Urban Regeneration and Rewilding
How might we rebuild our cities after the devastation of the pandemic?
As we start the offensive against Covid-19 armed with regulations, vaccines and more advanced therapeutics, it will hopefully not be too long before the pandemic begins its gradual demise. We should, in all likelihood, have it on the retreat by the end of next summer in the developed world and hopefully during 2022 in less developed countries.
But what next? Will we return to normal and bounce right back to where we were or can we take the opportunity, from the aftermath of Covid and the economic devastation, to build back a little differently - particularly in our towns and cities.
‘We should be asking ourselves not whether, but how we can begin the process of regenerating our urban spaces?’
At times it felt like the Coronavirus pandemic had levelled our towns and cities. During lockdown these once bustling islands of urban buzz fell silent and desolated, echoing the memories of a once human induced, crowd-centred adrenaline ride.
Urban dwellers faced weeks of high-energy withdrawal symptoms as these places were forced to close down. But then, one morning, a number of us woke up feeling a little different. It was as though we had, for the first time, heard the reborn silence of the place. And with it came a gradual sense of calm.
We rediscovered our towns with a new eye. A recognition of things other than crowd and culture and office. We stepped out into the greener spaces as a relief from our tiny apartments, computers and TV screens. Unless, of course, we were essential workers. They have experienced no such epiphany - something we should always thank them for.
The relatively few oases of urban nature provided locked down employees and their families with a vital source of wellbeing, of community and of solace. They sat on benches and wrote, or texted or sketched. With public transport shut down people started to dust off their bicycles and take notice of the local essential shops, take out places and ice cream vans. The smart phone combined with shuttered offices meant we could legitimately work from anywhere.
We noticed the sounds of silence, the beauty of nature, the scampering animals and the reduced pollution and smog. What was perhaps a little sad was how quickly we seemed to discard some of these human advances once the first wave’s lockdown ended.
As the second wave of the pandemic hit the western world this autumn and urban centres started to shut down again, many of us snapped back into our habits formed in the spring. We knew what to do and where to go. This time, though we noticed that more outdoor venues were allowed to stay open and more shops and cafes had figured out how to keep going. There was a sense of the place starting to adapt to the new normal.
But adapt to what exactly?
As we move into 2021 with a sense of renewed hope, we have an opportunity to reimagine our urban spaces and retain some of the benefits of the pandemic’s restrictions. Urban regeneration can give us the chance to grandfather in some of the considerable progress we, as a society, have made in 2020. We can build back greener, faster and more considerately if we just maintain a few of these adaptions and add on some others.
The pandemic came from deforestation and the man made disturbance of some of our vital natural biomes. Places that absorb our carbon, support nature and provide wild spaces for essential wildlife. You know, the things that keep the planet ticking.
Too often urban society hangs on to the belief that things to do with nature have little to do with it directly. That's what happens in the countryside. We do work and technology and progress here. They worry about farming and wildlife and forests. Well, no longer. Climate change has reached a tipping point such that we will all have to build back differently.
Urban regeneration can and should include us creating more spaces for outdoor exercise, al fresco eating, living and entertaining. The venues that managed to stay open in the second lockdown were largely outdoor spaces such as parks, public gardens, outdoor art centres, garden centres and farmers markets. We just need more of them. People who live, work or play near green spaces enjoy more natural beauty and wellbeing - the result of biophilia, hummanity’s innate affinity for the natural world.
Pavements and parking lots could provide more outdoor seating for cafes and restaurants and outdoor markets. We could develop more outdoor sports facilities.
But we also need to nurture and support pedestrian transport so more people can safely walk, scooter and cycle to work. Exercise-based commuting is healthier, reduces the cost of getting to work and reduces pollution. A number of leading European cities including Milan and Barcelona are making the ‘walkable city’ central to their post-pandemic strategies. Paris is redesigning around a number of in-city villages with shops, offices, schools and parks all within a walking distance of where people live.
