During a recent interview, I was asked if there is a need to build green homes in Chennai. This question took me back 35 years, to the Chennai (or Madras at that time) that was free of apartments and high-rise buildings, the city where you could smell the ocean even a kilometre away from the coast where I grew up, and where one could walk, cycle or play on the side streets without worrying about dangerous, fast traffic.

If these activities seem impossible in the Chennai of today it is because a lot has changed on-ground. A few stark examples include:

Increased population density: There has been an uncontrolled increase in the city’s population density, thereby resulting in an increase in the number of multi-storey apartments, high-rise buildings and motor vehicles. Even narrow streets are now packed with traffic, footpaths encroached, thereby leaving no space for us to walk or play.

Decreased tree cover: Tree cover has been sacrificed to accommodate our concrete buildings. A study conducted by the Care Earth Trust in 2018, shows that only 15% of the city is covered by trees. From the year 2000, when there was 79 sq.km. of green cover, it has now come down to 64 sq.km.

Trees not only ensure our own health and well-bring but also control the micro climate of a place by mitigating the ‘urban heat island effect’— a phenomenon where the air above our cities is hotter than the air above surrounding open areas. This is due to the extensive use of concrete and other hard surfaces which radiate heat, densely constructed structures without adequate green cover and supporting infrastructure and extensive traffic. In Chennai, for instance, the increase in temperature is as high as 5°C when compared to its outskirts.

Reduction of the earth’s resources: Chennai’s potable ground water has decreased and waste water has increased leading to the pollution of our waterways. Our wetlands have been built upon, leading to a drastic reduction in the number of natural water bodies. From 80% of Chennai being covered by wetlands in 1980, it was down to 15% in 2010. The current estimate would be even lower. Wetlands help hold ground water and support aquatic flora and fauna.

The population of urban India is estimated to reach 600 million by the year 2030. Current statistics stand at 470 million. This means the need for more construction, more traffic and subsequently, more paved areas and less tree cover. This expansion will only lead to further overheating, leading to extremely unhealthy living conditions for city dwellers.

It is clear that we need development, but we need development that is sensitive to the environment around us and looks after our water, soil and other resources. We need development that does not blindly destroy nature to make way for our existence.

A green building uses biodegradable and salvaged materials, promotes re-use of resources, leads to reduced water and energy use and incorporates more open spaces and natural vegetation, leaving a lower carbon footprint. To sum up and answer the question I started with: Yes, Chennai not only needs green homes but also green buildings in general. Especially being a coastal city, Chennai would be one of the first to be affected by rising sea levels resulting from global warming making it more vulnerable to climate change.

The good thing is we are now seeing a substantial increase in demand for eco-friendly construction which is a small step towards making our city a better place.

Source: 15 March, 2021, The Hindu