green from brown

what the slums can teach us
about green design

We think squatter colonies are just about the least green places on earth. They are often dirty, rank places, that (at least in our imaginations) are rife with diseases. And yet, people who live in squatter colonies have the smallest ecological footprint of any population in our rapidly urbanizing earth.

In the sanitized environment modern technology has given us, we have learned to forget that we actually live in the closed-ecosystem of a single planet. We are separated from our consumption and our effects. We are deluded and we do not realize that what we do, what we consume, what we throw away affects the whole ecosystem and that we use up finite resources or bring toxic waste into the environment.

Though I do not wish to condemn anyone to live in or to continue to live in the squalor of slums, there are a few lessons we could learn from the squatters about the principles of green design:
  1. Keep your s**t - slum areas do not have sewer systems, or septic tanks. In many places, raw sewage flows down the middle of informal streets and gathers in pools so that everyone can benefit from the aroma and partake of the diseases.

    Why? Because most of us live with dotted lines to our ecological system. We flush the toilet and we don't know where our waste goes. (Most likely to septic tanks that leach into our aquifers or to gravity sewer systems that just lead to outfalls into our rivers, lakes or seas.) Our sanitation systems separate us from the damage we do to our environment.

    Green design will take away those dotted lines, give us direct feedback (so we know where our s**t goes) and give us a closed loop system.

  2. Share (meager) resources - slum areas often have communal toilet and bath facilities, and communal water sources where up to 800 families could be sharing a single community faucet or 4-6 public bathrooms and toilets. That means waiting in line to get your bucket of water or to use the loo. Which also means you have to be considerate (or else) of other people waiting in line.

    Why? The rest of us get our water from private taps - delivered straight to our bathrooms and kitchens. Apart from the monthly water bill, we have no real concept of how our use of resources affects others.

    Green design will give us feedback on how much we consume of our shared resources.

  3. Reuse materials - squatter shanties are made of found/reused/recycled materials. Usually the dregs of what the rest of us throw away. They are patchwork quilts of different materials -each maximized for what it can provide.

    Our "formal" buildings use up tremendous resources and tremendous energy. As much as a third of green house gas emission come from the energy we put into putting up buildings. We eat up trees to get wood, and carve up mountains to get stone and metal and sand. The paints we use, the cements, the glues, the plastics - are all toxic materials and we leave a lot of construction wastes -that wind up in landfills and in our rivers and groundwater.

    We do even worse when we tear down existing buildings - throwing away the energy and resources (and often, our heritage) -so we can build new buildings that consume even more of our planet.

    Green design will have us reuse materials or use renewables and use "cradle to cradle" product Life-Cycle design to plan for re-use. It will have us consider embodied energy and embodied toxicity in the materials we us.

  4. Minimize your use of space -the density some of our informal settlements in Metro Manila can be as high as 41,000 people per square kilometer. That means each person uses up about 5 x 5 meters of total space -including their share of public space. In practical terms, that can translate to 1.5 square meters of living space per person and extended families of 5-7 relatives share a home of under 20 square meters.

    The homes of our middle class and elite take up so much space. Often this space is wasted in single function rooms that are hardly used. Most of these homes are large enough so family members can go through a day without having to see each other. -The larger the home, the bigger the ecological footprint.

    Green design will use space creatively and design it for efficiency.

  5. Don't have too much stuff -because their living space, and their incomes are meager, squatters don't accumulate stuff and thereby consume less. TVs are shared with the whole neighborhood. Clothes are cared for -and passed on - for as long as they can last. So with other products and old furniture and appliances.

    In contrast, our relatively generous spaces and our incomes let us buy more worthless stuff and lets us accumulate them (unused) in our homes.

    Green design will make each item practical and valuable, and last long.

  6. Find value in waste -the worst squatter communities are usually cheek-by-jowl with our dumpsites and landfills. The people who live there survive on scavenging the trash for items that can still be sold or reused.

    In contrast, we consume. We use once and throw away - food, or packaging, or materials (and sometimes, even people).

    Green design will generate minimal waste and plan it so waste produce in one process can be used as inputs for another, moving from linear systems to looped systems.

So next time you pass by that smelly, dirty squatter community while driving your hybrid car -bow your head in humility. The squatters, in their dilapidated shanties, are way more green than you could ever hope to be (enclosed in your air-conditioned, shiny metal prius).

Image credit: Squatters by Mon Solo

P.S. - How's that Lozada business going? Ready to kick out Gloria, or are you still willing to wait?


