Short article for Earthworks magazine.
As a conservative industry, the understanding of sustainability within the construction and built environment tends to lag behind other industries and research.
Within the built environment, sustainability is often referred to in vague terms related to reducing environmental impacts, and sometimes, in terms of creating more comfortable built environments. As an industry that is responsible for some of the largest negative environmental impacts globally, a more proactive and engaged approach is required.
This requires a closer relationship between research and new sustainability thinking and building and construction practices. As research is undertaken, and there are new sustainability developments, the implications of these for the built environment need to be considered. Recent developments and research that have implications for built environments include the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and work on planetary boundaries (PBs).
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are being developed by the United Nations to supersede the Millenium Development Goals, which expire at the end of 2015. Sustainable Development Goals include: inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all, ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all, promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all, building resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation, and foster innovation, making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable and ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns. UN member nations are expected to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals and use them to guide the development of national targets, policy, and strategy.
Work on planetary boundaries aims to understand the extent to which human development and lifestyles can be maintained in the light of environmental constraints. This work identifies, and quantifies, risks of abrupt shifts in Earth systems as a result of rapidly increasing human pressures. Seven key planetary boundaries, such as climate change, biosphere integrity, biogeochemical flows, land system change and fresh water systems, have been identified and their status charted. This shows that planetary boundaries have been exceeded in the areas of climate change, biosphere integrity, biogeochemical flows, and land system change and that there is an increased risk of destabilization of Earth systems.
Within the built environment, these developments and research may be ignored because they are inconvenient or perceived to be too complex. Alternatively, they may be partially acknowledged through additional criteria in planning tools or specifications which aim to influence built environment development. Another possibility could be the identification of the built environment as a key factor in achieving Sustainable Development Goals and for addressing planetary boundaries effectively.
Adopting the last approach would require a paradigm shift in the way the built environment is seen, and instead of regarding this as a passive entity that may be tuned for improved environmental performance, built environments would be considered a key means of achieving sustainable development goals and addressing environmental limitations. In the context understanding ‘means’ can quickly become complex and it is useful to draw on the concept of ‘capability’.
Capability can be defined as the power or ability to do something. For example, he had an intuitive capability of bringing the best out in people, or in the case of a computer, a graphics capability, refers to a facility for performing a specified task (Oxford University Dictionary). This can be applied to the built environment and Sustainable Development Goals to generate a number of questions, such as
- What capability is required in the built environment to achieve Sustainable Development Goals?
- Which specific facilities have to be in built environments have to be in place to enable Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved? Do these facilities have to be located and configured in a particular way to achieve this?
- Can facilities which enable sustainable development be provided in a way that encourages people to use them, and adopts more sustainable patterns of living and working? For instance, can design and management of built environments be used to make sustainable patterns of consumption and production more attractive than conventional patterns?
Similarly, the idea of capability can be applied to the built environment and planetary boundaries. This results in the following questions:
- What capability is required in the built environment to avoid exceeding planetary boundaries?
- Which specific facilities in built environments have to be in place to avoid planetary boundaries being exceeded? Are there specific characteristics and configurations of facilities which reduce the risk of planetary boundaries being exceeded?
- Can facilities which avoid planetary boundaries be provided in a way that encourages people to use them and adopt more sustainable patterns of living and working? For instance, can design and management of built environments be used to make sustainable patterns of life more attractive than conventional patterns?
Research is required to fully understand these questions. Alternative models of the built environment also need to be developed, tested and analysed in order to begin developing answers and solutions to these questions.