Future of Cities: How Non-Touch Design, Wood and Up-Cycling Form the Urbanism of The Future

An Interview with Cobe’s Mads Birgens.

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ities and urban areas are increasingly finding themselves on the frontlines of the global climate crisis — both as emitters of damaging greenhouse gases and in terms of their vulnerabilities to the effects of climate change. According to available statistics, buildings alone account for around one-third of global energy consumption and 20% of CO2 emissions — a number that increases to 50% in major cities. Against that backdrop and as the world’s cities continue to grow with more than two-thirds of the world’s population expected to live in urban centers by 2050, the role of cities in combatting the climate crisis has never been more relevant.

The good news is that cities are already taking action through innovative solutions — from the creation of carbon-free zones and pushing green housing policies to managing waste and water sustainably and efficiently.

So, how are urban planners, architects and others working in the urban regeneration space to tackle the climate burden posed by cities? What role does innovation play in ensuring that cities are a victorious battleground in the fight against climate change? And what sustainable solutions have cities like New York already deployed in order to mitigate the effects of a warming planet?

Denmark in New York reached out to Mads Birgens, Head of Urbanism at Cobe, via e-mail to discuss the impact of the current pandemic on our urban lives, our future day-to-day in largely populated cities that need to take new and hi-tech measures to ensure the future health of its citizens — and how the city of Copenhagen can be an inspiration to the world when it comes to urban development.

Denmark in New York: Between the need for social distancing and the sharp uptick in remote working, the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically impacted the way urban dwellers live their lives. What have been your lasting impressions of urban life amid the COVID-19 crisis and what questions about the future of cities has the crisis prompted for you?

Mads Birgens: To be completely honest, I fled the city when the virus hit Denmark and took temporary residence in a small uninsulated summer cottage with my family, waiting for things to calm down. Dark skies where hanging over Copenhagen when we drove away, and it was sort of an apocalyptic feeling, but it ended up being a healthy five weeks retreat from daily life routines.

Limited to outdoor showers (in March), working remotely from a closet sized room, while home-schooling and living an ultra simple life, the pandemic time generally put things in perspective, living without all the usual urban convenience, and with an empty calendar. Overlooking urban life from a distance I felt that the city had lost its meaning for a while, teaching us a tough lesson on some things we must reconsider thinking about the future of urbanism.

For many years, urbanity and density have been a global religion and the answer to all prayers for a more sustainable future. The general problem of being too many and using too much is solved by thinking compactly and efficiently about everything. That concept is challenged in general by the need of social distancing, but also on specific topics like mass transport which we are very dependent on in our urban models.

The urban business model could be changing, but we should grab that by the neck and pair it with the green transition we are all working on.

How do you think our pandemic-changed habits and day-to-day lives will be reflected in the urban design of the future?

Mads Birgens: Habits don’t change overnight, so a year of social distancing probably won’t make long-lasting changes in how we use our urban spaces. So, unless the virus stays with us for years, we will tend to forget these COVID-19 days sooner or later and get back to what has been labelled “the new normal,” though this is still shapeless as an urban paradigm.

The lack of space in our cities has been noticed everywhere, and especially the lack of larger green spaces. That could hopefully be paired with the climate agenda and reflected in especially new urban developments as a natural part of the new normal.

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“The lack of space in our cities has been noticed everywhere, and especially the lack of larger green spaces.” In the photo, Copenhagen’s Nørreport Station designed by Cobe and Gottlieb Paludan Architects. Credit: Rasmus Hjortshøj.

Essential concepts like public transport and other mass-oriented functions have been challenged and even closed, which we will hopefully regain confidence in soon, but this invisible threat of touching surfaces in public space is really stressing urban life. This could potentially speed up innovation on “non touch”design, equipped by movement and iris sensors instead of touch screens. Still we have to sit down on a bench, grab a pole in the metro or touch a swing in a playground at some point.

Right now we see architects and urban designers grabbing the momentum by adding expert knowledge on health and wellbeing. It will definitely be a strong thematic to use and propose solutions to in the future, but so far the direct applications we see are quite low tech, like designed distancing on streets, gimmicks on sanitizers or two person green house restaurant set-ups.

