How can cities ensure healthy architecture in an era of rapid population growth?

A new building emerges on Place de la Concorde, Paris. Image: Getty.

Worldwide population growth and mass migrations are putting the infrastructure of many cities under strain. With city governments under pressure to provide more housing and work spaces, people can end up living and working in poorly designed or low quality buildings.

Since the beginning of human civilisation, people have been striving to create a beneficial built environment. Take Neolithic buildings, for instance: they were purposefully orientated to catch the sun and allow for ventilation. Later, over 3,000 years ago in Crete, the Minoans built underground sewage systems to avoid plagues. So too did the Romans, who also used underfloor heating systems and aqueducts, and provided baths throughout the empire to keep the population in good health.

Slums in Wentworth Street, Whitechapel. Image: Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons.

Despite these early successes, maintaining healthy conditions became much more difficult in times of rapid population growth. During the industrial revolution, for instance, many cities quickly became overpopulated. With growing industries, employers were under pressure to accommodate more workers, and decayed or unfit buildings were used to host increasing numbers of tenants.

In the UK, living conditions reached such poor standards that the government passed a number of laws to improve public health. A similar sanitation project took place in Germany, at around the same time. These strategies provided many cities with outstanding green infrastructure such as parks and boulevards, which still bring many health benefits to those who can access them today.

Sick building syndrome

But in recent years, “sick building syndrome” has become a worry worldwide. Research has shown that headaches and respiratory problems among office workers were directly related to the use of air conditioning, poor ventilation and other widely-adopted technologies. Today, health professionals and designers have plenty of evidence to show that some buildings can harm people, both physically and psychologically. Yet ensuring buildings are “healthy” is a difficult task.

In the UK, some features such as ventilation and heating have to meet certain standards. But other design features, which are known to have a big impact on human welfare, are still not regulated. For example, there’s evidence that exposure to natural light and direct contact with nature have a positive effect on school exam results – yet there’s no legislation which says they must be a feature of learning environments.

And while scientists are constantly experimenting to grow our knowledge of the impacts that buildings have on human health, laws and regulations tend to develop more slowly. This means that even new buildings can be inadequately ventilated, or suffer from a lack of natural light – even though we now know that both cause symptoms of ill health.

A lack of natural ventilation means viruses are retained in the air, while a lack of natural light can affect brain functions. In Britain alone, these design pitfalls are adding to the stress on the NHS, and costing the economy an estimated £24.6m due to lost working days each year.

What’s more, as the Grenfell Tower disaster made awfully clear, technical difficulties and budget constraints can mean refurbishments are made using incompatible or inappropriate building materials, resulting in homes which simply aren’t safe to live in.

Tech fails

Architects aim to deliver sustainability by reducing energy consumption. There is a huge range of technologies which can help achieve this. But relying too heavily on such solutions can backfire: in 2016, researchers found that many homes had been built to be airtight, in a bid to meet energy efficiency targets. This can cause CO₂ and other pollutants to build up indoors, which in turn has adverse effects on residents’ health.

Human factors – including how we navigate and socialise within the built environment, and how our body responds to it – also have a big impact on the overall efficiency of buildings, and the sustainable technologies which go into them. Research has shown that people don’t always operate equipment as instructed – rather, they naturally look for comfort through more instinctive behaviours.

For example, when we feel a room is overheated, we tend to open windows to gain instant refreshment, rather than turning the thermostat down. This reduces the effectiveness of low-carbon technologies. So even buildings that have plenty of features to enhance energy efficiency can still be unsustainable, if people don’t use them properly.


The power of good design

Design is still the most powerful tool an architect can use: simple design measures, such as opening buildings towards sunnier aspects or adding ventilation in strategic locations to make the most of prevalent winds, are tried and tested techniques which can help to deliver healthier, more sustainable buildings.

Yet this approach comes with its own issues. Inner-city locations are often difficult to build in, because of their small size and crowded surroundings. Sometimes, architects will prioritise creating a “landmark” exterior, at the cost of a healthy interior. Other times, architects misinterpret planning guidance and recommendations, which can be vague and unspecific. Likewise, planning restrictions can actually be enforced to the detriment of the overall building quality.

The ConversationAt the moment, planning laws aren’t strong enough to provide truly sustainable environments that take human factors into account. Reform is long overdue, and designers, builders, planners and health professionals need to make a greater effort to find a more collective and coordinated way of working. But as a society, we must take joint responsibility: we can all make a start by learning how to change our our behaviour, to make the human aspects of sustainability a central part of our lives.

Laura B Alvarez, Architectural Technologist and Urban Designer, Nottingham Trent University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To make electric vehicles happen, the government must devolve energy policy to councils

The future. Image: Getty.

Last week, the Guardian revealed that at least a quarter of councils have halted the roll-out of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure with no plans to resume its installation. This is a fully charged battery-worth of miles short of ideal, given the ambitious decarbonisation targets to which the UK is rightly working.

It’s even more startling given the current focus on inclusive growth, for the switch to EVs is an economic advancement, on an individual and societal level. Decarbonisation will free up resources and push growth, but the way in which we go about it will have impacts for generations after the task is complete.

If there is one lesson that has been not so much taught to us as screamed at us by recent history, it is that the market does not deliver inclusivity by itself. Left to its own devices, the market tends to leave people behind. And people left behind make all kinds of rational decisions, in polling stations and elsewhere that can seem wholly irrational to those charged with keeping pace – as illuminted in Jeremy Harding’s despatch from the ‘periphery’ which has incubated France’s ‘gilet jaunes’ in the London Review of Books.

But what in the name of Nikola Tesla has any of this to do with charging stations? The Localis argument is simple: local government must work strategically with energy network providers to ensure that EV charging stations are rolled out equally across areas, to ensure deprived areas do not face further disadvantage in the switch to EVs. To do so, Ofgem must first devolve certain regulations around energy supply and management to our combined authorities and city regions.


Although it might make sense now to invest in wealthier areas where EVs are already present, if there isn’t infrastructure in place ahead of demand elsewhere, then we risk a ‘tale of two cities’, where decarbonisation is two-speed and its benefits are two-tier.

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced on Monday that urban mobility will be an issue for overarching and intelligent strategy moving forward. The issue of fairness must be central to any such strategy, lest it just become a case of more nice things in nice places and a further widening of the social gap in our cities.

This is where the local state comes in. To achieve clean transport across a city, more is needed than just the installation of charging points.  Collaboration must be coordinated between many of a place’s moving parts.

The DfT announcement makes much of open data, which is undoubtedly crucial to realising the goal of a smart city. This awareness of digital infrastructure must also be matched by upgrades to physical infrastructure, if we are going to realise the full network effects of an integrated city, and as we argue in detail in our recent report, it is here that inclusivity can be stitched firmly into the fabric.

Councils know the ins and outs of deprivation within their boundaries and are uniquely placed to bring together stakeholders from across sectors to devise and implement inclusive transport strategy. In the switch to EVs and in the wider Future of Mobility, they must stay a major player in the game.

As transport minister and biographer of Edmund Burke, Jesse Norman has been keen to stress the founding Conservative philosopher’s belief in the duty of those living in the present to respect the traditions of the past and keep this legacy alive for their own successors.

If this is to be a Burkean moment in making the leap to the transformative transport systems of the future, Mr Norman should give due attention to local government’s role as “little platoons” in this process: as committed agents of change whose civic responsibility and knowledge of place can make this mobility revolution happen.

Joe Fyans is head of research at the think tank Localis.