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.
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.
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.
One of the great things about living in Cambridge is getting to hear top academics talk about really interesting things in pubs. And one of the great things about being a journalist is that you get to ask them loads of questions.
I went to see historian Poornima Paidipaty speak at the Pint of Science festival about how the metrics we use to measure society influence the interventions we make. And then I interviewed her for issue 04 of The Possible magazine about what this means for cities: how new data streams can give us a much more nuanced pictures of how places work, and the reasons why they fail.
Architecture and engineering are both fixated on the idea of genius. Could this be the source of their enduring gender imbalance? I interviewed psychologist Andrei Cimpian about the implications of a groundbreaking piece of research.
Out now: the latest issue of The Possible, the 72-page thought leadership magazine that my company Wordmule produces for global engineering company WSP. I plan, commission, write and edit the content; my partner Nick Jones takes care of production, and the design is by our long-time collaborator Sam Jenkins at Supermassive. Cover artwork by Noma Bar.
In this issue: the pursuit of wellness, the future of the workplace, how digital modelling is changing building design, gender equality in architecture, and what on earth are humans going to do when robots can outperform us at our jobs?
Let’s do a thought experiment. Close your eyes and picture a NIMBY: a local resident adamant that an offshore wind farm should not be built in their backyard – a wind farm that could generate many thousands of megawatts of clean, green energy, and stop an equivalent amount of climate-changing carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere. Now imagine that the same person is protesting against a new nuclear power station or fracking underneath their home. How does that change your feelings about them, and the validity of their arguments?
Weighing local interests against national ones is a fundamental dilemma for decision-makers, and it’s one of the themes of a research project by University College London’s Bartlett faculty, which I wrote about for the Bartlett Review 2017. The research team explored how the concerns of the public are handled in the fast-track, centralised process for approving Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs). NSIPs include transport routes, power stations, offshore wind farms and, more recently, associated housing, and there have even been proposals to extend the definition to major commercial developments. But the research team chose to focus on renewable energy – an area where national policy sets a strong presumption in favour and where local people often find themselves cast as refuseniks in the face of an overwhelming public good.
Education is a booming sector, thanks to a growing global population with a thirst for knowledge. But how can today’s schools and universities prepare for a world that doesn’t yet exist? In the latest issue of The Possible, the thought leadership magazine my company Wordmule produces for WSP, I compiled this 14-page infographic feature on the many challenges that the Fourth Industrial Revolution presents to educators around the world. What should next-generation learning spaces look like, how can we pay for a transformation on this scale, and how do you teach a digital native anything when they can just Google it?
In February, I travelled to Sweden to interview Johan Edstav, a Green party councillor in Uppsala who is leading a nationwide programme to build sustainable new towns. Sweden is one of Europe’s fastest growing economies, but it’s seriously constrained by a lack of affordable housing: in 2017, 255 out of 290 municipalities reported a shortage and the National Board of Housing, Building and Planning says that it needs to build approximately 710,000 homes by 2025. Like many other countries, it is struggling to balance city prosperity with affordability, help an ageing population to downsize, and decarbonize its economy. What sets Sweden apart is that this small country of barely 10 million has welcomed more refugees per capita than any other in Europe. In 2015, at the peak of the European migrant crisis, more than 160,000 people arrived seeking asylum. Sweden’s immigration policy is justifiably a source of national pride, but it has also raised questions about how so many newcomers can be integrated – or even housed.
So the challenge for the government, and Edstav as its representative, is not only to increase a paltry rate of housebuilding, but to plan new developments to bring people together in more integrated, better functioning communities. The Nordic countries already lead the world in environmental sustainability; now Sweden is seeking to isolate the DNA of the more complex and much less explored social dimension. I asked him how in this piece for The Possible, the thought leadership magazine that my company Wordmule produces for WSP.