As the world entered lockdown, one constant that remained detected by satellite imagery was pollution emitted by buildings in urban centers. How is COBE approaching architecture and urban design with long-term solutions that transform our cities sustainably and ensure a successful green agenda?

Mads Birgens: We are very aware that anything we propose in our designs has a certain impact on the resources we have on this planet. So, we have a thorough focus on resilient and sustainable solutions in our design where we strive for a range of topics in our “new normal” agenda, like:

Building thoughtfully: to build what we need, not necessarily what we want. At an early stage, we have to question our clients about their needs to programs and functions. Can we build more with less?

Building robustly: Historically, the buildings that can endure the test of time are buildings like Cobe’s office space: an old industrial warehouse, robust materials, long spans, extra ceiling heights. This means that buildings need to have the flexibility to adapt to future needs, they need to be future-proofed. This is in fact nothing new, we just have to re-learn it in all of our designs.

Building in wood: It is Cobe’s aim to implement wooden structures in as many projects as possible instead of concrete. The challenges are many, especially when working on large-scale projects.

Building with up-cycled materials: A whole new palette of materials is possible if we change our attitude to throwing materials away.

We need to design and think differently in the future, and we have only just begun in the building industry, which accounts for 40% of global Co2 emissions. This is a big cultural change that needs much more top-down initiatives to get moving than what we have going on right now.

Cobe is based in Copenhagen and has played an important role in transforming the Danish capital into a more sustainable and liveable city. What can cities from around the globe take from Copenhagen as inspiration for urban development in a post-COVID world?

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Mads Birgens: There are a lot of things to this, and some has to do with our societal and economic model here in Denmark. However, I like to refer to one thing as a main driver in Copenhagen which is the bicycle culture, which is a very sustainable business model in contrary to the car culture. It’s cost-effective and super democratic for inner cities where space is scarce. It has transformed streets with slowly dying shops towards a livable street life with new concepts and bike-oriented shops, cafés, repair and rental services. On top of this, it’s a super healthy mobility model and a cool lifestyle to share and be proud of as citizens.

The cycle city has actually shown a new strength during the pandemic being naturally distanced and connecting the entire city effectively when public transport shut down. A democratic urban space with room for everybody and not restrained to the wealthier citizens which car cities tend to cater.

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“[Bicycle culture] is cost-effective and super democratic for inner cities where space is scarce.” In the photo, Copenhagen’s Nørreport Station designed by Cobe. Credit: Rasmus Hjortshøj.

It has been interesting to follow international examples where the same redistribution has been tested out, also during pandemics. People start to realize that a one-hour car drive in heavy LA traffic can be done by bicycle in half that time. Let’s hope some of these temporary measures can become permanent.

The COVID-19 crisis could potentially be a game-changer when it comes to reimagining the future of cities. What is one element of a future city that you think the COVID-19 crisis has made urgent and imperative?

Mads Birgens: Make space. Compact living is good, but we need more green spaces in our cities, it will be good for all of us both during and outside pandemics.

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Designed by Cobe and Sweco Architects, Copenhagen’s Israels Plads offers wide open spaces and plenty of recreational opportunities. Credit: Rasmus Hjortshøj.

Slow down. Lets take time to re-spawn with a green urbanization model! Make better conditions for bike culture, and avoid car-centric city models. Focus on a global digitalization that enhances communication, trust and exchange of goods in a sustainable way! It’s amazing to see how digitalization has been tested at full-scale during the pandemic. And here is something to learn from which could benefit the local and the global community with new business models.

Airport cities and the global culture of traveling has shown its ugly face. It can surely happen again, and anyways, that part of globalization wasn’t very sustainable. This summer we will experience the slow, local qualities of not traveling too far, but (hopefully) still have a memorable vacation.

The virus hurts our economy big time but we will get over it like other crises, and hopefully move to the next level. I think we should reconsider the urgency of investing in space tourism and the colonization of Mars with space cities, and think a bit of the impact our trends on moving has on resources.

Emilie Haaber Lynggaard is the Strategic Communications and Press Intern at Denmark In New York.

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The Official Medium Blog for the Consulate General of Denmark in New York. For all things Danish, #DenmarkInNY.

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