The Possible issue 08

Issue 08 of The Possible, the thought leadership magazine I edit for global engineering firm WSP, is all about the hard choices facing policymakers on the way to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

In particular, we consider the prospects for decarbonising concrete and steel, the two biggest and toughest targets for the built environment. Each contributes around 8% to man-made global emissions, and each has unique characteristics that will be indispensable for building all the infrastructure of a net-zero world (not to mention meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals for billions of people). We can decarbonise these materials, up to a point, but not without significant quantities of key green resources – renewable electricity being a big one – which are themselves carbon-intensive to develop and on which the decarbonisation plans for many other industries also rely. Ultimately it will be down to governments to cut through the double counting and decide where we can afford to “spend” a finite carbon budget. Our five-part series, “The realist’s road to zero”, aims to shed light on the critical pinch-points and highlight the areas where action is most urgently needed.

Apportioning resources – from space to mobility to nature – will become an increasingly fraught issue for urban planners in the decades to come. In this issue, we explore two other hot topics: what we’ll eat in a sustainable 21st-century food system, and how to reallocate road space to walking and cycling without alienating motorists.

Meanwhile, our Connecting Thinking contributors make the case for biodiversity offsets, propose health equality as the ultimate metric of sustainability, and explain how the fast-developing field of attribution science is aiding both climate action and adaptation.

And we have another amazing cover, the second of three, by Brazilian artist Fabrizio Lenci.

The other members of The Possible team are art director Sam Jenkins at Supermassive and production editor Nick Jones, my partner at Wordmule.

Download the PDF here, or click the images below.

“Often we think of climate change as something abstract, that’s hard to address. But here we see clear connections between specific actors”

In May 2021, a Dutch court ruled that Royal Dutch Shell must cut the carbon emissions from both its operations and the oil and gas it sells by 45% by 2030, relative to 2019 levels a global first, but likely not the last, thanks to rapid advances in the fields of attribution science and climate litigation. For issue 08 of The Possible, I spoke to L Delta Merner, who leads the Science Hub for Climate Litigation at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit science advocacy organization based in the US. She provides evidence to inform legal cases that hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate-related damage: UCS evidence has been cited in more than 70% of US climate damages and fraud cases to date.

Read our interview here.

Car trouble – part two

Auchentoroly Terrace in West Baltimore should be one of the city’s healthiest, most sought-after streets. It is just 143 feet from Druid Hill Park, 745 acres of lush green oasis that ranks alongside New York’s Central Park. From their doorsteps, the residents of Auchentoroly Terrace can admire its lawns, rolling hills and forest, and listen to live music from the weekly farmers market. But what they can’t do, easily or safely, is actually walk to the park itself — because crossing those 143 feet means stepping out into eight lanes of fast-moving traffic. 

The Druid Park Lake Drive expressway is a major arterial road that funnels cars from the I-83 interstate through this predominantly residential area at speeds of 60mph. It’s also why the neighbourhood has over 100 vacant properties, why it ranks among Baltimore’s worst for air pollution, cardiovascular disease and cancer, and why its asthma-related hospitalisations are more than three times the US average.

The presence of the expressway is not an unfortunate accident. Rather, it’s a roaring, fume-choked symbol of the deliberate harm inflicted on the inner-city neighbourhoods of US cities during the 20th century. West Baltimore was doubly blighted, first by the practice of “redlining” that denied investment to minority communities, then by planning policies that prioritised fast car journeys above everything else. In the 1950s and 60s, expressways were constructed around the park so that the wealthy white commuters who’d moved out to the suburbs could get downtown quickly, and more than a dozen historic entrances were reduced to just five. The Black and Jewish neighbourhoods through which the roads were ploughed were not consulted, their objections ignored — and their access to Druid Hill Park was severed, apparently forever. 

Or perhaps not. Now, the city’s transportation department is trying to right past wrongs by turning an eight-lane expressway into a “Complete Street” where non-car users have priority. It was always going to be a controversial proposition: for those who feel they have no choice but to drive, fear of congestion looms large. But Baltimore’s Complete Streets initiative has tapped into a much deeper schism in an increasingly divided US society, riven by culture wars and alternate realities. In this atmosphere, the issues in play are far bigger than a stretch of bike lane or a few more crosswalks. It’s about privilege, ownership, whose voices should be heard and, ultimately, whose lives matter more. This is the debate that the city has been drawn into, and it’s one that it has to win if West Baltimore is ever to be a safe place to live.

Midway through a fraught community consultation process, I spoke to Baltimore’s Will Ethridge about the plans, as well as West Baltimore resident and active travel campaigner Graham Coreil-Allen, and WSP consultant Wes Mitchell, who is supporting the city. The article was published in issue 08 of The Possible magazine, which I edit on behalf of WSP, as part one of a two-part series on active travel.

To accompany the piece, we asked local photographer Zhee Chatmon to revisit the neighbourhood where she grew up. She was shocked by how far it had declined, and her brilliant photo essay makes an eloquent visual case for change. I also interviewed Zhee about the experience for our “The Art of The Possible” series – read her reflections here.

Car trouble – part one

Walking and cycling are often presented as a magic bullet for many of today’s urban woes, from congestion and air pollution to obesity and poor mental health. But they’re a hard sell for municipalities seeking to win over their citizens, amounting not only to a significant lifestyle change but a completely different approach to city planning. Making space for active travel usually means taking it away from cars, taxis and commercial vehicles – overturning decades of motor-centric policies and inevitably provoking loud objections. Supporters of active travel believe there is a silent majority who are receptive and willing to adopt new habits, but how to engage with them?

