This is the second of two articles reflecting on 2020, a time not only of a global pandemic but of wildfires, flooding and an unprecedented hurricane season. This article explores solutions and the role of architects and designers in being part of a recovery that drives prosperity for all and restores ecological services, including biodiversity.
In 2020, the world faced the concurrent events of a global pandemic combined with unprecedented ecological and climate catastrophes: wildfires, flooding and a severe hurricane season. Fast forward to today and Australia is still dealing with recent flooding similarly to 2020. In my first article of this series, the focus was on climate resiliency.
This article explores solutions and the role of architects and designers as active collaborators in a recovery that drives prosperity for all and restores our ecological balance.
Restoring nature and ecosystems is a question that all built environment professionals – planners, architects, designers, engineers and other consultants must consider as we respond to a climate and biodiversity emergency.
As architects and urban designers at Grimshaw we believe the answer lies in truly regenerative design, designing communities and buildings that seek to work in harmony with our natural environment rather than take from the Earth’s resources. We believe that our role as designers is to collectively pursue the advancement of our cities and buildings, recognising that our design should interconnect with, and support, thriving ecosystems. We should seek to restore the vital services these ecosystems provide, like water and watershed protection and the maintenance of climatic conditions.
Today our system is degenerative because it is linear – it extracts resources from our farms, mines, forests, watersheds, oil fields, to provide for our cities. The outputs include by-products with waste that pollutes our air and water and is buried in land, impacting the carbon and habitat balance. In a recent 2019 global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services, it noted that 75% of the world’s land surface area is disturbed by human impact.
Let us also be reminded of the facts: the world’s cities occupy just three percent of the Earth’s land, but account for 60-80 percent of energy consumption and 75 percent of carbon emissions. As of 2016, 90% of urban dwellers have been breathing unsafe air, resulting in 4.2 million deaths due to ambient air pollution. More than half of the global urban population is exposed to air pollution levels at least 2.5 times higher than the safety standard. There is compelling evidence for the need to change to a more regenerative approach.
A regenerative system starts with the circular economy approach – there is no waste in nature – to transition toward a resource economy and designs which enable the repurposing and reproduction of our materials in an infinite cycle. This fundamentally changes the way we need to design, bringing regenerative design practice to the fore. Our buildings and urban places need to be connected to supply chains that actively contribute their preservation and improvement.
It goes without saying that we need to build resilience into our regenerative approach – the ability of the urban environment system to withstand future shocks and stresses. Understanding the local climate and how nature responds to the local conditions can help us. The use of biophilic and passive design strategies supports improving the performance of buildings and reducing and even restoring impacts.
Through a regenerative approach, we come to see our natural and human systems as beneficiaries – success is witnessed as our citizens become more educated, empowered and healthier, better equipped to look after our ecological and spiritual systems. Wildlife has an amazing capacity to bounce back.
At Grimshaw, we have been exploring this, but in truth, there is still much more exploration required. Simply delivering a net zero carbon building or district, whilst important, is not enough. We need to make our cities both resilient and positive in that they generate more energy and resources than they use. Resources and biodiversity need to be enhanced so they flourish rather than decline in our cities. This re-balance must be thoughtful in approach and recognise that investment will be needed in our hinterlands as well as wilderness areas. Today we are the stewards of planet Earth. If we don’t improve, not only will we destroy the very resources we depend on, but we will destroy our existence.
It is a fact that there will be no prosperity on a dead planet. This two-part article was inspired by my visits to Australia in early 2020 as the country struggled first with bush fires and flooding and then the coronavirus pandemic. Australia’s cities, like those all around the world, are at a crossroads. Cities must use the current situation wisely to be a catalyst for positive change in ‘building back better'. Any manifesto for change should include the need for towns and cities to mitigate against climate change, adapt to it - as the impacts are already in play - and regenerate to help restore the ecological balance.