Building lessons from Kabul

by Charles Montgomery on

In Afghanistan I learned that the first question that institutional architects ask when looking at building materials is: “Will it stand up to a car-bomb blast?” The fear of bomb attacks – delivered by car, bicycle, or simply concealed inside a burka – has led international agencies to depend heavily on HESCO, a modular blast-wall behind the Canadian embassy.

But in a country where unemployment is contributing to insecurity, building technology can have a direct impact on safety. It takes a couple of marines with a back-hoe to install a HESCO wall. But for the same cost, you could employ a dozen or more Afghans for a month, building a traditional rammed-earth wall. Not only would the project create goodwill, but a thick rammed-earth wall would be almost perfect for softening the impact of bomb blasts. It has been found to work kind of like a huge, brown pillow. In Dwell, I describe how Westerners and Afghans are learning that ancient ways of building can make everyone’s life more secure.

The story made me think about city forms and resilience. If we really cared about well-being, we would consider how urban forms and systems get people working. A bus or tram system requiring a human driver may do more for local resilience than an fancy automated rail system because it creates local jobs. Meanwhile, in the highway-oriented North American suburb, the car-only mobility system sucks money out of the local economy by funneling gas money away from the local economy and into the pockets of distant oil producers.

How might we retrofit our cities in an era of unemployment?