After a tumultuous 2020, there is a definite feeling of wanting to press the restart button. Our lives have been transformed, and our eyes opened to the threats of long commutes, air pollution and the looming risks of the climate crisis.
In terms of the built environment, there is a fresh appetite to catapult societies into a future of reclaimed urban spaces, clean technology and net-zero carbon. “Building back greener” is the paradigm of many activities aligning business resilience with nature, promoting a race to zero for climate action, and accomplishing a more circular economy.
At The Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources, we're focused on creating a broad range of multi-level governance to help societies achieve this.
What matters is a bottom-up perspective. There is inequality in access to green space and many structural challenges for people who intend to make their neighbourhood a better place, and it’s up to all of us to get involved in finding solutions. This was the focus of our recent Bartlett Hacks event, challenging 200 participants from all over the world to come up with new solutions in topics ranging from energy systems, travel and urbanisation, to health and wellbeing and digital innovation.
The results were impressive, and clearly demonstrated the importance of any green recovery learning from – and collaborating with – local initiatives. For instance, three winning proposals in the hackathon addressed biking in London, focusing on the fundamental development of support groups and also the needs of female cyclists. Behavioural perspectives were encouraged, combined with imaginative ways of engaging local communities to underpin infrastructure – with ideas such as interconnected cycle highways, safe locking stations, smart renting schemes, recharging infrastructures for e-bikes and e-scooters, and extended walkways.
This online hackathon challenged 200 participants from all over the world to come up with new solutions in topics ranging from energy systems, travel and urbanisation, to health and wellbeing and digital innovation.
There is now a clear and urgent opportunity to retain the benefits of changes made during the lockdown, particularly in the way people and buildings interact. The quieter and more social street spaces we experienced over the summer make for greater community interaction and contribute to more prosperity for all. Digital platforms can be used to ensure that street plans are democratically created through community consultation.
Maintaining and improving urban greenspace should now become a top priority. The Rethinking Parks and Future Parks Accelerator programmes are just two potentially game-changing initiatives helping people to enjoy nature for their health and social interaction.
People and businesses can recreate derelict areas and, based on our London Building Stock Model, we propose large-scale refurbishments that address fuel poverty through improved insulation, window replacements and better heating and cooling systems. House renovation should build upwards and make use of roof space for new housing for key workers, solar energy, water storage, micro-gardening, etc.
A green recovery should also create more healthy and sustainable food supply chains and clubs, nudging people to consume more fruits, vegetables and cereals. Social kitchens can flourish with agri-food technologies, and innovation is to be encouraged. One of our teams at the hackathon, for instance, proposed a system for innovative use of blockchain that could provide food producers with wider access to the market and increase sales of locally produced goods.
It is time to look beyond individual energy-efficiency measures and to reduce global footprints of carbon, materials, water and land – to create interconnected global urban networks
Digital platforms using blockchain have the potential to bring members of a community closer together with local producers, shopkeepers and home-delivery companies, taking the concept of local farmers’ markets to a new, virtual level of farm production, sold and delivered direct to consumer as well as through local retail channels.
Setting up schemes and organisations like this will create jobs and make food-supply chains more resilient in any future crisis. Local sustainable food provision can also help to mitigate water stress. So-called sponge city initiatives in China reduce urban flood risks by increasing green spaces, restoring wetlands and using permeable materials to absorb rain water and delay runoff.
Societies have been learning useful lessons in complex systems over the last few months. Clarity about social norms and the desire for international cooperation have become more widely acknowledged. It is time to look beyond individual energy-efficiency measures and to reduce global footprints of carbon, materials, water and land – to create interconnected global urban networks.
By applying lessons from systems thinking and making real social connections, we can finally scale up efforts through networks, policies and new economic thinking to tackle the multiple crises we face with the urgency they demand.
Chair in Sustainable Global Resources, UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, The Bartlett School of Environment, Energy & Resources