London mayoral candidate Rory Stewart has faced a backlash after suggesting that trees should be planted on Regent Street. He tweeted that it was a “disgrace” that the historic street lacked greenery “crucial for the environment – carbon, air quality – but also for mental health and wellbeing”.
Leaving aside the debate on whether trees would spoil Regent Street’s aesthetic, or the fact that Regent’s Park is only a stroll away, Stewart is largely correct.
Placemaking, architecture and design, including biophilic design, can play crucial roles in tackling the contribution to the climate crisis of the built environment, which accounts for 40% of UK carbon emissions, according to the UKGBC.
As an industry, we must work together to cut this contribution as fast as we can. It has to feel different and difficult if we want to make a real change. Otherwise, as well as contributing to climate change, we risk assets being stranded as environmental considerations become more critical for investors, operators, developers and consumers.
Architects and designers are in a privileged position to influence investment decisions through our design advocacy. And as many of our clients hold and operate the buildings we design, there is an alignment between prioritising sustainability by designing for better building performance and using circular strategies once the buildings are in use, with an operator’s objective to reduce operational costs. Sustainability pays for itself over the long term.
One obvious way to set about this is to choose materials that ensure we’re not creating places with a short lifespan. Interiors should utilise sustainable design to reduce wear and tear. The University of New South Wales claims commercial interiors are ‘churned’ on average every five to seven years. Its research argues that materials such as bamboo, cotton and wool are known for their long-lasting qualities and can be used for designing sustainable interiors. Timber is also a popular choice, as the only truly sustainable construction material due to its ability to be regrown and its role as a carbon sink, according to University of Cambridge research.
Of course, no building should be designed in isolation from its surroundings. A holistic approach needs to be considered to create places that foster greenery and improve air quality and wellbeing.
Another way to create cleaner, more eco-friendly places to live is by making towns and cities car-free: a third of all UK carbon emissions come from transport (mainly road transport), according to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
Car emissions are also detrimental to health. Shockingly, according to the World Health Organization, more than 40 UK towns and cities are above safe air pollution limits. Local authorities are starting to recognise this. At the end of last year, York City Council announced it was planning to make the city centre car-free by 2023. Brighton has recently made a similar commitment.
Designers and architects must strive to create cleaner places through effective masterplanning and use of sustainable infrastructure. They have the tools to advocate for forward-thinking solutions to the climate crisis. As an industry, we have to recognise the physical impact of what we do and start pushing for that net-zero future.
Félicie Krikler is director of Assael Architecture