The Future of Cities: A Conversation with New York Tech’s Maria Perbellini
Cities 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?
Ahead of the New York Institute of Technology and Denmark in New York’s September 15th virtual panel event on the Future of Cities, we spoke via email with Maria Perbellini, Dean at New York Tech’s School of Architecture, to discuss the impact of the current pandemic on our urban lives, how urban stakeholders are responding to the ongoing climate crisis, and the future of cities in a post-COVID world.
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?
Maria Perbellini: We all agree that leadership and communities at many levels are engaged in a monumental task to address the pandemic and implement appropriate COVID-19 economic recovery plans in response to this unprecedented emergency. However, the pandemic has revealed the existing social and economic inequalities in our society, whose various strata translate suddenly into graphs, diagrams and two-dimensional geographic maps of infections, recoveries and deaths legible to everyone. While we often hear that the virus does not know about one’s social status, race, gender or nationality, it has become clear that certain population segments are affected more severely than others. The virus drew lines within cities marking high impact counties and boroughs and that poses questions on how we distribute resources on an urban scale and whether we respond to the needs of individuals equally.
How do you think our pandemic-changed habits and day-to-day lives will be reflected in the urban design of the future?
Maria Perbellini: Our lives have drastically changed, mostly because we have now arrived at a universal understanding of what an architect’s concepts of integrating living and working really means for all of us.
Ever since high valued real estate in prime locations has been vacated, and the knowledge workers moved full time to their homes or even located with their families to other cities, the perception and value of being in an office has changed.
As we rely increasingly on services online and work remotely, a decentralization of large parts of our workforce might entail reduced demands for real estate in urban centers or a re-use of office spaces with new purpose. If we take the health-distance guidelines into consideration, even the high-rise office tower floor plate design standards are put into question.
In addition, the most impacted sectors are retail, hospitality, events and food industries, heavily dependent on in-person consumers, workers and tourist foot traffic, now less present in cities. In response, even large retail chains are reassessing their cost to value business models, and leaving major cities for less expensive regions and locations.
The recent news that Amazon will take over dozens of abandoned malls across the US to install new distribution centers shows not only the decline of prior shopping habits but a new urban paradigm beyond the broad-acre city.
This adaptation, as many others to come, can be interpreted as a rejuvenation of inner cities where a creative, revised use of spaces offers opportunities for change and actions.
The process might be described as Fumihiko Maki says: “…the human quality which determines form has to do with the way of life, movement, and relation of persons in society. If the function of urban design is the pattern of human activities as they express being alive in cities, then the functional patterns are crystallized activity patterns.”
As the world entered lockdown, one constant that remained detected by satellite imagery was pollution emitted by buildings in urban centers. What kind of long-term solutions should architects and urban planners be delivering that sustainably transform our cities to ensure a successful green agenda?
Maria Perbellini: A number of studies and reports worldwide provide evidence that cities’ air pollution levels lowered as smart working from home was adopted, industrial activities slowed down, and commuter traffic was reduced in urban contexts. Architects and urban planners, in concert with political leaders, should take the opportunity to operate within a more integrative perspective of economy and climate, where financial stimulus packages are directed first toward carbon reduction. We have the opportunity now in the COVID-19 crisis to support the expanded vision of a cleaner economy. Clean in many more senses than we originally thought.
All urban and architectural interventions need to prioritize questioning and rethinking of past practices driven by global economic models and should focus on rebuilding with reduction and redistribution of needed resources in mind. Urban Integration strategies might entail a remix and flexibility of zoning uses and building typologies, location of open spaces to reduce heat islands and plans that facilitate a reduction in traffic towards bike and pedestrian uses thereby reducing commuting to permanently lower levels.
What kind of questions do architects and urban planners need to ask themselves as they plan for a post-COVID world?
Maria Perbellini: How might we take action on urgent issues of tolerance, social, economic equality and racial justice as those are influenced by pre-existing zoning, urban and environmental situations?
What are the strategies to re-design our cities, to reframe our profession and its ethical and more sustainable, human centered responsibilities accepting the idea that nothing will be the same again?
How are we going to use the already available and fast progressing and emergent technologies like automation and AI to respond to pressing, crucial issues impacting the quality of our lives?
How can our collaborative design practices address questions of safety and behavior change in our environments to ensure people’s health and well-being?
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?
What we learned in recent months is that our personal experiences with health, illness and disease are by-products of our perceptions and interactions among each other. We also witness on a daily basis the widespread shortcomings of how cities, buildings and spaces are inadequately designed to cope with pandemics and likely any other future natural disasters. As designers and architects, we are asked to recreate environments at many scales that help sustain the health of individuals, change behaviors and prioritize the safety of everyone.
As an educator, I do know that we are taking the opportunity to address digitized remote learning as both a short- and long-term modality to reimagine our design pedagogies. Online learning is different from emergency remote teaching: it is harder in its connotations, but this time brought us the momentum to talk about how we teach, more extensively about pedagogy in general, and critically thinking about the human future we want to have. While some assignments are no longer possible, we transformed our classes into excellent virtual courses and even online degrees (and/or hybrid remote combinations) step by step, day by day, working in solidarity to help our students and our colleagues make this transition. It’s about flexibility, accommodation, open mindset, and teamwork. We must continue to work on our motivations, be unified, and stay connected.
Andrew Zaganelli Giacalone is the Head of Strategic Communications and Press at Denmark In New York.