As a long-term freelancer, one of the most striking transformations so far is the overnight switch from phone to video calls. Over the course of the series, I interviewed 50+ experts, glimpsing a dizzying variety of living rooms, spare rooms, home offices and gardens across Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.
There are a whole range of potential “co-benefits” associated with cleaning up the environment and reducing our reliance on polluting technologies. Switching from fossil fuel to electric-powered vehicles in cities removes a major cause of respiratory disease; decentralized renewables can bring power and connectivity to remote communities; rewilding gives nature more space to flourish. But there are also awkward overlaps and outright conflicts, most notably in massive tree-planting schemes to sequester carbon. Unless we consciously design projects to solve more than one problem, nothing is guaranteed.
The bottom line is perhaps that if we don’t fully consider all the consequences, net-zero projects are less likely to succeed – and even if they did, would we like the result? As Tom Butterworth, WSP’s UK head of biodiversity, puts it: “If we save the world in terms of climate change, but fail to deliver all of these other benefits, then we will have lost what makes it special. Imagine growing up in a place where the only animals are rats, cockroaches and pigeons – what would it be like to be human in that environment?”
As the research spanned many months, it’s a strange hybrid of pre and post-Covid concerns – a stark reminder that pandemics are just one of the many heightened threats facing humanity over the coming decades.
We’ve just published issue 06 of The Possible, a magazine about the future of cities that my company Wordmule produces on behalf of global engineering firm WSP. And although much of the content was finalised before Covid-19 struck, the topics it covers remain just as relevant: the spread of the disease and its impact on different communities has been directly influenced by the way our cities are governed, the quality of the spaces we inhabit and the air we breathe.
This issue explores the future of healthcare in an age when pandemics are just one of the growing threats to humanity, and looks at the ways in which urban designers can deploy “nudge theory” to encourage healthier behaviours – just how far should we go? Our future health will be increasingly about data too. The mind-bogglingly enormous quantities generated by smart city technologies will be invaluable for creating healthier, more resilient places – but only if it is accessible to us, rather than hoarded and monetised by tech companies. So we have an in-depth feature about the vital but under-explored topic of data governance.
There are some inspiring solutions too: planned properly, micromobility could replace cars and plug gaps in public transit systems to bring about permanently clearer skies and more equal streets. And I love Nick Rose’s vision of how urban agriculture could deliver a secure, sustainable source of food, while making cities greener, more pleasant places to live.
Of course, climate change will continue to exert a major pressure on population health over the years, decades, centuries to come. The embodied carbon in buildings can account for one-third or more of their total greenhouse gas emissions, so we urgently need to get to grips with that too. We have a 12-page article about what we know, what we don’t and what designers can do to make a meaningful contribution to the fight against climate change.
Food sovereignty and sustainable food systems expert Nick Rose is pioneering urban agriculture in Melbourne. I interviewed him for The Possible issue 06 about why the future of city life depends on it, and created a separate – rather sobering – infographic about food security.
Back in 2013, I interviewed RICS’ property experts about the coalition government’s then-temporary relaxation of planning rules on office-to-resi conversions, for Modus magazine. I summarised it like this: “Despite dystopian warnings from local authorities, it’s not only unlikely to transform the hearts of Britain’s towns and cities – conversions will only take place at all in a very specific set of financial, technical and political circumstances.” My hometown Croydon was set to be a hotspot, with loads of the right sort of office building and loads of demand for flats not too far from London.
The policy was made permanent in autumn 2015, declared a success by the new Conservative government. But successful for who?
Under permitted development rights, conversions take place without planning permission – and therefore with no scrutiny of design, quality or space standards, and without developers making any contributions to local infrastructure or affordable housing. The impact has been far worse than predicted. In May 2018, a report by the Bartlett School of Planning revealed the true face of England’s offices-to-resi boom: studio flats measuring just 12m², “homes” in the middle of industrial estates, children growing up in noisy, overcrowded blocks with no play space. By then, approximately 60,000 new housing units had been created in this way.
I interviewed the authors for the Bartlett Review 2019. They began their research in 2017, when the impact of four years of deregulation was increasingly discussed but little had been published beyond desk-based studies. Over the course of a year, they made 568 site visits across five English cities plus two comparators, surveying projects and their surroundings, counting door buzzers and speaking to residents. Lead researcher (and fellow Croydonian) Dr Ben Clifford told me they were “shocked” by what they found: “What stood out for us was the quality of residential development. It was much poorer than we anticipated and affected people much more severely in terms of their quality of life.” Some shabby commercial premises had barely been converted at all – one of the many grim photos in the report, taken in Croydon, shows a tiny unit fronting onto a busy main road with personal possessions piled against the windows. Only 30% of conversions met national space standards, and few had access to amenity space. Overall, 77% of the homes were studio or one-bed apartments and many were aimed at the investment market – hardly reflecting or meeting housing need. The five local authorities – Camden, Croydon, Reading, Leeds and Leicester – had lost a potential £10.8m in Section 106 contributions and 1,667 affordable homes, as well as £4.1m in planning fees.
For the least scrupulous elements of the property sector, permitted development rights has been a get-rich-quick free-for-all. The rest of us will be feeling the repercussions for decades to come.
Frustration drives some people to anger, some to despair, and some to write manifestos. It is into this last bracket that the British-Israeli architect, researcher, writer, speaker and idealist Itai Palti falls. The Conscious Cities Manifesto he co-authored with neuroscience professor Moshe Bar in 2015 was born of frustration, he says – though he usually prefers to put a more optimistic spin on it.
“I think the manifesto came out of this realization that we have so much more potential to put humans at the centre of the design process, and that it’s not being actualized. As a profession, architecture can have a lot of positive social impact but in practice there’s sometimes a laziness and an arrogance about it. I guess I can say that because I’m speaking from within.”
For all Palti’s readiness to criticize his peers, his ideas seem to have struck a chord. Over the last four years, he has rallied many of them to his cause of science-informed, human-centred design, alongside a diverse group of scientists, researchers and technologists. Palti was not the first to spot the synergies between neuroscience and architecture – San Diego’s Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) was founded in 2003 – but in marrying it to the opportunities of smart cities, he’s tapped into the zeitgeist. The Conscious Cities movement resonates with an array of current concerns, from wellbeing and mental health to techno-optimism and our darker fears about the unseen agendas we are hardcoding into an AI-driven world …
Harvard professor Bill Kerr argues that global talent migration is a ‘gift’ that helps societies to flourish. But cities need to get over the idea of being the next Silicon Valley and make the system work for everyone. I interviewed him for issue 05 of The Possible, and made a vain attempt to condense his entire book into a single infographic… Most startling statistic: One in every 11 US patents is granted to a Chinese or Indian inventor living in the San Francisco Bay Area.