The pursuit of an equilibrium between humans and nature is a central part of the ongoing fight against climate change. While the scales may have felt increasingly imbalanced in our favour in recent years, addressing more of humanity’s problems through an environmental lens could hold the key to finding better solutions.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG) provide a framework for this approach and while Goal 13 — “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts” — is the only one dedicated explicitly to the climate crisis, other UNSDGs focused on oceans, biodiversity, health and poverty are unquestionably linked to environmental concerns.
“This is about the inseparable bond between the health of our planet, the health of people but also the spaces we build, live in and work,” explains Dr Frederica Busa, Expo 2020 senior advisor. “It isn’t just about finding a way of existing with our planet but also how we can build environments and communities where we and our planet can thrive.”
Dr Busa was moderating a recent Expo 2020 panel of cross-disciplinary experts exploring what these community solutions might look like. The session, titled Designing Spaces That Heal Our Planet, sees four key themes emerge: Lifestyle, data and technology, policies and education.
Buildings such as The Eden Project, a pioneering eco-visitor attraction on the UK’s southwest coast that has been welcoming guests since 2001, have paved the way for architects to show greater environmental consideration in their design. Current CEO of Eden Project International, David Harland, feels that more needs to be done by those creating new spaces.
“Human health and planetary health are clearly inextricably linked,” Harland explains. “The Eden Project was an abandoned clay mine at the end of its life and now it is an oasis. You can take places that seem hopeless and breathe new life into them.
“Design should seek to connect us to each other and also to the natural world. How do we allow creative thinking in this world to enable long-term solutions? We must look to our education systems. There is an opportunity here to create examples that demonstrate imagination and build on the skills of the architects. Buildings need soul to make them places that we want to be.”
Tourist destinations like The Eden Project appear an obviously beneficial environmental investment given they attract visitors and support local economy but Ahmad Abdulrahman Bukhash, chief architect and founder of Dubai-based company Archidentity, stressed there is also a need to focus on housing and the communities in which people actually live too.
By design, many of the identikit residential areas of Dubai have been erected to be as cheap and quick as possible in their development, with ecological and ergonomic considerations usually secondary or even ignored entirely in favour of homogeneity.
“We should think of cities as a research and development facility,” Bukhash says. “Before we talk about how technology can enhance our buildings we need to start at the beginning and get the foundation right. Design ideas like deep gardens, which collect rainwater when there is heavy rain, so the roads are not flooded.
“We need to translate words into actions, we need more research and development. When combined with local identity this means you can reach solutions in an ever-expanding world.”
For cities in the Middle East, exposed to a very specific climate that sees uncomfortable summers with large spells of time spent indoors, there are further design considerations beyond the external. Air quality has become a major concern, particularly in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Habiba Al Marashi, co-founder and chairperson of the Emirates Environmental Group.
“Most of our time is spent inside so we must understand what goes on inside buildings,” Al Marashi says. “It is not enough for them to have beautiful aesthetic; we must understand how they work. Poor circulation means we are more prone to diseases, so this is now at the forefront of our thinking.
“Congested places have greater spread of contagious diseases. We need a greater understanding of the effect of air pollution on our health. This all connects and contributes to how we plan and build our cities.”
How these changes are initiated can be a point of contention. Most agree that stronger environmental education will lead to better-informed decision makers in the future, but the question right now is whether it should be government policy or private investment that guides design best practice.
“We have to consider how commercial logic allows planning to take place,” Dr Busa says. “Economics has to be taken into account, because as much as we want to put heath, spirituality and wellbeing first, when an accountant comes in, all of these ideas tend to go out of the window.”
For The Eden Project, private support was vital for a recent project that saw a five-kilometer geothermal mine dug that it’s hoped can be used to extract heat and transform it into electricity.
“It took a private charity for us to do that,” Eden Project CEO Harland explains. “Geothermal power could account for 20 percent of the UK’s power needs and that thinking was not there 10-15 years ago because it was considered to be risky. Policy makers need safe spaces to be innovative.
“We need a different sense of returns. It’s not a given right that you should double your money in five years. We need to think about the long term and it should be a case that if you look after the environment and human health, you are our friend, while if you poison our air and water, you are treasonous. We should be setting policy in that way.
“A global solution is a series of local solutions added together. What we need is these example projects which allow people to live their lives and be healthy.”
Closer to home in the UAE, Emirates Environmental Group’s Al-Marashi highlights Majid Al Futtaim’s announcement of its first net-zero building as the sort of high-profile example that can provide a blueprint for others to follow.
“The world is so connected and there are so many policies,” she says. “In the UAE we are seeing people looking at the standards to see how they can bring it here and implement standards of a global level, serving their environment and ensuring buildings will be there for a long time.”