Urban planning and architecture for a new normality

Il·lustració © Laura Borràs Dalmau

It is at times of crisis that today’s deficiencies and challenges become increasingly apparent. Fortunately, future priorities may also come out stronger. The Covid-19 lockdown has made it clear that architecture and city planning do not always guarantee the right to see the sky and to feel the air and the sunshine. Couldn’t we harness this crisis as a turning point to rethink our normal way of life and that of our cities?

We have been confined at home for weeks now, and putting aside the uncertainty and concern generated by this situation, which is an undeniable and overwhelming reality, we are beginning to get a glimpse of some positive changes, like the first rays of sunlight after a storm. As ever, problems can make us learn and grow. We need to do so, individually and globally, and the coronavirus crisis is a huge opportunity in this regard. What if we could take everything that has happened in order to improve our quality of life? What if we harnessed it as a turning point to rethink our way of life and our cities?

Pausing for a fraction of time reveals new scenarios. We will slow down the unremitting wheel of production, we will slow down the constant pace of activity, of toing and froing, and it looks like we are taking a breather. So are cities and nature. Pollution is plummeting to unprecedented lows across Europe, and Barcelona has reached an all-time low. For the first time in twenty years, we are enjoying our right to breathe clean air in the city and we are complying with the recommendations of the World Health Organisation (WHO) regarding the limits of airborne particulate matter. These limits had been systematically exceeded up to now and have caused more than 10,000 premature deaths a year in Spain. For the first time, we are also enjoying silence, a momentous event given that the effects of noise pollution on our health are almost as severe as those of air pollution.

While the lockdown may have temporarily reduced greenhouse gas emissions, the environmental crisis will continue to be a primordial issue for the health and survival of our species for decades. The climate emergency, according to the United Nations (UN), poses a more serious threat than coronavirus. António Guterres, UN Secretary General, stressed last March that concern over the current crisis should not reduce our global efforts to combat the climate crisis, nor should we overestimate the current fall in emissions as a solution: “We will not fight climate change with a virus”.


The time for resilient and regenerative urban planning

Cities generate 70% of CO2 emissions, while the construction sector is responsible for 40% of greenhouse gases, as well as 30% of raw material consumption and 30% of waste generation. Figures such as these underline the imminent need to place environmental impact at the heart of urban planning, architecture and design. A perspective that Miriam García, PhD in architecture and climate change, has at the forefront of her mind: “We should talk about three crises that are closely interlinked: the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis and the health crisis. All three should be catalysts for change both in urban planning and in construction”.

The environmental problems faced by cities do not only affect the urban system itself. They also bear an impact on many other regions of the planet, those where resource extraction is carried out and also where the effects of emissions and generated waste are felt. “We live in cities which are socio-ecological systems that are inextricably integrated into wider environments. We are part of the web of life.”

Reducing travel and moving towards sustainable mobility systems, creating green infrastructure, opting for the circular economy and rethinking the urban model so as to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels or temperatures, are some of the future measures that we should consider and already apply to our present. Now more than ever.

The fact is that the time we are immersed in calls for a new resilient and regenerative urban planning. As Miriam García asserts, resilience is based on adaptability, on the capacity to generate new forms of self-organisation in the face of disruptions. A resilient city is one that is able to manage change and renew its ecological, economic and social models.

García points out that many scientists warned of the effects borne by the loss of biodiversity in ecosystems on health and the connection with the spread of pandemics. She added: “I sincerely hope that the lockdown situation and learning about the origins of the pandemic (not just its consequences) will help us work to promote fairer, healthier and more sustainable city models”.

The creation of a new normality

Slowing down, reducing and remembering that we are interdependent and eco-dependent beings is exactly what the planet itself, scientists and environmentalists have been demanding for decades and that we have not been able to tackle on our own. But all this will be of little use if we return to “normality” once the lockdown is over. And I write normality in quotation marks because it is becoming less and less clear what is normal or what normal should be.

Naomi Klein, journalist and author of books such as This Changes Everything Capitalism vs. The Climate (Paidós, 2015), stated the following in a recent virtual discussion: “There’s a lot of talk about returning to normal, but we must remember that normal was a crisis. Normal is deadly. It’s because of this ecological crisis that planetary habitability is being sacrificed.”

We have begun to see that we could live differently, reducing our impact and putting life and health first. Would it make sense to take a step back and act as if nothing had happened? Or, as Klein calls for, is it time to demand a response underpinned by the principles of a regenerative economy and urban planning, based on remedies and remediation?

If we stop to think, we realise that we are not missing the rush-hour traffic or having to hurry early in the morning. Nor the noise of thousands of vehicles that jam the roads and colonise the streets every day. Nor breathing smoke. Nor participating in imposed consumerism. Nor the grey spaces devoid of greenery that often make up urban landscapes.

To be honest, we don’t miss our cities as they were until now. Because urban fabrics have been primarily designed for production, not for living. And what we lack now, what we would need most, is precisely healthy living and in society. All human interrelations that emerge in the public space on a human scale. The social and cultural dimension and, with it, the feeling of belonging. The connection with nature and access to inclusive, pleasant and healthy spaces.

Architecture beyond the standard

In times of confinement, the separation between public and private space is significant. Now that we can’t enjoy open or collective places, understood as a complementary extension to our housing unit, we value what is shared even more. If we lose public and community space, we realise that private space isn’t everything. It never has been.

At the same time, being confined at home makes us think about what we would change about the places where we live and we are entitled to demand improvements. Just as we have a right to a place to live, we need buildings that guarantee access to the outside, ventilation and natural light. The right to see the sky and to feel the air and the sunshine from architecture. For climate and health reasons, but also for well-being. No wonder we’ve reclaimed our forgotten rooftops or balconies these days, if we have them.

Over the years, the real estate sector has prioritised size to the detriment of the quality of the space. The aim was to fit in as many habitable square metres as possible to yield the maximum profits. Understanding apartments as a sales and exchange value, most developments have offered standard architectural typologies and standard interior layouts, now obsolete, that do not reflect all the realities facing society, and our diverse and variable needs over time.

Bedroom apartment buildings, which have historically helped to make care and child rearing tasks invisible through the hierarchy of spaces, will now have to adapt to new uses. Not only do we rest there, but we also live, eat, educate, play and work there. Users are reinterpreting rooms, making them their own and using them beyond their pre-established use. Understanding these changes, whether for the creation of new homes or for the adaptation of what is already built, will be one of the challenges architecture is up against, in order to respond to contemporary requirements and the experience of confinement.

Everyday architecture will have to be redefined, focusing on flexibility, offering spaces for living and productive work, incorporating greenery and promoting health and communal living. Maybe architects will have to design less. Or, rather, redesign what we mean by housing in order to offer quality spaces open to the freedom of users, who can complete and co-design them to their liking. Criteria that were already put forward by a number of alternative models, such as housing cooperatives: community, solidarity, ecology, participation in the architectural process, customisation of the interior layout and the possibility of enlarging or reducing the surface area as needed.

Either way, what we are experiencing will change us. It will mark a before and after in the urban planning and architecture of our cities. Hopefully it will also stimulate ethical, social and environmental commitment in all of us, and thus act as a catalyst for a massive transformation towards a system based on the protection of life. Like a process of catharsis that materialises in renewal and evolution towards a better future. Shared, healthy, sustainable and mindful.

And, without returning to normal, creating a new normal.

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