Redesigning cities to face the ‘new normal’ | Sunday Observer

Redesigning cities to face the ‘new normal’

7 November, 2021

As the pandemic has made us rethink our social interactions and way of life, cities around the world are also changing as they recover from this pandemic. Public space and safety has new meaning as people are now more concerned about protection from diseases. The way they conceive mobility is not the same as the pre-pandemic period. Therefore, urban development and city building need to be reimagined and redesigned to accommodate to the new normal.

The Sunday Observer spoke to Nirodha Gunadasa, a Chartered Architect, currently handling the design of several landmark projects in the Colombo city, on the way forward in urban design and how the construction sector needs to rethink in terms of sustainability. Gunadasa is an industry expert on sustainable design of buildings, master plans and cities.

Q: How is the pandemic going to change urban designing?

A. Among the devastating things that happen to us – tsunamis, wars, pandemics - there are revolutions that are silent and invisible. The new normal is one such thing.

Nirodha Gunadasa

As the pandemic restricted our social life for a couple of years, the social behaviour of the next generation is vastly changing. As we overcome the pandemic, many things would be different for the new generation on the way they learn, choose to school, play, dine, shop, socialise and work. This is the new normal. Ahead of us is a global-scale mega revolution of social behaviour.

In the same vein, cities being built in the future will need to conform to that social behaviour in a sustainable manner. We can expect mega-scale changes in urban development in the world. A revolution in the structure of cities and urban habitat is unavoidable.

When our urban lifestyle and behaviour is completely overturned, the urban habitat needs to be revolutionised. Unless we are capable of rethinking the model of the city, our cities and urban life will have to suffer.

We need to understand the new normal and direct it intelligently to make it a sustainable one.

Cities are continuing to grow. By the end of the century, three billion more people will be living in cities, almost doubling the global urban population.

However, cities are the epicentre of environmental crisis due to carbon dioxide emissions, causing global climate change and many other environmental issues. Unless we do the urban planning in a proper manner, other climate solutions will not save mankind or the planet.

Therefore, we need to intelligently direct new social behaviour patterns to generate sustainable urban forms for the future, keeping climate change in mind. If the construction sector gets it right, it will also become the best climate solution.

Q: How can the construction sector contribute to sustainable development?

A. The main cause of global climate change is greenhouse gas emissions due to human activities. Out of the total greenhouse gas emissions, 40 percent is caused by buildings. Therefore, planning and mitigation actions in this sector can considerably reduce CO2 emissions. Energy can be considered as carbon dioxide itself, because we use fossil fuel to generate energy. The more we use energy, the more will be the CO2 emissions.

In the construction sector, the energy consumption increases due to various design issues. Improper building orientation would cause direct sunlight to fall into the building resulting in increased energy consumption for airconditioning. Improper selection of insulation materials, use of excessive glazing and so on also cause heavy energy consumption.

A building also contains embedded energy. That is the amount of energy used in the production and transportation of material used for construction. For example, to produce a ton of cement, four tons of CO2 is emitted and to produce a ton of aluminum, 12 tons of CO2 is emitted to the environment.

Therefore, through proper planning and management, the construction industry can largely contribute to sustainable development.

Q: How can cities contribute to sustainability?

A. The form of a city vastly contributes to the amount of carbon dioxide emissions. A city has a centre where dense developments and tall buildings are concentrated. That area is called the metropolitan area. A city exists in and beyond this metropolitan area.

Unless the developments beyond the metropolitan area is planned and controlled, these developments will spread without gathering the required urban density. The low dense development beyond the metropolitan area is called the urban sprawl.

The urban sprawl largely contributes to increase the carbon footprint of the city. First, it consumes more lands for human habitation, taking over otherwise possible agrarian or forest lands. It increases the road networks and vehicle miles travelled per person. It needs larger electricity and water supply networks resulting in larger grid losses. Therefore, the urban form largely affects the sustainability of a city. The urban sprawl is only one such factor among many.

Three billion more people are predicted to choose cities for living by the end of this century. It is almost double the urban population we have today. By selecting to live in cities, they are reducing their carbon footprints and are contributing to the planet to be a more sustainable place.

Therefore, we need to get this urbanisation right with regard to the arrangement of houses, buildings, and other infrastructure for the three billion additional people.

Q: How should cities change?

A. If we neglect the new normal, it would make people chose to live outside the cities. The cities would not gather the urban density. The metropolitan areas would start to fade. This would result in the urban sprawl and generate dispersed cities which are not sustainable. Low density urban sprawl causes many environmental issues as discussed earlier.

However, if we could manage the new trends, it would be the strongest tool in driving the world towards sustainability. We need to make cities compact yet interesting places to live in. Then the new normal will make cities more sustainable. Cities need to have less vehicle miles, less public buildings such as shopping malls, and less large scale gathering spaces that consume a lot of energy for cooling. Rather, cities should have more public parks, and open spaces instead of buildings.

The new normal is forced to reckon with and it is up to the construction sector to use it correctly to make cities more sustainable.