also shares how concrete is responsible for 4-8% of CO2 emissions.
The world is slowly moving towards an ideal city with greener spaces, lesser crime and unemployment rates, more accessible public transport, and so on. Monocle, a lifestyle magazine, does an annual special issue of Quality of life, where it surveys cities and presents the best ones to enjoy all that life offers along with new urban challenges3. Similarly, an annual list of the most livable cities, published by EIU, also looks into health care, education, stability, infrastructure, and environment4. And while these rankings look into pollution, or how environment-friendly a city is, they don’t delve into the indigenous practices that can be adapted into making regenerative cities. They overlook the fact that the ancient practices are always in tune with the geography and topography of the place and work best for that area.
In conclusion, when I look back at the Heidelberg Excursion, what became memorable for me was how cities are very good at hiding their past. They tell stories they want to tell and let people believe for it to be their only story. They won’t let us go further into their history, either about people, buildings, or practices, and maybe that’s why they do not learn from it. When we forget who came to Dharampura first or why are houses in Kathmandu built-in a matchbox style with a courtyard in between, or where the Jewish people lived before the Holocaust, we would not just forget the identity of these cities but lessons of migration, natural disaster, discrimination, and other stories. Hence, all the cities need to look into their vernacular practices to adapt to modern living so that it might equip us to combat issues of climate change, disasters, and other problems.
- Pradhan, S. (2017, September 16). What is a city? The Kathmandu Post. Retrieved August 4, 2023, from https://kathmandupost.com/miscellaneous/2017/09/16/what-is-a-city
- Watts, J. (2022, October 19). Concrete: the most destructive material on Earth. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/feb/25/concrete-the-most-destructive-material-on-earth
- Paradise cities. (n.d.). Monocle.
- Global Liveability Index 2021 Report | Economist Intelligence Unit. (2022, May 26). Economist Intelligence Unit. http://www.eiu.com/topic/liveability