(Editor’s Note: This post was originally featured on the website of Ashoka Changemakers.)
The world’s population today is evenly split between cities and rural areas. Developed nations – boasting all the luxuries of modern life – are about three-quarters urban, while nearly half of the population in developing countries lives in densely packed, suffocating city settings. Population continues to rise and mass urban migration dictates that by 2030, 5 billion people will be living in cities; 2 million of whom will be living in slums, without access to potable water and sanitation infrastructure.
“Forget about Utopia or even the dystopian Los Angeles depicted in Blade Runner,” says Forbes’ Elisabeth Eaves. “The future of the city is a vast Third World slum.” (Photo by David_W_Liu on Flickr of waterside housing in South Africa)
With that ringing endorsement, investment and innovation should be focused on directly addressing legitimate and pressing social issues in our swelling cities, where the overflow of goods, guys, and gals spill over onto themselves in the form of super-slums. Poverty, disease hunger, and crime are real threats and corrode a city’s socio-economic framework.
While this truth is self evident, some über-talented architects have favored the fantastical, building fortresses capable of fending off an onslaught of zombies during the inevitable World War Z. Not to cheapen an impressive (and expensive) hunk of design, but its real value is less than the market price for millions around the world, and, in particular, as a prospective solution to the housing crisis in tomorrow’s cities.
Others, meanwhile, are more grounded and have directed their vivid imagination to the pursuit of practical solutions to real-world problems. Take South African inventor and longtime Changemakers community member, Joseph Feigelson, for example.
Feigelson is the patent holder and CEO of n’Kozi Developments, an innovative start-up company offering integrated housing options for more liveable and inclusive cities in Cape Town.
He promotes geodesic developments, inspired by the work of 20th century American engineer Buckminster Fuller. The n’Kozi home features a spherical shell structure supported by triangular paneling and is an alternative to the cubic, linear brick and mortar structures that are so commonly found in South Africa.
“The geodesic dome design is a viable, scalable, attractive housing solution,” says Feigelson. “It provides the largest volume of space and floor area with least amount of material and can be assembled in a myriad of ways – almost infinitesimal – to accommodate any requirement, from housing, to clinics, to schools, and even resorts.”
The versatility in its design is also visible in its cost-effective construction material, which can range from pinewood timber to hemp bricks. The featured n’Kozi structure is 30-some-meters squared and sells for 20,000 South African Rand or about US $3,000, and comes equipped with an electrical connection for two light fixtures and a sewage hook-up. The main ground floor space is undivided, providing versatility but also spacious enough to feature a full sized bed, two closets, a living room, and an entertainment center. For an additional charge, n’Kozi offers an addition accommodating a toilet and full bathroom.
But what most differentiates Feigelson from the competition is his vision for the future.
“My city of future is not the vision of most people have – densification. I’m much more of the idea that it would be user-friendly for human beings to live in villages, as opposed to congested cities. Over years, what has become so apparent is the importance of cooperation, of collaboration. The focus has to be around idea of community, not the individual – at the end of the day no man is an island unto himself.”
Feigelson is onto something. That sense of shared space – no, the genuine creation of an inclusive community is the missing piece in sustainable housing design. Granted, without innovative models, it will be hard to address the growing shortage of affordable, sustainable, and inclusive housing – not to mention the challenge of reducing environmental impact.
Whether the breakthrough comes as a conceptual revolution or technological reinvention is almost irrelevant, however. The demand for the rise of liveable cities doesn’t come from housing materials or greentech, but from people. Without answering their call, the new solar program in Delhi’s slum will fizzle out, the waste management system in Kibera will get backed up, and the cooperative garden in the Johannesburg shantytown will reap no rewards.
Instead of constructing houses, let’s create homes. (There is a difference.) Otherwise, the hype surrounding solutions and policies to house underserved populations will only serve to perpetuate the expansion of broken, sick, and crime-ridden slums. Nobody wants that.
“Somewhere along the line, we lost our plot,” says Feigelson. “Affordable housing is only part of a global solution. To truly race forward, we must take a few steps back.”