Balance is the new normal: Part 6. prompts for post-Covid future

Prof. Pomeroy closes the series by presenting three key themes for our new norm; Disinfect, De-densify, and Decentralise

Image source: Pomeroy Studio

Common Themes for Consideration

There are a number of commonalities that present themes for consideration. In particular the ability to 1) Disinfect, 2) De-densify, and 3) Decentralise. These notions are supported by the use of physical and virtual space; and an increase in the integration of Technology to enhance people’s lives. This may appear to be working now but how sustainable are they in the Long term?

1. Disinfect

Increased air rates; embrace of natural light and natural ventilation and encourage more porous and sanitized environments.

This period of social and economic lockdown has seen a remarkable reset of our Earth – with cleaner waters, cleaner skies and cleaner air. But as industries crawl out of lockdown, we cannot afford to return to our carbon intensive ways. Our prophylactic and sanitized experiences have helped fight the viral pandemic, but the chemical and plastic-intensive nature of takeaway cartons and face masks has led to a ‘plastic pandemic’.

Our hermetically sealed, sanitized environments need to be balanced with environments that are porous and can breathe. Buildings should embrace the benefits of natural light and ventilation as a means of enhancing the health and well-being of the individual and help combat viral agents via particle dilution through larger volumes of air and UV light.

2. De-densification

Decrease people to square meterage ratio; social distance and optimise space through more time-based structuring

We may think that de-densifying our places to work, learn, play or live in is the answer, but it cannot be forever. Cost of real estate in city centres and their efficiencies to optimise return on investment have become so finely tuned that having lesser people in such places make developments unaffordable. We should balance the short-term need for less dense spaces and places with the long-term reality of population increase and continued inner-city migration post-pandemic – meaning a phased return of people to city centres over time.

We will also need to recalibrate the street and give precedence to the pedestrian and cyclist over the automobile; and thus reclaim streets for the people. And whilst this period has seen the decline in the use of public transportation given fears of infection spreading through enclosed proximity we should not lose sight of how public transportation in the long term can maintain our drive towards a car-lite, cleaner, greener built environment.

3. Decentralise

Apply technology to augment social practices and allow for remote working, learning, playing; include alternative social spaces, and promote self-sustenance and resilience

We may think decentralising is the natural step to avoid social convergence through the acceptance of WFH, e-learning, e-commerce and e-culture and entertainment; but this potentially undermines the gains made by creating compact, connected urban developments that have optimised public infrastructure and helped economic growth through the convergence of people in physical space given our craving for co-presence.

We need to balance decentralising our daily routine through technology with policies that maintain the importance of having dense urban centres that provide a means of convergence and co-presence. Decentralisation may also come in the form of looking at alternative forms of urbanism and under-utilised sites that are ripe for regeneration.

This could allow for new self-sustaining and resilient communities that reduce the stresses and strains on inner-city life but are still part of the city.

Redefining the triple bottom line

In 1987, the Brundtland report sought to address the concern ‘about the accelerating deterioration of the human environment and natural resources, and the consequences of that deterioration for economic and social development’. It has been argued that if a development is to be truly sustainable, a balance between the needs of Man and Nature is required through the careful trade-off between social, economic and environmental parameters of equal weighting, for which the academic Mark Mawhinney refers to as the balance theory of sustainability.

In 2020, the World Urban Forum proposed Culture as the fourth pillar of sustainability. Our city’s spaces, which may have once been imprinted by cultural practices and time-tested rituals, are also being compromised through the process of urbanisation, which potentially undermines the cultural identity of a place. If globalisation is really ‘the globalisation of modernity, and modernity is the harbinger of identity’, a ‘cultural’ sustainability may be able to form a localised counterpoint to globalisation.

But as we head into 2021 I think there are two further pillars that ought to be considered in that can redefine sustainability once more – that’s the inclusion of space and technology. 