One place that has achieved the apparently impossible is the UK city of Exeter. In May 2020, as the pandemic prompted a sudden reappraisal of urban life, the UK government made £225m available for local authorities to reallocate space to help pedestrians socially distance and to encourage cycling. In towns and cities across the country, roads were closed to traffic, pop-up cycle lanes installed and space reallocated to walking and cycling. Exeter managed to install more kilometres of cycle lanes than anywhere other than London, 30 times larger and 70 times more populous. And while vehement opposition has forced the removal of many temporary measures elsewhere, all but one of Exeter’s nine pop-up changes are to stay, either permanently or for further consultation. How on earth did they manage that? I spoke to Devon County Council’s transport team to find out, for issue 08 of The Possible magazine, as one of a two-part series on active travel. Photos by Tom Campbell.

41 billion reasons to decarbonise

I had a fascinating conversation with Adrien Vogt-Schilb for an article about the potential co-benefits of decarbonisation. But I didn’t have anywhere near enough words there to do his work justice, so we ran an edited transcript of the whole interview in issue 07 of The Possible, the magazine I edit on behalf of global engineer WSP.

Vogt-Schilb is a climate economist at the Inter-American Development Bank, part of a team that has produced an exhaustive cost-benefit analysis of Costa Rica’s national decarbonisation plan. The takeaway is that the transformation could make it US$41bn better off by 2050 – even if other countries do absolutely nothing and climate change continues unabated. Read the interview here.

The Possible issue 07

Now online: issue 07 of The Possible, the thought leadership magazine I edit for WSP about the future of cities and all of the built and natural infrastructure that supports them. The themes of our main features reflect the sudden, all-encompassing Covid experience – from how (far) design can make cities more equitable, to how it can reassure people returning to crowded public spaces again, to what it takes to create the ultimate flexible building for a world in which old certainties have been abruptly demolished.

In a brilliant photo essay, photographer Tom Campbell captured the mood of caution and elation as lockdown was lifted in three UK towns and cities – I interviewed him about the experience for a new series on the artists who bring the stories to life.

Contributors to our Connected Thinking section challenge the notion that climate action is automatically good for nature, exhort planners to rethink the overlooked kerbside zone, foresee the unintended consequences of smart buildings, and crunch the numbers with a cost-benefit analysis of decarbonisation for national economies (spoiler: the benefits far outweigh the costs).

And we continued our rule-of-three approach to the cover, inviting a new artist to create the first of a trio of reflections on the content.  Issues 01-03 were by negative-space genius Noma Bar, followed by three exquisite pencil drawings by Lithuanian illustrator Aistė Stancikaitė for issues 04-06. This time, Brazilian artist (and former urban planning student) Fabrizio Lenci blew us away with a stunning, perspective-shifting vision of the post-pandemic city.

Credits: art direction by Sam Jenkins at Supermassive, production editing by my partner Nick Jones at Wordmule.

Download the PDF here.

Be careful what you wish for

I had always rather lazily assumed that reducing carbon emissions was automatically a good thing for the natural environment and human wellbeing. That was until I wrote about the relationship between halting climate change and other sustainability goals, for WSP’s series on how COVID-19 will affect progress towards a net-zero world.

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.

This does mean that we can use decarbonization to further goals on which less progress has been made – there is not yet any equivalent to the Paris Agreement on biodiversity loss, for example. Alternatively, where political will is lacking on decarbonization itself, we can substantially strengthen the case by factoring in the wider socioeconomic gains – as the Inter-American Development Bank has done with a detailed cost-benefit analysis of Costa Rica’s national decarbonization plan.

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?”

Rethinking healthcare for a pandemic age – article series

We knew a healthcare crisis was looming. But this wasn’t the crisis we were expecting. Until Covid-19 began its inexorable global spread, the greatest threat to the world’s healthcare systems seemed to be the rise of noncommunicable diseases, combined with an ageing population. We knew that these conditions were already responsible for 70% of global deaths and that the worst was yet to come. We knew too that the risk of epidemics and pandemics had increased with globalization, urbanization and climate change, and that growing antimicrobial resistance could plunge us back into a terrifying pre-antibiotic era. None of these other challenges has gone away – the pandemic has only lengthened waiting lists as it delayed testing and treatments and brought a whole new set of chronic conditions.

So where does this leave the world’s already struggling healthcare systems?

Between September and December 2020, I wrote a seven-part thought leadership series for WSP on rethinking healthcare for a pandemic age, speaking to more than 40 experts around the world. The articles spanned the human and the technical, from the gulf between perceptions and the reality of hospital safety, to the economics of building them to cope with things that may never happen, to what went wrong with global supply chains, to what lockdowns revealed about cities and the social determinants of health.

Each piece was published on WSP’s Insights page as part of its Better Normal campaign and promoted on social media. Then the whole series was combined into a 59-page PDF, as well as being translated into French.

Graphics by Sam Jenkins at Supermassive Creative; production editing by my partner Nick Jones at Wordmule.

The post-pandemic office: a thought leadership series for WSP

At the beginning of April 2020, with many of the world’s offices deserted, I began a weekly thought leadership series for WSP about how Covid-19 would transform the knowledge workplace. It ran to eight long-form features – almost 17,000 words – on everything from the cultural impact of physical distancing to virus-proofing the office environment, to whether companies will still bother having their own premises and what would make people want to go there when they are all set up to work from home. I also ghost-wrote six shorter pieces with WSP’s technical specialists.

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.

The articles were published on WSP’s website as part of its Better Normal campaign, and they were widely shared on social media and republished elsewhere. We also compiled the whole thing into a 60-page PDF, Thoughts on the post-pandemic office.

Graphics by Sam Jenkins at Supermassive Creative; production editing by Nick Jones at Wordmule.

The future of healthcare

I wrote an 18-page special on the future of healthcare for the latest issue of The Possible, the magazine that my company Wordmule produces for WSP.

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.