How can we create green and healthy cities in a post-pandemic world? Ancient architecture, climate justice, living homes, and probiotic design might hold the answers.
“A house is a machine for living in,” wrote the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier in a 1923 manifesto. 20th Century architecture mostly conceived buildings as tools to satisfy basic human needs. Today, almost 100 years later, and amid a global pandemic and climate crisis, this practical approach to architecture as a consumer product is outdated. Architects, engineers, and urban planners worldwide discuss the built environment’s role today and after the pandemic. And many conclude that green building architecture needs a holistic approach to the intersection between social, economic, and environmental realms. The U.S. Green Building Council recently released a statement urging the development of sustainable cities to design a more resilient future: “We believe that healthy people in healthy places are the fastest way to build a healthy economy. And the global pandemic has only made our beliefs that much stronger and our mission that much more vital. We don’t have to choose between public health and a healthy economy. The future will require both to thrive.”
Green Building: Addressing Social Issues with a Team Approach
To provide a healthy environment for everyone, Dr. Robert Bullard, climate justice pioneer and Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University in Houston, states that architects and urban planners need to tackle social challenges with an interdisciplinary team approach. “Today, there are a lot of projects dealing with issues around sustainability, climate resilience, walkability, and equity. But if the architects don’t build equity and health into the framing for these projects, you will get more gentrification and more exclusivity. You’ll get more places that are somehow islands – that don’t provide any heterogeneity in terms of ethnicity, in terms of income, in terms of kinds of occupations of the people who live there,” he states in an interview.
The issue of environmental racism isn’t new. Still, the pandemic and the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other victims have exposed once more the inequities communities of color face in the United States and beyond. An article by the World Economic Forum states: “Communities of color are disproportionately burdened with health hazards through policies and practices that force them to live in proximity to sources of toxic waste such as sewage works, mines, landfills, power stations, major roads, and emitters of airborne particulate matter. As a result, these communities suffer greater rates of health problems attendant on hazardous pollutants,” which makes them more prone to the coronavirus.
According to an article in the New York Times, most Black neighborhoods in the United States have often been disinvested due to a discriminatory housing policy established in the 1930s. It follows a grading system that marks diverse districts as inappropriate for real estate investment through practices like redlining, which distinguishes between urban areas as “best,” “still desirable,” “declining,” or “hazardous.” The article further reads: “Black and immigrant neighborhoods were typically rated “hazardous” and outlined in red, denoting a risky place to lend money.” For decades, people in redlined areas didn’t have access to federally backed mortgages. Due to a lack of investment in measures that increase the quality of life, such as parks, these neighborhoods also suffer from large heat disparities compared to wealthier areas and are sweltering in summer. Professor Bullard advocates for the collaboration between architects, urban planners, health professionals, geographers, and psychologists, as many communities have to deal with environmental stressors, and people are experiencing PTSD and ecological stress disorder. “So you need to bring medical professionals into this mix to deal with not just the health impacts of pollution, urban heat island, heat stress, but also mental stress in the era of climate change. It’s a team approach,” says Bullard.
Living Locally: The 20-Minute-Neighbourhood
To tackle environmental issues in cities, some experts promote the concept of the 20-minute-neighborhood that could serve as a way to minimize poor air quality, foster investment in diverse districts, promote active mobility, and create green urban spaces. Many architects and urban planners agree that sustainable cities have to be dense cities. Although some industry professionals recently questioned this common understanding by stating that density made cities more prone to the coronavirus. That assumption has been refuted by a report in the Journal of the American Planning Association, which shows that crowding and connectivity are crucial factors to spread the virus, not density.
Instead of widely sprawling suburbs that force people to commute in their cars, density saves resources through efficient land use and public transport. Living in a lockdown reality that restricts free movement, recently, the 20-minute neighborhood has gained new momentum. It’s a simple concept originally from Portland, Oregon, that allows people to live locally in dense, but not crowded urban spaces with shopping, education, business services, employment, and community facilities from within 20 minutes of their homes – walking, cycling, or using public transport.
