In spite of a lack of government action, some developers are seeking to democratise public spaces, make a meaningful social impact and tackle the climate emergency – and Covid has helped gain public support
“All the signs are that the things that we should be doing to democratise our public spaces are the same as those that we should be doing to tackle the climate emergency. They both pull in the same direction,” says Neil Murphy, co-founder and director of TOWN, the developer behind Marmalade Lane.
We’re talking about post-Covid design in the context of the climate emergency. Has the pandemic derailed or accelerated progress in making our cities more climate resilient? How do we design public spaces that support social connection while tackling critical urban issues such as flooding, drought, pollution and overheating?
“The problem we’ve had is that the climate emergency is not front-and-centre of mind. It feels far off,” says Murphy. “What I hope is that [Covid] has brought more urgency and immediacy.”
Sitting around a virtual table with a mix of developers for a live podcast recording supported by Vestre reveals that while the pandemic has awakened the public to the benefits of living in greener and more social spaces, it’s also prompted some challenging questions about city living.
Listen to the live podcast sponsored by Vestre
“People are now voting with their feet,” says Olaide Oboh, Director of Partnerships at First Base. “People are saying I will not work or live in a place that does not align with my personal values. Whether we like it or not, our customers are starting to take a values approach to their decision making which will impact on our bottom line.”
Oboh believes creating civic and democratic spaces within our town centres is crucial. “We’ve learned that people are the most important part of our communities. If you take a people-centred approach you have no choice but to address climate issues. We have to make more drastic changes rather than skirt around the edges and forget about it.”
Chris Brown, founder of Igloo, agrees that our communities have become more people-centric: “Covid lit a spark of mutual aid and lots of people… have been helping our neighbours, starting in the first lockdown. That morphed in the gaps between Covid waves into green activities, setting up things like community gardens.
“It’s been really helpful that Cop26 is coming along on the heels of Covid,” Brown adds. “Covid has kickstarted the people bit, and Cop26 is kickstarting the climate bit, and overlayed on that we have Kate Raworth and Donut Economics – with its idea of providing for society’s needs within the planet’s limits. That’s become my world, but I’m seeing a lot of people doing similar things.”
The experience of Covid has also made explaining existing green projects easier, says Jonathan Wilson, Development Director at Citu. “Covid helped people in Leeds understand the value of what we’re doing and strangely without it, we’d probably still be explaining why it’s important not to have a fence around your garden and not to have a car right outside your front door, and that getting to know your neighbour is OK,” Wilson says.
Wilson says people were thinking differently about how they live in the city: “We need to capitalise on that at city scale,” Wilson adds. “People need to be making sure these great new behaviours and opportunities don’t go away.”
“The pandemic has made people more empathic to others,” Paul King, Managing Director of Sustainability and Social Impact for Lendlease Europe, believes, while it’s also pointed out the health impact of social inequality.
“The Impacts of the pandemic have been unequal… and we know that to be the case for climate change as well. it’s going to be unequal and hit those who are most vulnerable the hardest. That is a very powerful thing that we’re increasingly aware of.”
“Places need to be resilient to the various threats coming down the road,” says King.
While these developers have mostly set their own targets for achieving social impact and climate resilience, increased regulation and smart policy could actually make their lives easier, says Yẹmí Àlàdérun, architect and Major Projects Manager at Islington & Shoreditch Housing Association.
“It’s very difficult to take the first step and take risks, in terms of cost and trying out new technologies,” says Àlàdérun. “It’s fantastic that we’re now being forced to,” Àlàdérun says. “If you look at the new GLA (Greater London Authority) funding round, it is mandated that there’s certain principles that we have to follow including achieving net zero in order to get funding… A push from powers outside of organisations means there has to be a focus on achieving more sustainable buildings.”
But setting internal targets and drawing redlines is crucial too, says Romy Rawlings, Commercial Director at Vestre. The Scandinavian furniture manufacturer and sponsor of this roundtable podcast will not compromise on its democratic and ecological standards.
“The biggest rule is that we don’t compromise, and that’s on sustainability and democratic design. We refuse to adopt hostile design measures on any of our street furniture. We don’t apply anti skate measures. Everybody should be able to enjoy public spaces in the way that they choose to and want to,” Rawlings says, admitting that it has meant turning down contracts. “We do encounter difficulties, we’re asked to do those things all the time, so we have to have a strong stance and not compromise.”
“We know that we can’t change anything at policy level, but we have to take a stance and not make things worse,” Rawlings says. “We want to save the world a little, and in terms of democratic design, change the world a little. By putting this message out we hope to find likeminded people.”
This live podcast recording was sponsored by Vestre.
If you would like to support us by sponsoring an independent and challenging conversation, contact email@example.com
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