But we can go further than that. If you look over some parts of Stuttgart in Germany, Linz in Austria or Brooklyn in New York, many of their rooftops are mistaken for small parks or grassy squares. Green roofs could fundamentally alter the green space equation in urban centres - there are so many roofs out there! And green roofs can be quite simple. They just depend on a series of carefully designed layers that ensure the roof itself is protected, rainwater is filtered and drained, and plants can thrive.
If aiming for performance with minimal inputs, green roofs can have shallow soil to support a simple carpet of self-sufficient ground cover such as sedum. Or green roofs can have intensive systems to sustain full-fledged gardens, parks or farms.
The Letts family own one of the UK’s earlier eco-houses. The Robert Adam Orangery, at the Mamhead Park South estate on the outskirts of Exeter, has a number of the back rooms of this historic building covered in a green roof. The estate, including the Capability Brown gardens overlooking the sea, has recently completed an innovative nature-regeneration programme that provides inputs for urban rewilding.
Though up-front costs for green roofs are higher, and some maintenance costs are required, returns are compelling and long-term costs are comparable, sometimes lower than conventional, tiled roofing. The soil and vegetation function as living insulation, moderating building temperatures year-round - cooler in the summer, warmer in winter. Because the energy required for heating and air-conditioning is curbed, greenhouse gas emissions are lowered as are costs.
Green roofs also absorb carbon in their soil and biomass, filter air pollutants, reduce rainwater runoff, support cityscape biodiversity, and address urban over heating - benefitting not just the floors beneath but also nearby buildings. Green roofs have double the lifespan of conventional ones.
We can equally redevelop our urban world through technology by introducing smarter buildings, more LED lighting regulations, heat pumps, smart glass and thermostats, while better insulation and retrofitting can reduce energy consumption and costs across the board. We should, though, generally attempt to prioritise low income housing and public buildings.
It is in the area of transport that cities can make one of the bigger differences to their reinvention, by nurturing a healthier, quieter and less polluted environment. Electrifying transport, whether that be cars, buses, motorbikes or lorries, would not only reduce emissions and pollution but would considerably enhance citywide wellbeing by reducing noise pollution. The deafening sound of heavy traffic would make way for the silent hum of electric vehicles. This often neglected aspect of the universal shift to electric vehicles will prove powerful once the transition is complete. Many of us noticed the sound of nature in lockdown. Let's make that sensation a permanent part of our children's future.
By moving to electric vehicles, cities can also start to introduce the idea of self driving, autonomous vehicles and smart roads, which could take transportation to another level while reducing driver error and road accidents.
The decarbonisation of urban centres can be further accelerated by widening the adoption of solar roof tiles and panels, adding them to building regulations and supporting the transition with government incentives. At the same time we should pay attention to new developments such as solar energy capabilities within glass, for high rise buildings.
Urban centres should not shy away from wind and water energy using river systems and weirs, alongside roofs and parks to support turbines. The increasing development of smaller wind turbines could suit the urban ecosystem.
As shops move online and office workers increasingly work from home, we will be presented with opportunities to re-imagine empty office buildings and shopping centres. The bolder, more progressive municipal leaders will replace abandoned brick and mortar with new urban green spaces and introduce the concept of nature-regeneration and rewilding.
Will we have the impetus and courage to embrace a growth in outdoor spaces and nature-based public venues designed around community wellbeing, activity, culture and entertainment? Why should the wonders of Minnack Theater in Cornwall not be made available to people who live in cities with more urban outdoor theatres?
It could be that urban rewilding will make the most holistic difference to urban regeneration. As parks, rivers, lakes, playing fields, allotments, verges, roundabouts and private gardens are redesigned to support the planet. Imagine a world where these sometimes underused corners are reimagined to bring the wild back into our lives, while also absorbing emissions, conserving wildlife and natural plant life and maybe even reinventing urban society and culture around our most vital asset - nature - as wild and exciting as any rural landscape.
Smaller-scale rewilding methods and approaches have come a huge way and have reached the point where they can be safely applied to the urban setting. Bringing real nature back to our doorstep.
In the second part of this article on ‘urban regeneration and rewilding’ we will look more specifically into urban rewilding.
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