It focuses on a high quality of life with diverse green urban spaces and encourages each neighborhood to be active. At the beginning of the year, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo announced establishing 20-minute-neighborhoods as part of her “Paris Respire” program fostering the use of bicycles by turning miles of traffic lanes into two-wheel friendly “corona pistes.” In Europe, Copenhagen and Utrecht have successfully established the concept of “hyper proximity.” In the Asia Pacific region, green cities like Melbourne fostered the idea as a critical policy direction of Plan Melbourne 2017-2050. And Singapore’s Land Transport Master Plan 2040 follows a similar approach as part of their green building strategy, forming urban spaces and transport systems to achieve 20-minute towns within a 45-minute city.
Environmental Policies: 80% of Green Buildings in Singapore by 2030
Singapore serves as a blueprint for urban planners and architects to develop innovative green building strategies and technologies. They draw inspiration from the compact island city-state that follows an ambitious goal: to become the world’s greenest city. And they are on a promising path. Sky-storming buildings equipped with cascading vertical gardens, urban farms, verdant walls, and green roofs line the metropolis. Landmark projects such as the quarter Marina Bay with its “Garden by the Bay” offer 101 hectares of nature in the city’s heart. And green policies such as the climate change mitigation strategy foster the construction of green buildings in Singapore as architectural structures account for more than 20 percent of the city’s carbon emissions. So far, Singapore has greened more than 40 percent of its facilities as of December 2019, since the launch of the BCA’s Green Mark scheme in 2005, and is on track to meet the target of 80 percent by 2030.
Green policies and incentives for the building industry make this possible. And Singapore announces constantly new sustainability goals. In August, Singapore President Halimah Yacob revealed plans for the country’s green recovery announcing to “push for green financing and sustainable infrastructure development across the region, to ride on Asia’s growth while protecting the environment.” Through green recovery measures, Singapore intends to gain a competitive advantage. “We will reimagine how we plan our city, redesign urban mobility, and grow using fewer resources in a low-carbon future.”
In response to COVID-19, Dr. Ho Nyok Yong, president of the Singapore Green Building Council (SGBC), states that prevention systems are crucial to green building in the future. Technologies such as natural and innovative ventilation techniques and retrofits such as disinfecting ultraviolet lights to air-handling could play an essential role in reducing airborne viruses and bacteria’s transmission while increasing the buildings’ energy efficiency.
Does New York City have a gut biome?
David Benjamin, associate professor of architecture at Columbia University and founder at “The Living,” a New York-based research team that examines architecture through biology, computer science, and design, has a different approach. As opposed to focusing on a sterile built environment, The Living, in 2018, launched an exhibition called “Subculture: Microbial Metrics and the Multi-Species City” that tackled architecture through the lens of microbiology. It stated that a “small number of pathogens do indeed represent risks to human health and wellness, but well over 99% of this vast kingdom is made of the microorganisms that keep us alive.” Human life, without the hundreds of species inside each human’s gut, wouldn’t exist.
This symbiosis between humans and microbes doesn’t work in a closed system but is continually interacting with the surrounding environment. The Living writes that this coming and going from microbes mainly takes place in cities. And they pose the questions: “Does New York City have a gut biome? Is it distinct from that of Tokyo or Lagos?” Scientists worldwide are studying urban metagenomics in sewage systems and coastal waters to expose potential health threats. A recent study could characterize antibiotic-resistant pathogens circulating in urban waters. “The data generated in this initial study represent a baseline metagenomic exploration to guide future longitudinal (time-wise) studies, whose systematic implementation will provide useful epidemiological information to improve public health surveillance,” the report concludes.
Could “Probiotic Architecture” Improve Public Health?
So, what role does urban metagenomics play in the context of architecture? The Subculture project explores design scenarios for architecture that promote microbial life. According to The Living, the “exhibition aimed to analyze the character and distribution of the abundant genetic landscape of our cities. If we are to nurture the vast reaches of the Tree of Life, where might designers begin or end? Could we establish “microbial metrics,” much as we have standards for measuring structural integrity, thermal conductivity, and ergonomics? And might we design “probiotic architecture” to improve public health?” Finding answers to these questions could be crucial for creating healthy urban spaces in the future.
