The Dark Green City

Photo by Nicolas Haro

Smart urban technology has the potential to transform our cities — but watch out for unintended consequences.

What would cities look like if they were built from scratch, from the internet up? This is the question being asked by Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation unit of Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. What’s emerging from this thought experiment is a new approach to city-building, one that sees urban districts as platforms for testing and refining technologies that improve quality of life. Sidewalk Labs’ mission, it claims, is not to create a city of the future, but to create the future of cities. Continue reading

The future is urban

The future is urban

Around the turn of the 20th century, public imagination turned to what life would be like in the year 2000. In newspapers and magazines, writers and artists illustrated visions of a society replete with personal flying machines, pneumatic tubes, moving sidewalks, entire cities enclosed beneath glass domes. From today’s vantage point, these predictions are all too cliché. But take a step back from these specific predictions and you’ll discover a unifying assumption that these futurists got right: the future would be urban.

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Conscious Cities: Bridging Neuroscience, Architecture and Technology

Can neuroscience teach us about the built environment? If so, how can these insights be used to create urban spaces and technologies that improve human health and well-being?  And to what extent can industry and governance help in achieving these goals? These were just some of the many questions that were debated at the Conscious Cities Conference that I attended in London in early May.  Continue reading

Health, wellness, and experience in the built environment: From green buildings to Conscious Cities

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1. Health, wellness, and experience as core elements of green buildings

The concept of Conscious Cities has been defined as a new field that proposes to replace the focus on efficiency in the built environment with a focus on human health and well-being. It is a concept that “arose in reaction to the widening gap between our potential to design with the human experience in mind, and its lack of application in practice.” Although by no means substituting efficiency, there has recently emerged within the green building industry a complementary focus on human health, wellness, and experience.

This refocusing of priorities stems from the recognition of a failure of humanism in the way we design, building and operate the built environment, Modern humans have essentially become an indoor species, with people in the industrialized world spending almost 90 percent of their time inside buildings. Many of modern society’s chronic health issues related to lack of physical activity, stress, and poor diet, can be directly or indirectly linked to the architecture of buildings and cities.

And yet, the humanistic element has been systematically overlooked by many in the industry. This is not to say that those in the industry have completely ignored it. Building codes, for example, have dictated performance requirements related to indoor air quality, ventilation rates, and thermal comfort. And while health and wellness considerations have also been integral to various green building rating systems, it has often taken a backseat compared to other environmental criteria such as energy performance, water management and material selection.

Consideration of the human dimension in green buildings has gained momentum in recent years. The World Green Building Council noted in 2015 that “a new market demand is emerging within the building industry: to more intentionally address human experience, health, and wellness as core elements of green building practice”. Similarly, the American Institute of Architects predicted that “by facilitating greater collaboration with the public health community, there is an opportunity for green buildings to move past the premise of “do no harm” to a focus on holistic health promotion.”4

This development partly arises from economic considerations. On average, 90 percent of typical business operating costs are employee related (salaries and benefits), while nine percent goes to rent, and only one percent to energy. Therefore, even a modest reduction in sickness or absenteeism can lead to a meaningful reduction in overall operating costs.

To continue reading, visit Conscious Cities Journal No. 2

More transparency. Less energy.

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[Note: An adapted version of this article was published in the Fall 2016 edition of Issues in Science and Technology, the public policy journal of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.]

I fully support the promotion of new and more advanced building energy technologies as a means to improve building performance and reduce energy use and related carbon emissions (“The Potential of More Efficient Buildings”, Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2016). However, to fully realize these aims, we cannot rely on advancements in building technology alone.

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Not all old buildings are ugly or new ones, beautiful

I enjoyed reading Edward Keenan’s column, “In praise of Toronto’s ugly old buildings”. However, the author seems to conflate “old” with “ugly” and “new” with “good.” These words are not synonymous. There are numerous examples of new buildings that are ugly, lifeless and dehumanizing. Similarly, there are many old buildings that most people would recognize as being interesting and beautiful and that give their neighbourhood — and our city — its character.

Urban aesthetics influence us in more important ways than many people realize. As Winston Churchill famously said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.” This is why I don’t think that ugly buildings should be praised. Rather, we should praise buildings that are beautiful and human-scale — regardless of whether they are new or old.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in the Toronto Star.

Humanizing the built environment

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There’s an interesting article by Chris Holbrook in The New York Times which explores the reasons why airports are “built for everyone — the city, the airlines, the retailers — except for the very people who use them the most: the passengers?” Even the shiny, new airports designed by high-profile starchitects – “the cathedrals of the 21st century” as Holbrook puts it – suffer from poor sensory experience, from ambient noise to glare to uncomfortable furniture.  Continue reading