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Concrete: Civilisational Dependence and an Environmental Disaster

Just over a decade ago, the wild was easily accessible.


A 1953 aerial image capturing the San Fernando Valley during a period of significant construction growth.
A 1953 aerial image capturing the San Fernando Valley during a period of significant construction growth. (Photo: USC Libraries / Corbis via Getty Images / Los Angeles Times)

Living in India’s National Capital Region, one is used to having an overwhelming number of parks in certain residential areas. Many houses, especially in the NCR city of Gurgaon, are often adjacent to a small patch of greenery with trees and a few swings. I remember spending a portion of my evenings in the park in front of my house, observing the minute elements of nature. The grass was unkempt, shrubs formed miniature ecosystems, trees had branches sprawling in every direction, while the fauna thrived. Hordes of insects and a variety of birds exposed the unintentionally well-preserved, diverse pockets of nature in such urban areas.


Today, one enters such a park by walking past a well-secured gate blemished with fluorescent paints, treading on concrete promenades with strict playing areas with little exposed grass carefully bifurcated. Shrubs now shaped into resembling modernist structures, and the diversity of the flora diminished into hosting selective types per aesthetical choices. The diversity of creatures ceased to exist, with common city birds resting on lonely trees. Such parks now boast more cemented and paved areas than natural surfaces.


These pockets of nature happen to resemble the state of the larger, degrading environment.


The material responsible for such a rapid scale of urbanisation is concrete. So much so that a 2019 Guardian report revealed that after water, concrete had become the most widely used substance on the planet. Becoming a symbol for development, concrete progressed as the foundation of humankind’s perception of modernity and civilization, silently but visibly destroying the planet.


Concrete is the one element that binds most of the urbanised world— becoming a key feature of physical spaces, touching almost every sector, from housing, healthcare, and education, to transportation, defence, and government. Concrete more or less affects almost all facets of modern life, allowing us to attempt at colonising nature.


Urban areas worldwide have a significant clustering of concrete structures.
Urban areas worldwide have a significant clustering of concrete structures. (Photo: Flickr)

Something as basic as mental health too, is a victim of concrete. It is a known fact that individuals living in urban areas have far more factors affecting their mental well-being, compared to those living in greener and more open spaces. With a number of prominent agents affecting mental health, concrete, and cemented spaces, are important ones. Published in 2004 in the British Journal of Psychiatry, a study of 4 million Swedes reveals that migration from rural to urban settings has severe and detrimental effects on one’s mental health. I too, recall the relief and comfort afforded to my parents when visiting Santiniketan in my childhood, a significantly greener university-town, where I am originally from, compared to Gurgaon. Also now becoming a playground for relentless concrete generation, frequently erecting cement walls and structures have become a common sight in Santiniketan.


This helps us understand the need for urban green spaces, which have been a critical component of public health and environmental justice. Research by Wolch, Byrne, and Newell (2014) emphasises the challenge of creating "just green enough" cities that prioritise equitable access to green spaces for all residents. As the concrete jungle expands, the loss of natural environments and the decline in biodiversity have resulted in detrimental effects on human and environmental well-being.


Studies have shown that individuals living in concrete-dominated urban areas experience higher levels of stress and reduced psychological well-being compared to those in greener and more open spaces (Wolch et al., 2014). This disparity in access to nature exacerbates existing social inequalities, as marginalised communities often face limited opportunities to engage with green spaces, further compromising their health and quality of life.


While concrete is to blame for laying the foundation for this, it is true that the use, or even the evolution, of concrete as such, was crucial for all humankind. Concrete has allowed for the creation of safe and sanitary spaces for individuals across the world to live and work in. One cannot imagine life today without contact with a concrete surface. One of the primary reasons for its usage is its durability and longevity. Withstanding harsh environments and terrains, concrete made living easier and cheaper. For many, this takes precedence over the sustainability of biodiversity and the health of the environment.


The Palace of Assembly designed by Corbusier in the Capitol Complex in Chandigarh
The Palace of Assembly designed by Corbusier in the Capitol Complex in Chandigarh. (Photo: Dezeen)

Concrete usage boomed in the 20th century, allowing for cheaper alternatives to rebuild sections of the world ravaged by wars and conflict. The persistent construction of cities, dams, recreational spaces, and basic human-made structures are all a testimony of concrete’s ubiquity. This period also saw iconic creations by architecture’s key figures, from Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier, to Zaha Hadid and other notable architects. Concrete was everywhere.


