Quality of life: the standard of health, comfort, and happiness experienced by an individual or group.

The rate of rapid urbanization has been well documented by various actors and across various disciplines. The United Nations projects a population increase of  41% (41.86 million) between 2014 – 2030 in the 9 most populated urban agglomerations in India. India alone is expected to account for approximately 16% of the world’s urban population growth, between the years 2014-2050. The rate of urbanization is especially high in Asia, Africa and South America. 

Urban local bodies across these continents face multifarious challenges to cope with the needs of rapidly increasing populations in their cities. As there have been few historic studies on urban quality of life (QoL), it is hard to compare and conclude that in general, urban QoL has dropped significantly in cities where there is a large influx of population. QoL as a concept is beginning to be used as a benchmark for decision making vis a vis urban planning especially in developed nations. This article discusses how we can increase our urban QoL by measuring urban carrying capacity.

Carrying capacity and Cities

Carrying capacity is originally an ecological concept and is defined as, “a species’ average population size in a particular habitat. The species population size is limited by environmental factors like adequate food, shelter, water, and mates. If these needs are not met, the population will decrease until the resource rebounds.” Applying this concept to urban settlements entails the measurement of multifarious indicators that would point to whether each settlement is capable of adequately maintaining a certain level of quality of life. This is of course easier said than done but if we could pull it off it would be revolutionary and would ensure the protection of our natural resources and environment.

Cities face issues such as water shortage, overcrowding, flooding, epidemics, air pollution, power shortages, and inadequate sanitation facilities to name a few. Hundreds of news articles report the same and thousands of citizens join groups or NGOs, sign petitions or even change their lifestyles in order to help improve the situation but have we found the solution? The task at hand is immense and the end seems far away. Armies of scientists and experts have been engaged in the search for a solution. In this cacophony of opinions and “new best practices” we have yet to create and implement concrete strategies and policies that will ensure an improved quality of life. 

It is not an utopian belief that every citizen in every settlement can achieve a decent quality of life. In fact it is imperative to approach the situation hopefully and constructively but carefully and scientifically. An affirmation must be made at this juncture in the article; A good quality of life can be achieved for every individual in every settlement. And the question to be answered is, can we provide an abundance of or at least adequate resources sustainably in order to ensure the wellbeing of a population? This is where the concept of carrying capacity can be applied in order to measure the adequacy, abundance and replenishment rate of the  required resources and services that ensure a sustainable and resilient settlement. 

Balance sheet of resources

In simple terms we are creating a balance sheet of per capita demand for resources and supply of the same in order to identify where we fall short and where we have an abundance of resources and combine this knowledge with whether we can fill up the shortfall. This can be done through ensuring natural regeneration in the case of natural resources and the application of the correct behaviors, technology or methods when it comes to service delivery which includes the provision of infrastructure, healthcare services, education, livelihood security and so on. But how much is enough? To answer this question we turn to norms and standards. Various authorities have prescribed minimum requirements of access to natural resources and services. For example: 135 liters of water per person per day, that an individual must receive in order to have a good life but keep in mind that they are minimum requirements and more would be great to ensure a sustainable “good” quality of life. In the interest of the reader’s sanity we shall not delve into how norms and standards are calculated but for those individuals who are curious enough, the URDPFI guidelines would be a good starting point. Suffice it to say if any of the norms or standards are not met, there is someone that is not living a good life. 

Imagine that every individual needs access to a package of various natural resources and man-made services. We can start with the basic needs such as drinking water, food, health services, proper sewage treatment, access to livelihoods, education and even access to the internet. All these entitlements and more have to be accessed at least at a minimum level and if a settlement can’t provide them, if there is a  gap, we need to make decisions, create strategies and implement policies in order to ensure that the gap is filled. Shortfalls in carrying capacity sadly point to an unsustainable settlement. Such situations, if exacerbated, can lead to a humanitarian crisis. 

To put the point into perspective, Pune city with a population of 5,049,968 requires a daily water supply of 682 million litres, the capacity to treat 2019987.2 Kg of solid waste and 545 million litres of sewage daily, a minimum of 21 general hospitals, 85 police stations, 50 fire stations, 324207.9456 Kg of LPG and the list goes on to approximately 90 indicators for carrying capacity. Measuring these indicators for every settlement enables planners and lawmakers to identify which resources to protect and to what degree, which services to implement and promote and the amount of investment required to ensure the sustainability of our settlements. 

To sum it up,

Measurement of carrying capacity, though challenging, can help citizens and decision makers objectively assess the shortfalls and dangers to their settlements. This knowledge is priceless as it works as a decision support system that informs various policies related to the environment, energy, livelihoods, disaster risk reduction, health, settlement planning and urban development. If such a system were implemented and properly integrated as well as institutionalized, there would be a scalable and replicable information and management grid that would propel us towards protecting our rich ecology and environment along with ensuring a higher quality of life.

Originally published in July ’21 | Issue 2 of the Eco Fusion magazine.

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