Space continues to be depleted through urbanisation, and in this time of pandemic, has never been such an important commodity to preserve. One cannot have a discourse about society and the way people interact without also discussing the space in which they can do this. Spatial sustainability as a counterpoint to social sustainability seem inseparable and key to the success of our future urban habitats as we seek to find places to converge in times of safety; and diverge in times of pandemic. Society’s continued use of Technology means many innovations have now become ubiquitous in our daily lives. We need to ensure that the use of technology is in itself sustainable – that it offers the ability to converge not just during pandemic stricken times, but can enhance our daily lives without replacing our basic human need for physical co-presence.

Six pillars for post-Covid world

So allow me to leave you with 6 pillars for our post-Covid world and, hopefully, with some hope:

Social Balance: The pandemic will not stop our need for co-presence. We will need to learn to balance periods of ‘stepping-out’ to the great outdoors with the need to periodically ‘step-back-in’, in a more responsible manner

Cultural Balance: The pandemic will not stop our need to express ourselves through the arts. We need to balance how we converge in decentralised, local cultural arenas with more global, virtual cultural experiences

Spatial Balance: (De)densification strategies should be phase-able according to the circumstances; balanced with decentralisation strategies that look at alternative opportunities for urban regeneration

Environmental Balance: The hermetically sealed glass box needs to be balanced, if not challenged, by more porous, naturally-ventilated and lit spaces for the health and well-being of our natural and man-made environment

Technological Balance: We should embrace new technology sparingly, and balance with the knowledge that some of the best lessons in combating the pandemic are low-tech solutions that have stood the test of time

Economic Balance: The pandemic may have affected our economic growth near term, though long term we will need to learn to balance global connectivity with local self- sustenance if we are to be more resilient

We have witnessed how Oxford University, as an academic institution, has collaborated with Astra Zeneca, a pharmaceutical corporation, to find a vaccine in record time. This is made possible by fast track processes of agile governance that ensure people in clinical trials can be tested for the greater well-being of humanity.

Arguably, a model that allows the collaboration of academia, government, civil society and private corporation need not be reserved for the creation of a vaccine, but should similarly be a model for the creation of more resilient and sustainable built environments…notions covered in my recent book ‘Cities of Opportunities: connecting culture and innovation’. But more of that on another occasion!

There have been pandemics in the past, and there will be more pandemics in the future. Thankfully, we, like our built environments, are remarkably adaptable and resilient, and it is with hope that we will continue to be so for the benefit of our future generations.

This is the sixth and last instalment on the series titled ‘Balance is the new normal’. Read the firstsecond, third, fourth, fifth parts here

About Professor Jason Pomeroy

Jason Pomeroy is an award-winning architect, academic, author and TV presenter, regarded as one of the world’s thought leaders in sustainable design. He gained bachelor and master degrees from the Canterbury School of Architecture and the University of Cambridge; and his PhD from the University of Westminster. He is the founder of Singapore-based interdisciplinary design and research firm Pomeroy Studio, and sustainable education provider, Pomeroy Academy. Pomeroy has edited Cities of Opportunities: Connecting Culture and Innovation (2020), and authored Pod Off-Grid: Explorations in Low Energy Waterborne Communities (2016), The Skycourt and Skygarden: Greening the Urban Habitat (2014) and Idea House: Future Tropical Living Today (2011). He continues to raise cultural awareness of cities through his critically acclaimed TV series ‘Smart Cities 2.0’, ‘City Time Traveller’ and ‘City Redesign’. www.jasonpomeroy.sg

About Pomeroy Academy

Pomeroy Academy are educators and researchers of sustainable built environments. The courses created and curated are specialist in nature and focus on the process of designing climate-responsive sustainable developments through an evidence-based approach. The courses seek to heighten awareness of the green agenda and provide students and professionals with the necessary skills to make a difference in their respective fields. The Academy was founded by Prof. Jason Pomeroy, whose interests lie in sharing sustainable design knowledge with an industry that is increasingly needing to respond to climate change. www.pomeroyacademy.sg