COP26 & the impact of the built environment on people and planet

Reflections from COP26, Glasgow, originally published on LinkedIn, November 2021

Installation by artist Robert Montgomery at the Sustainable Landing Hub in Glasgow, 2021

It’s the second week of COP26, and all across Glasgow you’ll find political activists, industry experts, and members of charitable organisations milling around the open venues, while the world’s leaders discuss our planet’s future behind guarded doors at the city’s main conference centre.

For some, the summit is bringing excitement and energy to a range of climate-related (and often also business-related) activities, acting as a platform from which to promote existing causes and launch new initiatives. Hassell has, for example, shared a commitment for all of our building projects to be net-zero carbon by 2030, and for our global studios to be net-zero in 2023. The Construction Industry Council launched a new Climate Action Plan. And a group of 50 countries committed to developing climate-resilient and low-carbon health systems.

But for many, COP26 is also a source of frustration and concern, proving that, once again, the gap between talk and action, between pounds and value, between communities and world-leaders, is a chasm of unscaleable proportions.

Earlier this week, I walked past a group of activists representing indigenous communities.

“We, as indigenous people, are a living solution to the climate crisis (…) we have ancestral knowledge of how to take care of our land and territory. Stop treating us like we don’t know how to live, how to exist.”

Such went the cry above the crowd, and rightly so. Making up just 5% of the world’s population, indigenous peoples protect 80% of global biodiversity. Perhaps part of the answer to tackling our impact on the environment lies not in novel smart solutions, but buried deep in our past.

I’m here in my capacity as an urban researcher for Hassell, ready to engage in vigorous debates on the importance of the built environment for people and planet. With 55% of the world’s population living in urban areas, and cities producing more than 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the role of the built environment in tackling the coming century’s climate challenges cannot be overstated.

Speaking at COP26 on sustainable communities

On Wednesday (November 10, 2021), I had the opportunity to discuss how to engage with communities around sustainability issues at Urban Design Group’s COP26 event. Our panel was moderated by Chris Martin (Urban Movement), and attended by Parisa Wright (Greener & Cleaner), Marie Williams (Dream Networks), and David Milner (Create Streets).

At the centre of the discussion was Parisa’s Community Sustainability Hubs initiative, a project that aims to take sustainability issues (and mitigation tactics) straight to the people.

Our conversation highlighted three points in particular:

  1. The importance of bringing communities along on the journey towards a more sustainable future, developing and implementing solutions through cooperation.
  2. The lack of current options for communities to enhance their understanding of — let alone adopt — more sustainable lifestyle patterns.
  3. The opportunity for using co-creation and experimentation methods to test alternative experiences and affect behavioural change.

As Marie Williams pointed out, the first step towards creating sustainable behaviour from the bottom-up is to, “reframe the message in a way that people understand.”

We have to reframe the message in a way that people understand.

Hassell recently completed a survey of people’s lifestyle preferences (administered by YouGov Plc. and published in the report “Close to Home”, available here), with findings that further highlight the necessity for design and societal change to be delivered hand-in-hand.

From the perspective of the urban planning industry, our ability to build highly sustainable and efficient places is actually pretty good. We largely understand what kinds of environments make people feel more comfortable, behave more convivially, and live more healthily. We know how to create sustainable energy and waste systems, how to deal with rainwater and extreme heat, how to use and reuse carbon-neutral materials. Living closer together, in places that make it easy for people to share space and resources and to travel by carbon-neutral means, is one of the key strategies for making more sustainable neighbourhoods.

The trouble is that we struggle to deliver within financial systems that are geared towards realising short-term capital gains, and within a culture that values space over time, private over public, ownership over experience.

In our survey of the UK population (see the study referenced above), only 30% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that they “would prefer to live in an apartment with easy access to social, cultural, and commercial destinations, over living in a house with limited access to social, cultural, and commercial destinations.” 47% disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement. 65% of the UK population desired to live and work in a place that is walkable, but only 6% desired to live and work in a place that is compact (i.e. more buildings on less space). 56% wanted private green space, yet 65% also agreed that people should be encouraged to share space.

Our results are riddled with contradictions like these, showing a clear misalignment between our lifestyle aspirations, where and how we want to live, and what our built environment can feasibly deliver. Until we address the physical and social aspects together, a more sustainable future will be hard to reach.

Catalysing cultural change by design

Walking through Glasgow during COP26, it’s great to hear many passionate and diverse voices raised in favour of protecting our planet and its precious natural resources. That is until you come upon the M8, a many-laned motorway, cutting the city in half like a knife through butter. Here, the whirring of cars reminds us that transport remains the largest source of CO2 emissions in the UK, and that, even with climate disruption staring us in the face, 41% of the population still desire to live and work where there is easy access for cars (see report linked above).

COP26 is a meeting for the world’s leaders, but climate change mitigation is a challenge for us all. If we aren’t happy with the options currently available, then we have to work together to imagine a different way of life, to create a different lifestyle ideal that is better aligned with our cultural aspirations and the planet’s capacity to sustain us.

Looking at Glasgow’s built environment — from the grandeur of the old civic institutions to the efficiency of the motorways; from the generosity of the urban parks to the reticence of financial services’ buildings — I am struck by the power of architecture and design to reflect societal values. COP26 is a moment in time, but culture is forever evolving. What do the last 50 years of design and planning say about our values? What will the next 50 years reflect?

Many great words have been shared at this year’s COP, but it is in the shaping of our homes, streets, workplaces, cultural and commercial destinations that we truly make our mark. And it is by living in these spaces that we will be marked in return.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

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