approach to sustainability
Sustainability is a term that we first started using fifteen years ago. But in one way it was something very natural for Arup. Ove Arup, who founded the group, had a very Northern European way of seeing the world, it’s almost a humanist point of view. In the 1970s, he wrote what is called “The Key Speech” where he talks about the way we organise ourselves, the way we do our projects, and our responsibility for the outcome. The projects must have a human outcomes, they cannot be just technical. They must have a responsibility beyond themselves. His thinking pre-empts many of the issues we now see as critical such as the impact of our environment, of economics and responsibility.
The notion of sustainability was also embedded in the way in which he, and the founding partners, structured our business. They decided to have a reasonable
reward for our work and operate as a collective. The Arup business is owned by a trust on behalf of the employees – or members. We share risk and we share reward. I think that is a very nice metaphor for what sustainability is. There is a sense of collective ownership of issues that requires a higher aim as an outcome. What that allows you to do is to allow appropriate conditions of physical social and economic to transact with each other, to take a little bit of risk for change underwritten by the collective. The way we approach sustainability is founded in that way.
I was very lucky to be part of the team that developed a critical, landmark environmental project, Dongtan Eco-City in China, where we were confronting the systems approach to variables, the way in which the systems of energy, waste and movement had interconnectivity. Sustainability has those roots.
Dongtan laid down principles that we see as common denominators of many projects aiming at sustainable outcomes, but we believe this approach to sustainability has and needs to move on. The challenge of climate impact necessitates a broader and quicker approach to not only mitigating our impacts but restoring the planet and environments we live in. Arup’s growth has reflected this ‘culture of enquiry’ in broadening the variables that inform our work, now including skills such as economics, sociology, governance, power, authority, issues of politics, etc. Many of these skills are within Arup, but solutions are formed equally by a spirit of collaboration with those who share the values of sustainable places. By broadening out the inputs, and through the spirit of collaboration, we believe sustainability has evolved into a story of resilience. How are we resilient to the stresses and impacts and challenges? We can see a kind of evolution.
The great challenge of the master plan is that you are designing into the future, and in a time of dynamic change, the future is rarely a predicted evolution of the past. In order to set the most appropriate future context, we frame our thinking around ‘then, now and next’. Then is its history, now is the reality of the immediate present, and next is a scenario of a reasonable future.
The first thing we do is make sure we have an understanding of the broad range of parameters of our context, a baseline of the then and now. We have to know a place’s history, the ‘then’, as well as the conditions of the time we are working. This isn’t just physical conditions, but also the dynamic interplay of economic, social and political conditions. We are very interested in not just “facts” in their own right, but the trajectory of change that issues are on. By understanding some of the trajectories we can start to see the ‘reasonable futures’. But we also need to inform ourselves of new conditions that aren’t a product of the last. That’s why we invest a lot of time and money in our foresight and research work. Imagining futures like the “Drivers of Change” work we do and “Cities Alive” where we are working on urban environment issues of nighttime economy, urban childhood and green infrastructure, so that we have reasonable scenarios of the future.
The second step is about creating a kind of consensus of objectives. Master plans have many participants and many stakeholders. We bring those participants together and create a process of revealing common objectives. This allows the stakeholders to see shared objectives, but also individual objectives that aren’t shared. In this way we create a platform for shared and unique objectives. By revealing this framework, we create a platform of transaction and negotiation to occur with the ultimate aim to create a consensus of direction and criteria against which evolving propositions can be assessed. Taking those objectives and changing the priority in which they will be applied we develop a series of spatial strategies to test the different priorities. We then like to bring the stakeholders back together, and by workshopping the options, agree on a preferred scenario which is often a hybrid of all options.
To this process we apply a test of time. Master plans often take a considerable period of time to realise. We have to recognise the future in itself can’t be as certain. What this means is that we focus on the first phase of identity and place that is made, the ‘starting point’ that first touches the ground. But we equally recognise the need to be agile for future change of future phases. A good master plan must be able to be agile and adaptable, without losing the content and the direction of the core ideas. Imagine yourself bouncing around inside a cone of a vision. I guess that’s the way we do it.
We were lucky to go back to the Broadgate Complex near Liverpool Street, originally designed in 1986, and check against the objectives and see how it is performing. It’s a kind of iterative cycle of propose, deliver, operate and then re-evaluate. It’s like a cycle of continually going back. We are increasingly able to digitally model conditions that allow us to check much broader parameters as an iteration of scenarios. This allows us to understand our projects, their performance and outcomes as we increase the breadth of parameters of sustainability we must integrate. Another thing I would like to say is we recognise the responsibility we have for the planetary impacts. We as Arup group have decided to adopt the UN Sustainability Development Goals. Through this internationally agreed framework of issues we can assess how our work, in many different parts of the world, is contributing to creating a sustainable planet and quality of life.
features of urban design for sustainable cities
We often have discussions about the role of digital smart cities but I am unsure we fully understand what this really means yet. Digital systems and the data and information that flows, is a new currency, vocabulary and system of human existence. It allows us to monitor, identify, quantify and illustrate the way in which a city impacts or uses resource. Digital makes visible many of the invisible things of a city, of which we only had a qualitative sense of in the past, such as air quality, acoustics, consumption of fuel, heat parameters, micro climate impacts, etc. Digital systems are now allowing us to have a quantitative understanding and by revealing the invisible we then have more tuned ability to begin to respond to them in a different way. I think the greatest contribution the digital age has given is that it has allowed us to see invisibles and to see into their relationships.
Urban design for sustainable cities starts with remembering what the primary outcome of a sustainable design is. It is about the creation of human environment. We have to remember all the technical tools and processes we use are ‘vehicles’ to get an emotional response to place. As we know, human judgement is driven by emotion, then justified through evidence. We need to understand how urban psychology works in cities and how we make choices emotionally. We need to understand that a good city needs to be a loose fit and it needs to be increasingly agile.
I think we have gone through a period of building cities with very specific uses, lacking the adaptability of cities designed before we had over serviced buildings. We must be able to adapt the building stock that makes up a city, rather than the habit of rebuilding every time we want to change the use. Because we are changing quickly, we haven’t got the luxury of burning resources when we re-build the city. We are looking at increasingly loose fit systems that can adapt the uses and type in a very different way. There are interesting discussions on fire systems, mechanical systems and light penetration, openable windows, acoustics of a road, etc. All of those are interrelations.
The other features of a good urban design for sustainable city is that we have to remember humans operate in a world of formal environments like the street, but also in the informal environments of cafes, open spaces, etc. We often talk about the backs of the city as a way of thinking about the ‘informal’. For too long, architecture has been all about front. We look back a little bit in the history and we see the lane ways, mews’ and the conditions often where the causal interactions of life happen. Some would argue these are the places where creativity and innovation happen.
Finally, we need to question and look at the city as a circular economy. This is not about the immediacy of build, use and dispose, this has a circularity. I think that creates incredibly interesting discussions on things like the potential of the way we tax buildings and we tax the city, encourage the circularity, discourage the use and dispose culture. We are investigating how this applies to the city by working in partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Together we are committed to understanding and demonstrating the circularity of systems, and how it applies to resources, skills or economies.
In summary, sustainable cities are central to us addressing the challenge we have in maintaining an enduring quality of life for human existence. But we can understand this in a very simple way in thinking of a sustainable city as
– a place that people want to be in, through free choice not necessity
– a place that people can afford to be in, from global to local considerations
– a place that people want to stay, to build the social and emotional capital of healthy communities.