Our built environment has largely been in place for many years and is therefore simply not fit for a modern world. A world where we have to be more sustainable. We have to reduce our impact on the environment while maintaining places that serve a purpose for us – whether to live, work, play or learn. Our cities evolution is being driven by our climate crisis. There have been recent examples of extreme heat in the UK – yes I know we had more than a day of sun! More places in the world are enduring temperatures that are higher than before. WE have a climate in the UK that is becoming hotter and drier yet we have a built environment that is, well, built for colder times!
There is so much more we can do to our cities to improve them now for the future that is coming:
– Painting surfaces lighter colours: You leave the UK and travel abroad and one thing you notice immediately in hotter climates is the colour of the buildings. They are painted. A large proportion are white but not all. It’s simple, the pain reflects the sunlight as well as radiating infrared heat which ultimately leads to cooling surfaces. Applying this methodology to all our buildings can help as global heating pushes temperatures up.
– Better planning: Designing cities to maximise air flow could help create cooler cities naturally. Cities like Masdar City streets are oriented on a southeast-northwest axis to catch the prevailing winds for cooling. The street widths are minimised and lined with buildings which provide street shading. Now if you add green onto those streets you can take to the next level.
– Making our cities greener: The best way to keep cities cool is to include as many green surfaces as possible. Trees provide shade, cooling the areas around them. Green facades stay cooler than bare ones. In addition, water evaporates from all types of greenery, creating natural cooling. Maintaining a high proportion of green spaces in urban areas keeps a city cooler, makes it healthier and more attractive, and allows more room for biodiversity. Therefore adding trees, parks and other green space can help keep our cities and towns cooler.
– Invest in cycling: Reducing the level of pollution in cities can be aided by promoting more cycling. A journey on a bike will cut pollution levels and reduce congestion in cities. Less congestion can mean more roads can be converted over to other uses – like more cycling routes and green spaces. Walking and cycling are the cleanest ways to get around a city, and both can have enormous benefits for health, greenhouse gas emissions, air quality, road safety and equity. Cities as diverse as Bogota, Copenhagen, Montreal and Barcelona are leading the way in encouraging walking and cycling – and experience from cities like Seville, as well as countless cities during the COVID-19 pandemic, shows how rapid that this transition can be.
– Invest in infrastructure: Pedestrianisation of streets and widening of footpaths will make the above mentioned more attractive. How many bike lanes appear and vanish in the blink of an eye? Bike hire infrastructure is becoming more common in larger cities and provides options to people too. To help maximise use of buildings there can be a move to more urban farming, This helps food production, reduces the energy consumption of transporting food and creates food supplies all year around.
There is a need to think differently about how our buildings are built and how the infrastructure that supports them was also constructed. The materials we use are too often the wrong materials. There is an over-reliance on concrete when other materials are available and much more sustainable. Timber is sustainable, versatile and has reliable levels of fire resistance. It’s a material we can and should use more of. But it’s more than just thinking about the materials we use. We can think many more ways about how a building can be greener:
– During the construction phase you can limit by building an asset that is simply more efficient to run
– Embedding renewable and low-carbon technology in the heart of the asset
– Harvesting water for use in the asset and seeking ways to reduce water use within the building
– Engaging the end users to reuse and recycle
– Ensuring good quality indoor air quality through ventilation – I think the last two years has taught us it’s essential
– Let’s use natural light more to reduce the need for light energy
– Data allows us now to create ideal environments in buildings – the right temperature for example, using monitoring systems
– Incorporating urban wildlife into design
The time is now to make a difference. Whether it is small or large – the evolution of our built environment is needed today.