Anonymous said...

are you promoting living in squatter colonies? are you living in a squatter community?

Urbano dela Cruz said...

please read the 3rd paragraph of the post.

Anonymous said...

i am francis from makati. i have been reading your posts and have found them very informative. as a student of urban planning, i take note on the living conditions of the squatters too. i even lived in a squatter colony for one year. i have noticed that however "poor" as we have pointed out the squatters are, they somehow manage to be content and happy. in my opinion most of them, even if they have little, they share it with some who have none, they have the ability to share easily, which is a quality very rare in rich communities.

Urbano dela Cruz said...

hi francis. I know what you mean about the generosity of the poor. My late father was a pastor and a number of his parishioners lived in informal settlements.

I remember their generosity to my father and to their neighbors. Perhaps it's the case of the widow's mite.

I also remember the generosity of his more privileged parishioners, but those who had so much less seemed to be willing to give so much more.

Which is not to romanticize poverty - but perhaps to acknowledge that the poor themselves may have much to give to help solve the problems of poverty.

poni said...

hi! i like this. can i repost it on TAO Shelter online? what byline should i use..real or pseudonym?

about the whole lozada thing, i am willing to wait. although i believe some of what he's saying, we've been through this kind of thing too many times..a lot of noise, too little results. like neri said, i do have hope that the executive will transform itself little by little..with the right pressure from civil society. the right pressure should be more specific towards what actions they can do to improve instead of asking everyone to resign and bahala na after.

- amillah

Urbano dela Cruz said...

Hi Amillah,

I thought you would appreciate the post. Feel free to repost it -and you can use both my pseudonym and my real name.


as to the latest grand graft snafu - i'm guessing a number of people are tired of being asked to "step into the breach" and rescue government again (and I say that as a veteran of both EDSA 1 and 2). You can't help but wish our political leaders would grow up and settle this issue using the powers we've legitimately vested in them.


jesse the vegie said...

Green Green Green ... As a Vegan I am proud to say I am more green than most meat-eating person in the planet...

Maybe you should have a look at ill effects of a meat based diet on the environment/global warming..I read there's a UN report somewhere!

Poor people also eat more vegetables than meat!

Be a vegan for ethical, health and environmental reasons..


dish on design said...

I love this post! I just wrapped up a special Sustainable Design section for my magazine's March issue, and it's mostly about how much more you have to spend to be green. This is so tongue-in-cheek yet poignant but I bet our readers here in first-world Xxxxxxxxx won't get it.

Urbano dela Cruz said...

jessie the vegie,

I'm a meat eater myself but I am all for green and vegan/vegetarians. I will have to ask you where you get your vegetables -because if you're eating imported veggies, then you're logging more food miles than your local meat eater.


Urbano dela Cruz said...


yeah, with the way sustainability is being marketed, it's become more about getting acquiring more green stuff that reducing consumption.

...but I wasn't trying to be tongue-in-cheek (foot-in-sewer, maybe).


poni said...

thanks, you can view the republished post here http://www.taoshelter.tao-pilipinas.org/. btw, sharing TVs is not as common in established informal settlements. No matter how run down the shanty, you can usually find a TV and karaoke machine inside each house.

Urbano dela Cruz said...

thanks for cross posting, amillah.

re: TVs. so I hear.

I've also heard that the major outlay spending pattern in the C and D classes is:

1) ref
2) TV
3) cellphone

(cooking stoves probably don't rank as they can be had for cheap)

so the hierarchy of needs is food, entertainment, communication.


Jessie the vegie said...


I live in Sydney and have a vegie patch at the back...I try to buy locally as much as I can from a local vegie cooperative. I try not to buy imported vegies/fruits from overseas but sometimes it can't be helped specially for some grains.

Although Australian grown rice is closer I try and buy the imported Asian varieties from Thailand as Australia is such a dry continent that I think we should not be growing rice.

As for meat eaters, be aware that most of the meat you eat has been fed grains which also has some food miles in it. You also use up more plant protein (I think about 20 times more) to get 1 kilo of animal protein! Does not make sense.

Quote from the vegan.org website: "The United Nations has reported that a vegan diet can feed many more people than an animal-based diet. For instance, projections have estimated that the 1992 food supply could have fed about 6.3 billion people on a purely vegetarian diet, 4.2 billion people on a 85% vegetarian diet, or 3.2 billion people on a 75% vegetarian diet"

Also check this link.


Urbano dela Cruz said...

thanks for the info, jessie.


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