This attachment to concrete, however, is not new. As mentioned before, the very foundations of modern infrastructure are built on concrete. The earliest recorded use of concrete can be traced back to ancient civilizations, such as the Egyptians and the Romans. The Egyptians used a primitive form of concrete to build the pyramids—a mixture of mud and straw with water— which primarily acted as a binding agent.


However, it was the Romans who developed a more advanced form of concrete, calling it opus caementicium. Mostly made by mixing lime, volcanic ash and water, concrete was used to build many of the Roman Empire's most impressive structures, including aqueducts, bridges, and the Colosseum. The use of concrete allowed the Romans to build larger and more complex structures than ever before.


Seemingly, concrete not only allowed humankind to create structures and forms unheard of while making it accessible, but it closely tied itself to cultures and became an integral part of societies. In South Asia, one can find unique, ancient water-harvesting stepwells in arid regions where rainfall is scarce, particularly in the Indian states of Rajasthan and Gujarat.


Chand Baori in Rajasthan
Chand Baori in Rajasthan. (Photo: Travel + Leisure)

These wells were constructed using a combination of stone and brick, as well as concrete made from lime, sand, and jaggery, which is a type of unrefined cane sugar. Here, the jaggery acts as a binder, allowing the concrete to set and harden.


In addition to their functional purpose, stepwells were also important cultural and social spaces. They often featured intricate carvings and sculptures, and many were decorated with brightly coloured tiles and mosaics. The wells were important gathering places for local communities, who would come together to perform rituals and ceremonies.


Modern usage and creation of concrete though, is far more dangerous. There is a reason why when Delhi’s pollution goes up, one of the first (yet late) actions taken by the government in response is the shutting down of all construction sites in the city. Interestingly, in comparison to other “evil” and destructive elements, concrete maintained protection under a seemingly contradictory greenness. When scaled against the perceptive harm caused by the likes of oil and gas, nuclear power, and plastic, concrete did not hold debates in the greater public discourse, with some recent activation of conversation.


Despite its omnipresence and significant influence on urban landscapes, concrete remains somewhat obscured in the broader environmental discourse when compared to other impactful elements. The intricacies of concrete's environmental ramifications, spanning its considerable carbon footprint, involvement in habitat destruction, and contribution to the urban heat island effect, have not yet garnered widespread attention. It is particularly striking that amidst the urgency surrounding critical issues such as plastic pollution, the ecological implications of concrete have only recently begun to receive more thoughtful exploration.


When it comes to the environment, or even one’s well-being, there is no middle ground when discussing concrete. Apart from the mammoth CO2 emissions concrete production is responsible for, and the large amounts of energy it consumes, lime and sand required to make concrete decimate natural habitats – from mountains and rivers to lakes, beaches and such, the result is pure destruction.


The extraction of essential components like lime and sand, vital ingredients in the cement-making process, inflicts severe damage on natural habitats. The quest for these raw materials leads to the devastation of diverse ecosystems, spanning mountains, rivers, lakes, and beaches. Sand mining, in particular, has emerged as a pressing concern, as the insatiable demand for this resource contributes to the erosion of coastlines and the disruption of aquatic ecosystems. The excavation of sand from riverbeds alters the natural flow dynamics, impacting aquatic life and exacerbating the vulnerability of these fragile environments. In essence, the seemingly innocuous act of sourcing materials for concrete production becomes a catalyst for widespread environmental destruction, creating a ripple effect that jeopardises the delicate balance of diverse ecosystems.


Sand mining in the Yamuna river. (Photo: Mongabay)
Sand mining in the Yamuna river. (Photo: Mongabay)

With this, the cement industry alone contributes nearly 8% to global CO2 emissions, with over 4 billion tonnes of cement being produced globally. Concrete, the building material, is generally made using the mixing of cement, water, sand, and rock. This process of mixing materials to make concrete, in contrast, produces less emissions. The production of cement is what primarily contributes to the 8% of concrete’s global emissions. The entire process, in addition, fuels economies and furthers wealth disparity in various regions of the world.


In his book Arme de construction massive du capitalisme (Concrete: Capitalism’s Weapon of Mass Construction), Anselm Jappe discusses how concrete, in addition to its vulgar wealth-generating qualities, has created a cycle of constant economic activity and a loop of never-ending destruction and construction. Modern buildings, as a result of reinforcing concrete with steel, produce an approximate life expectancy of around fifty years. Such a form of planned obsolescence mandates the regular demolition of structures, replacing them with new ones, all while creating employment, boosting incomes, and fuelling economies.


As Jappe argues, this structural system of constant replacement is not beneficial for public finance, or the environment. It simply serves the whims of the top one per cent, satisfying the “fetish of growth year after year”.


