What a moment in time. None of us saw this coming - although maybe we should have. The warning signs have been here for a long, long time.
After a brief taste of freedom I’m once again confined within the four walls of my Singapore apartment amid fears of a resurgence of the virus here. Meaning I’m shut up with me, myself and I for at least another month. However there’s a bright side. With nothing else to do I’ve been reconnecting with friends around the world and talking to people in Peru, Poland, Bali, Thailand, India, Toronto, Montreal, Saigon, Miami, Dubai and Paris. Contrarily, in some ways the world has never felt so small and accessible. We are all connected - walls, passports, income, language - all those boundaries are dissolving in the common experience of fighting a shared enemy approximately 120 nanometers in diameter.
Buckminster Fuller once described humans as crew members of Spaceship Earth. All the other planets in our known universe are made out of gas, dust and rocks. Our Blue Planet is the only one where we can find its namesake “Earth” that can grow the animals, vegetables and minerals that nourish and sustain life.
Humans are ingenious and industrious creatures. Over time we’ve turned that earth into agricultural land to grow crops and food, mined it for minerals and metals to transform into consumer goods, extracted oil and gas to fuel industry and diverted rivers and lakes to generate power. We’ve redeveloped our Spaceship to meet our desires, and in many cases forgotten about the importance of the original structure in meeting our needs.
The wild is receding as our cities and buildings expand, travel and tourism booms and our insatiable demand for consumer electronics demands ever rarer natural resources.
As architects and designers of the built environment we are standing on the Bridge or our Spaceship, helping decide where we go - part of the problem, but also in the best place to be part of the solution.
As the Coronavirus presses pause on human industry and activity, Nature has demonstrated its spectacular resilience. There are deer on beaches in India, swans on canals in Italy, bears strolling through the village in Yosemite Park and mountain goats wandering through towns in Wales. We are all breathing deeply and clearly and relishing the sound of birdsong on the morning breeze, instead of the roar of traffic and choking fumes of motorcycles. I have yet to talk to anyone - from Saigon to Paris - who wants to return to our noisy, dirty streetscape.
Confined in our homes we're rethinking our values. What do we really miss? Drinks with friends, hikes in the mountains, swimming in the sea, eating in a restaurant? And what are we gaining that we didn’t realize we’d been missing before? Playing games with the kids, a shared meal and good conversation, time to read, time to think? We’re more reliant on our technology than ever to connect us but we’re realizing that our arbitrary 8am to 6pm work days, our belief that work can only happen in the office, and our blind acceptance of the “normal” we’ve created for ourselves is, for very few of us, a “normal” we want to return to.
We’ve evolved our built environment to support and facilitate this arbitrary, self-inflicted “normal.” We now have a gift of an opportunity to think about an urban design that would support and facilitate the things we’ve learned we really value.
Design for people - not cars. This isn’t new. Not at all, but all of our planning and wishful thinking has not made it true because we’ve simply been unable to imagine how to live without cars. Now we know we can. With any new development the rule of thumb is usually to dig up the whole site to accommodate parking floors then to build as high as the zoning allows. Three stories of parking on a tight urban site brings hundreds of cars into the city center. Instead we can design our high-rises as in integrated vertical communities with a variety of public and private space, open space, outdoor space and public amenities that provide live, work and play opportunities in a controlled environment that can also effectively provide a safe refuge in times of crisis.
Integrating Natural Systems
This is another concept that has had great difficulty gaining traction. We know how to design buildings to keep the “green” ratio at 100% or more of the original site, the inevitable barrier is always cost. The coronavirus has been particularly deadly for those with underlying health conditions. Many of these health conditions are exacerbated or even caused by our unhealthy urban environments. Buildings have the potential to become one our greatest allies in scrubbing air, filtering water and deflecting the heat island effect, if we simply design them to complement our natural systems rather than fight them.
We have enough buildings! As we survey our abandoned cities from behind closed doors it’s hard not to contemplate the vast array of empty infrastructure lining the streets. Every one could be considered a blank canvas with the opportunity for a second life as a useful member of society, integrated into the natural environment.
As farmers uselessly pour milk down drains and other communities struggle to fed themselves it’s hard to ignore the urgent need to rethink the way we produce, deliver and consume food. Our buildings provide all sorts of viable surfaces for high-tech agricultural techniques such as hydroponics and some of the most eye-catching design competition winners in recent years have been concepts for urban agriculture. Growing food in our cities provides security, good nutrition, reduces carbon footprints and provides all sorts of economic and social opportunities for residents.
In some places where citizens are still allowed out for exercise and essential trips, it’s been astonishing to watch the sidewalk acrobatics as people desperately try to maintain distance from each other on a strip of pavement that’s not much wider than the mandated two meter safety zone. Meanwhile the solitary car motoring down the four lane central highway may have to stop to allow a flock of geese to finish crossing. These vital city arteries could work so much harder:
Green corridors allow flora and fauna to co-exist and move freely, creating essential pollinator pathways for birds and bees.
Blue corridors are needed to slowly sponge and filter runoff, mitigate flash floods and absorb water instead of discharging it, recharging the aquifer.
Brown corridors preserve the essential underground network of worms, roots and mushrooms that all co-exist with us, secretly maintaining the health and biodiversity of the very Earth that is the source of all else.
Each one of these corridors provides essential ecosystem services that mitigate negative impact and promote human health.
As we contemplate the balance we want to achieve in our lives and the “normal” we yearn for, as connected global citizens across the planet, designers and creators of the built environment have an unprecedented opportunity like never before. There is a collective will and desire that unites citizens across the globe, to rethink the way our cities serve us. Let’s bring all our creativity, ingenuity and passion to bringing our cities back into balance with those things we value most - our health and happiness - and our finite Spaceship Earth that makes it all possible.