Green Cities as “Living Architecture”
According to Dr. Rachel Armstrong, Professor of Experimental Architecture at the University of Newcastle, the profession needs to transition “from an industrial, Victorian era of thought and design towards an ecological era” that connects buildings to nature, not insulating them from it. “The only way to build truly sustainable homes is to approach architecture as a living system that is in constant conversation with the natural world, through sets of chemical reactions called metabolism,” she says. Armstrong investigates and innovates in the field of metabolic materials for the practice of architecture. Her latest project was a collaboration with six European institutions that developed a prototype for a metabolic infrastructure in a home. The project called “Living Architecture” was funded by the European Union with 3.3 million euros. “The installation contains tiny ecosystems of hard-working organisms that are performing particular useful tasks. For example, we are giving them the challenge of cleaning up greywater and seeing if they can reclaim phosphate or salvage valuable products from our waste. Perhaps we can even encourage them to make new substances like next-generation detergents, which are less harmful to the environment than existing ones,” writes Armstrong.
The scientists set up bricks that had an inner life conducted by microbes. “There was one brick that was a microbial fuel cell, which is a kind of organic battery that uses anaerobic bacteria like microbes you would find in compost,” explains Armstrong. “And that could process household liquid waste like urine and wastewater and turn it into low power electricity, cleaned water and a range of metabolites. That was juxtaposed with a photosynthetic reaction conducted by algae, which produced oxygen. And that oxygen was beneficial to the microbial fuel cell because it pulled the electricity out of the organic cell and made it stronger.”
The project enabled scientists to produce a designed metabolism by juxtaposing two natural systems together. Two different metabolic worlds could talk to each other through design, in this case, they could process household waste and make resources for Living.
Sustainable Design: Green Cities of Tomorrow Inspired by Ancient Architecture
Man-made architecture connected to nature has existed already for many thousands of years. Julia Watson, author of the book “Lo-Tek Designed by Radical Indigenism”, examines nature-based technologies by tribal communities all over the world that could serve engineers, architects, and urban planners as examples when it comes to creating systems in harmony with nature. Watson names green architectural solutions such as the living root bridges, that grow in Northwestern India. Here, a rubber tree with incredibly strong roots serves the tribes of the War-Khasis and War-Jaintias as bridges to cross rivers. They pull, tie, and twist the roots to merge them, and over time, the tree’s roots form the desired architectural structure. Or the tribe uses scaffolding out of bamboo to guide the roots in the wanted direction. The root bridges grow stronger with time and, under the right conditions, can last many hundreds of years.
Another stunning example from the book is a nature-based technology from the wetlands of the Indian city Kolkata, which also relates to Armstrong’s work. Around 100 years ago, fishermen discovered that untreated wastewater that reached their ponds by accident benefitted their fish population. The combination of sewage and sunshine broke down the waste and provoked plankton to grow exponentially, which fish fed on. Today the Kolkata wetlands provide a living for some 50,000 cultivators. And sewage-fed fish isn’t harmful to human health as it’s free from chemicals. Only the microbial populations contained in sewage undergo a regular check. Kolkata’s municipality also benefits from the technology as it can only treat 24% of the wastewater produced each day. The rest reaches the wetlands where fishermen recycle it in their ponds.
In Bali, a one-thousand-year-old agrarian system called Subak could provide answers to tackle water scarcity. The sacred Mahagiri rice terraces function through a sustainable irrigation system that uses water efficiently. The term describes democratic associations of farmers practicing the cultural traditions of Subak, each made up of 50 to 400 farmers who collectively manage irrigation from a single source of water that they share. Subak follows the Balinese philosophy of Tri Hita Karan that emphasizes, among others, the harmonic relationship between humans and the natural world, nurturing the ecosystems rather than exploiting them. The farmers optimized water needs, availability, and consumption in planning. Additionally, the farmers keep the water clean, and they navigate pests away from the farmland. Or, fish is set free in the water to help maintain an intact ecosystem.
This ancient agriculture method can produce two or even three crops per year by maintaining soil fertility and nurturing an astonishing ecosystem that depends on water to provide nutrients and bacteria. Other nutrients are given by remaining previous crops and by adding additional organic matter. After each rice harvest, the stubble from the harvested crop is plowed back into the field. Farmers plant small carpets of the best rice seed and, when ready, they prise the seedlings apart and then transplant them in rows across a flooded field. The water level is crucial in the rice plant’s life cycle. The farmers control the water depth by increasing it as the rice grows and reducing it in increments until the field is dry at harvest time.
This ancient approach to man-made architectural landscapes is very distant from the contemporary built environment of our cities. To create a resilient future and truly green cities, it looks as if modern architecture needs to reinvent itself. Or, to say it with the words of the American architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”