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?”
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.
What would it take for you to give up your car? Better public transport? A really good bike or car-sharing scheme? Being able to summon a driverless car to pick you up from your door and take you wherever you want? Or how about all these things and more, accessed via a single smartphone app that would allow you to plan any number of journeys in your area, using any combination of methods, all for a flat monthly fee?
This is mobility-as-a-service or MaaS, coming soon to a city, town or even village near you. MaaS is the logical, some say inevitable, conclusion as the millennial-led “sharing economy” converges with innovations in the automotive sector, cloud data processing and mobile communications. It’s often overshadowed by autonomous vehicles (AVs), but it’s a far more radical concept that could consign vehicle ownership to the past, thus massively reducing the number of vehicles on the road. There are therefore profound implications for a built environment that has been overwhelmingly designed around the car, and the need for parking spaces, on-street or otherwise.
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.
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.
The Possible is about the future of buildings and cities and the ideas and innovations that can help them function better. In this issue we explore the limits on city density, the future of education, next-generation construction materials and whether we’ll ever be able to design a totally recyclable building. Chicago architect Gordon Gill, designer of the 1km-tall Kingdom Tower, talks about his responsibilities and regrets, and psychologist Naomi Shragai investigates what’s really happening when project teams collaborate. In our Connected Thinking section, contributors contemplate how drones will shape development in Africa, the seismic threat to Asia’s megacities, hospital design in a post-antibiotic world, how architects can ensure the wellbeing of site workers thousands of miles away, and why engineers should read more philosophy. It was designed by Supermassive and the cover illustration is by Noma Bar.
“I’ll be honest: the gnomes keep me up at night worrying,” admits Professor Andrew Hudson-Smith, director of the Bartlett’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, or CASA, at University College London. “Is it academic? Do academics do gnomes?” On the desk in front of him sits a 3D-printed gnome of the garden variety, unpainted and not yet fitted with the Bluetooth transmitter that will replace its feet. “Probably not,” he concludes. “It’s probably frowned upon.”
CASA, however, does do gnomes. When it’s finished, this one and 29 clones will sit in solar-powered mushroom homes amongst the shrubbery of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London. They will be the most visible elements of a vast technology infrastructure underpinning the cutting-edge “Smart Park” project, which will have ubiquitous wifi, superfast broadband and a dense mesh of sensors monitoring everything from temperature and humidity, to the movement of crowds and even their emotions. Over the next decade, CASA will collect and analyse this data in order to understand and transform how people use the space and, looking further ahead, plan the smart urban districts of the future. I wrote this article about it for the Bartlett Review 2016.
Longstanding client WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff wanted to raise its profile as a thought leader in its chosen fields, so the global marketing team commissioned my company, Wordmule, to produce a new client publication.
The result is “The Possible”, a 68-page print magazine about the future of buildings and cities and the innovative ideas and technologies that can help them function better. It has an initial circulation of 10,000 targeted at a senior audience of architects, developers, contractors, city planners, government agencies and institutes, and building users worldwide.
To inform the magazine’s content, and the company’s thought leadership strategy more broadly, we conducted 30+ in-depth interviews with the company’s clients and partners around the world, as well as speaking to specialists and experts among its 36,000 employees. We then planned, commissioned, wrote and edited the articles, and managed the project throughout, working with creative agency Supermassive and printer Greenshires. The first issue of The Possible was published in November 2016, and the second is due out in spring 2017.
The first issue included articles by a diverse range of global contributors, as well as in-depth features on adapting healthcare and the built environment for an ageing demographic; modular construction and encouraging creativity in the workplace, and a stunning cover illustration by Noma Bar.