Governments have been known to favour the profits of a few over the future health of communities and the world at large. With the pervasiveness of lobbyists and wealth-promising groups, environmentally disastrous projects have been sanctioned, across the world, since the problem began. One such issue exists along the Mekong River in Asia.


Along the Mekong River in Laos, close to the border with Cambodia, a new dam has unleashed a wave of insecurity, and trouble for locals and the environment alike. Deemed entirely unnecessary by experts, given the little energy being generated compared to the disastrous and unjustifiable impacts, as reported by Mongabay, the dam, like most such projects, will significantly affect the region.


These publicly-sanctioned projects block rivers, the natural flow of sediments, aquatic migration and such, while causing erratic flooding and overall damages. Even so, dams in general consume criminally mammoth quantities of concrete, such as China’s Three Gorges Dam which used almost 28 million cubic metres of concrete, built at a cost of over 31.7 Billion USD. To note, Transparency International, a watchdog group, revealed that the construction industry is by far the most corrupt in the world, accounting for widespread bribes, criminal activity, and channels of coercion.


The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, China. (Photo: Le Grand Portage/ Wikimedia)
The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, China. (Photo: Le Grand Portage / Wikimedia)

Apart from concrete’s evident impact on the environment, it has also raced towards homogenising architecture, and culture overall, at the onset of globalisation. The proliferation of concrete across the world has led to significant standardisation of built environments, with prevalent uniformity and decreasing diversity. As such, capitalist production, while maximising profits, selected the specific routes for efficiency and regularity which are essential components of the process. Concrete, thus, aligned well with the principles of mass production and the given replication of architectural elements. Most large metropolitan cities today adopt similar aesthetics while crushing distinct personalities. With this, one is losing sight of cultural variations of constructed spaces— the gradual erasure of diversity.


In ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’, urban theorist Jane Jacobs examines the fundamental elements that contribute to thriving urban communities. She emphasises the significance of diverse neighbourhoods, mixed land uses, and pedestrian-oriented streets as the building blocks of vibrant cities. Jacobs challenges the prevailing urban planning theories of her time, advocating for the organic growth of neighbourhoods and the importance of human-scale urban design. The book highlights the importance of fostering social connections, ensuring safety, and cultivating a sense of community by designing cities that cater to the needs and interactions of their residents.


According to Jacobs, vibrant neighbourhoods thrive on a mix of residential, commercial, and recreational spaces, fostering social interactions and a sense of belonging. She champions the preservation of historical buildings, the promotion of walkability, and the creation of public spaces as crucial elements in maintaining the fabric of urban communities. Jacobs' work challenges the dominant notion that concrete-dominated development is the sole path to progress, offering a compelling vision of cities that prioritise human-scale design, cultural richness, and community engagement.


In addition, concrete-dominated urban development has been associated with rising housing costs and the displacement of low-income communities. As high-rise buildings and luxury developments are constructed, property values tend to increase, making housing unaffordable for many residents. This phenomenon has been observed in cities around the world, where the demand for prime urban spaces drives up prices, forcing lower-income communities to relocate to areas with limited access to essential services and amenities.


A slum along the Mithi River in close proximity to the National Stock Exchange in Mumbai. (Photo: Johnny Miller/ National Geographic)
A slum along the Mithi River in close proximity to the National Stock Exchange in Mumbai. (Photo: Johnny Miller / National Geographic)

This leads to the segregation of various economic strata within cities, with those on the lower end suffering far more. While wealthier areas often have more greenery, the prevalence of concrete surfaces and limited greenery in urban areas, particularly in poorly maintained low-income neighbourhoods, contributes to the urban heat island effect, which results in higher temperatures and increased health risks. Vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, children, and individuals with respiratory conditions, are particularly susceptible to the adverse effects of heat. Studies have shown that the absence of natural elements and green spaces in concrete-dominated environments further exacerbates these health challenges.


Urban heat islands (UHIs) have become a prominent concern in urban planning and environmental studies due to their adverse effects on urban microclimates and human well-being. Urban heat islands refer to the phenomenon where cities experience higher temperatures compared to their surrounding rural areas, primarily caused by the modification of land surfaces and the loss of vegetation due to urbanisation. The proliferation of concrete surfaces, such as roads, buildings, parking lots, and pavements, in urban areas contributes significantly to the formation and intensification of such hotspots.


