A different shade of green

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 02: the second issue of our thought leadership magazine for WSP

We’ve just published the second issue of The Possible, the thought leadership magazine that my company, Wordmule, produces for global engineering firm WSP.

The Possible 02 cover

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

“Do academics do gnomes?”

“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.

“People don’t want to hear it. If they get put in the flood zone, they think the maps are wrong”

Flooding will become the new normal during the 21st century, as sea levels rise and rainfall becomes more intense due to global warming, and cities sprawl along coasts and rivers.

Half a billion people are affected every year, and this could quadruple by 2050, according to the EU’s Global Flood Observatory. Reinsurance broker Aon Benfield has calculated that flooding was responsible for $27bn of economic losses in 2015, often in areas that never used to flood. That was a good year – the annual average loss over the last decade has been $48bn.

In this brilliantly illustrated cover feature for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, I looked at how the economics of property will have to adapt to a much wetter world. By 2070, Kolkata and Mumbai will be the two cities whose populations will be most at risk, while Miami, Guangzhou, New York and Kolkata will have the most to lose in terms of assets.

Spending on flood protection is often targeted at the highest value land or assets, while the poorer the community, the less able it will be to recover from a disaster. One contributor warned of the creation of “flood ghettos”: “It’s not just the immediate flood area, it affects the surrounding areas, and the wider community drifts down the economic scale. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of less investment and fewer opportunities.” Meanwhile, another flood surveyor is going back to college, to do a master’s degree in a rather different field: how adults learn. “Getting people to understand flood risk means changing their perceptions and logic,” he explains. “I’m intrigued by why people make choices that are not in their best interest.”

Set design by Hattie Newman, photography by John Ross

WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff – Skylines magazine

In October, my regular client WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff sponsored a host room at the annual conference of the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats in New York. I went along, listened in on two days of presentations and then turned it into a 72-page magazine, to be distributed to the company’s clients and partners worldwide. The overall theme of Skylines is the renaissance of tall buildings. There’s an unprecedented high-rise boom, but the new generation of towers will be very different from those that preceded them – not only in their giant scale but in the kind of spaces they offer, both in the sky and on the ground. Skylines explores what this looks like, from the perspective of designers, developers and city planners around the world.

WSP PB_Skylines cover

Citizens versus consumers

The Occupy movement may have yet to topple global capitalism, but its four-month encampment outside St Paul’s Cathedral did raise awareness of something else: the growing power of private corporations over apparently public space. The protesters originally intended to pitch their tents outside the London Stock Exchange at Paternoster Square but were moved on when the owner secured a court injunction. It turned out that this space was private property, and that the public use it only as a “privilege”, which may be revoked at any time. Private ownership of public spaces is not a new phenomenon – the UK has always been a tapestry of leaseholds and freeholds held by landed estates, financial institutions, private and public sector organisations. What is new is the large-scale management of the public realm by private companies, and the ambiguity over whose rules apply in any given space. Supporters argue that it doesn’t matter who is responsible for a space, as long as it is maintained properly and managed with the community in mind – landowners and businesses have a greater interest and deeper pockets than local authorities. Critics fear that creeping privatisation suppresses democratic freedoms and promotes a narrow consumerist agenda, and point to petty restrictions on cycling or taking photographs and an overbearing security presence.

In this cover feature for the March issue of Modus (the magazine of the RICS) I asked property and policy experts why public bodies are so keen to cede control of public spaces, and what the long-term consequences might be.

Croydon, your time has come

Empty offices + housing shortage = office to resi conversions. It must have sounded like a simple enough sum to government ministers when they announced a temporarily relaxation in planning rules to allow commercial buildings to be changed into homes. As usual, the devil is in the detail. The strength of opposition to the policy certainly took them by surprise, and the version finally brought in from May 2013 is heavily watered down. But 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. I investigated the opportunities for the RICS magazine, Modus.

“One-in-100-year events happen all the time”

As recently as 2010, Bristol came tenth in the list of cities in England and Wales most at risk of flooding. Now it’s fifth, and the number of homes at risk has shot up from 12,800 to 29,000. But this has got nothing to do with any physical changes in the city itself – it’s solely down to how the risk is measured. The council has invested in an extremely detailed model of flood risk across the city, the first of its kind in the world. The results have not only challenged perceptions of Bristol’s own flood risk, but scientists’ understanding of flooding itself. Flood modelling is a highly specialised discipline combining environmental science, applied mathematics, hydrology, surveying and advanced IT, not a combination that usually captures the public imagination. But 2013 is likely to see a great deal more demand for accurate models, when a gentlemen’s agreement between insurers and the government expires – and the owners of 200,000 high-risk properties find their cover rockets in price or is withdrawn completely, rendering their homes worthless. For this article for Modus magazine, I spoke to the world’s leading flood risk engineers to find out how they do it, and what their latest discoveries could mean for us all.

80,000 potential buyers; just 8535 sites

In the UK, self-build has always been the preserve of a courageous minority, accounting for around 10% of homes. Now the government wants to make it a genuine option for many more people, following the example of countries such as Germany and Sweden where self-builders are responsible for more than 60% of all new homes. A year on from my article for Construction Manager on the government’s self-build housing strategy, I assessed how it’s doing for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. And given that self-builders’ two biggest concerns are still – and likely to remain – land and money, I found that surveyors are well placed to offer them advice.