Additionally, examining the role of concrete within the capitalist paradigm unveils not only its physical manifestation in urban landscapes but also its subtle infiltration into the cultural fabric. Concrete, in its ubiquity, becomes a symbol not just of economic progress but of a deeper cultural shift. It transforms into a commodity, a marker of modernity that is bought, sold, and traded within the global market. This commodification of concrete further entrenches capitalist ideologies by attaching value not only to the structures it forms but to the very idea of concrete itself. As iconic structures emerge, the cultural narrative becomes intertwined with the material, perpetuating a cycle where the allure of concrete is as much a product of marketing and branding as it is of structural functionality.


(Photo: Ashish Devkota/ UNDP)
(Photo: Ashish Devkota / UNDP)

In this commodified landscape, the fetishization of concrete becomes emblematic of a consumer-driven culture that values the aesthetic appeal of progress while sidestepping the environmental and social costs. Interrogating the cultural dimensions of concrete within capitalism unravels a complex interplay where the material becomes both a physical construct and a symbol of a broader economic and cultural ethos.


The cultural commodification of concrete is not devoid of power dynamics. The global dissemination of architectural trends often centred around concrete structures, is not merely an aesthetic choice but a reflection of cultural imperialism within the capitalist narrative. As the iconic skyline of a city becomes synonymous with towering concrete and glass structures, the influence of dominant cultural and economic forces becomes ingrained.


The replication of certain architectural forms across diverse geographical landscapes is not a result of organic cultural evolution but a deliberate imposition of a visual language rooted in capitalist ideals. In this context, concrete ceases to be a neutral construction material; it becomes a tool wielded by the economically powerful to shape and homogenise the cultural identity of spaces. Thus, the seemingly innocuous spread of concrete is not only an environmental concern but a testament to the intricate ways in which capitalism, culture, and the built environment intersect, reinforcing patterns of dominance and subjugation in the global architectural imagination.


Beyond its role as a symbol within cultural narratives, concrete's pervasive use within capitalist systems infiltrates the very social structure of communities. The construction and maintenance of concrete structures often entail intricate networks of labour, resources, and capital. These networks, shaped by capitalist imperatives, perpetuate socio-economic disparities. Construction projects, heralded as drivers of economic growth, too frequently rely on exploitative labour practices, disproportionately affecting marginalised communities.


The promise of progress through concrete becomes a double-edged sword, as it reinforces existing power dynamics and social inequalities. The unequal distribution of the benefits and burdens associated with concrete construction lays bare the inherent injustices woven into the fabric of capitalist urban development. In examining concrete's socio-economic dimensions, we confront not just a material substance but a manifestation of systemic inequalities, where the allure of progress coexists with the perpetuation of social and economic disparities.


Johannesburg
Johannesburg. (Photo: Johnny Miller / ArchDaily)

With a myriad of such challenges brought forth by concrete, the magnitude of its disastrous impact is still gargantuan and difficult to grasp. However, on a positive note, regenerative design and nature-based solutions have emerged as key strategies in contemporary urban planning and design, offering innovative approaches to address environmental challenges and promote sustainability. Regenerative design encompasses a holistic and systems-based approach that aims to restore and enhance the ecological health and functionality of urban environments. It goes beyond mere sustainability by actively contributing to the regeneration of natural systems and the creation of thriving ecosystems within cities.


Furthermore, the imperative to mitigate the environmental repercussions of conventional Portland cement production has catalysed research into sustainable alternatives within the domain of construction materials. A salient contender in this discourse is the utilisation of supplementary cementitious materials (SCMs), including fly ash, slag, and silica fume, which possess the capacity to partially substitute Portland cement in concrete formulations. Noteworthy for their ability to curtail the carbon footprint, these alternatives concurrently augment the durability and compressive strength of resultant concrete matrices.


Complementary to SCMs, investigations into pioneering methodologies such as carbon capture and utilisation technologies are underway to abate the carbon dioxide emissions intrinsic to cement manufacturing. With this, eco-friendly binders derived from industrial by-products, exemplified by rice husk ash and calcined clay, are under scrutiny for their potential to further attenuate environmental impact.


It is crucial to recognize that the overreliance on concrete and the continuous expansion of urbanisation disproportionately affect the developing world. While the Global North has already contributed significantly to climate destabilisation through excessive concrete usage, it retains the economic capacity to address and mitigate the consequences. In contrast, developing countries are caught in a paradox, compelled to pursue development while simultaneously grappling with the challenges posed by concrete's environmental degradation.


These disparities underscore the need for global solidarity and a shift towards sustainable and equitable urban planning that prioritises the preservation of green spaces, the mitigation of the urban heat island effect and such, all while protecting marginalised communities from the adverse impacts of climate change and concrete-dominated development.




Adi Roy is the Editor-in-Chief of Political Pandora, and a student of Political Science and Urban Studies. (Twitter)


 

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