A New World

How will the planet and our urban environment look when the Covid-19 pandemic is over?

Tay Suan Chiang
Published Thu, Apr 23, 2020 · 09:50 PM

IF YOU WERE to ask Mother Nature how she celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on Apr 22, she might say that it was a quieter party compared to previous years. There were fewer humans on the streets, more wildlife roaming, the skies were clearer, she could breathe easier and the waters running through her were cleaner.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, cities around the world have been in lockdown. People are not to step out of their homes except for essential services. Many airlines have temporarily suspended their flights, and those that are still flying are operating on a skeletal schedule. Factories have shuttered and fewer vehicles on the road are just some of the changes that the world has seen.

While livelihoods have been threatened, the pandemic appears to be good news for the planet, with reports of how the level of air pollution in cities has halved, carbon emissions have fallen and how pictures of the clear waters in the canals of Venice that have gone viral.

IS THIS A RESET?

With the natural world now seemingly in a better state, it might be easy to assume that the coronavirus pandemic is a reset button for the planet. But academics and industry players in the urban environment are less optimistic and say it is too early to make such assumptions.

Richard Hassell, co-founder at Woha Architects says, "It's hard to predict what the long-term impact will be after the pandemic is over, but I think the environmental impact will be fairly short-lived. Once people are back at work, and production and traffic return to full swing, we are probably going to see a return to the pre-pandemic status quo."

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David Symons, future ready leader at global engineering firm WSP UK, shares similar sentiments. "It is too early to tell if the Covid-19 crisis will lead to environmental improvements or damage. Many governments are beginning to look at a green post-Covid-19 recovery plan, which could lead to future buildings and infrastructure being constructed better than before," he says, but cautions that governments may only have capacity for one crisis, which is containing Covid-19, rather than the climate.

RELOOK MAN'S RELATIONSHIP WITH NATURE

Even if a cleaner planet is temporary, it doesn't mean that we should go back to our old ways when the pandemic is over. Rather, this is the chance to relook at our relationship with the environment, starting with how we farm.

Dr Lyle Fearnley, assistant professor at Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences says, "If we are serious about preventing future pandemics, we will need to comprehensively reconsider how we farm, handle and consume all animal foods, because emerging zoonotic viruses don't just come from wild animals."

He cites examples of the H1N1 influenza virus emerging from North American industrial pig farms, and the Nipah virus which came from bats, relying on commercial pig farms in Malaysia as the intermediary that spread the virus to humans. Studies have shown that when there is less distance between animals in farms, disease risks increase.

"Reducing zoonotic disease risks will require developing sustainable models of animal food production, treating farm animals better, reducing meat intake, including through the development of meat alternatives, and most importantly prioritising a "One Health" approach that treats human, animal and environmental health as part of a common, integrated practice," says Dr Fearnley.

Dr Nirmal Kishnani, associate professor and programme director at the National University of Singapore's School of Design and Environment says humans have exploited nature for our gains and ironically at our expense.

"That said, the takeaway cannot be that we retreat from nature. Instead we must learn from natural systems and engage natural processes. The Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park is a striking example of positive reciprocity between man-made and natural. Climate change promises extreme weather events, such as heat waves, and rising sea levels. When designing cities that mitigate the impact of these, nature is our best ally."

REFINING OUR URBAN ENVIRONMENT

With more than half the world's population living in cities, industry players say it is also timely to relook how cities are designed.

Professor Benjamin Horton, acting chair of Nanyang Technological University's Asian School of the Environment, points out that the pressures leading to an unhealthy planet must be addressed. "We must realise that healthy people, a healthy planet, and a healthy economy can be mutually supportive," he says, citing the need for an overhaul of current approaches to urban planning and development.

"The global move of people to cities has led to massive declines in biodiversity and increased the risk of dangerous viruses spilling over from animals to humans. I would advocate for healthy mobility, which can increase labour productivity, reduce the need for land for agriculture and reduce the costs associated with urban congestion and transport-related pollution," he says.

While Singapore was earlier commended by the World Health Organisation on its containment of the coronavirus, the sudden surge in cases emerging from workers' dormitories have shed light on how poor the workers' living conditions are.

SUTD's associate head of architecture and sustainable design pillar, professor Yeo Kang Shua says that the coronavirus outbreak will make us rethink what the living standards for people should be. "From foreign workers' dorms to condominiums, residential housing to office spaces, there should be a review of building space standards. We look back into history again for some answers. It was the tuberculosis epidemic that resulted in the modern day sanatorium or hospital design that stresses fresh air and abundant daylight. There is always a history lesson; the only thing is that humans never learn."

DESIGNING BETTER BUILDINGS

Industry players are hopeful that the pandemic will encourage a push towards designing buildings that are more people and environmentally-friendly.

Structural engineer Hossein Rezai, founder of Web Structures, says that the construction industry is always looking to make change in the status quo, and extreme events have a habit of expediting change. "The experience of Covid-19 will certainly bring forth changes such as the use of materials that are less intrusive to the natural environment at large; a more conscious use of basic materials; and leading and adopting less wasteful processes in our industry."

Better buildings won't just apply to commercial buildings, but there's potential for it to extend to homes. Lockdowns in cities have meant that people are working from home, and it is likely that home energy consumption has gone up too. "In light of these changes, I believe that we would be looking out for more energy-efficient homes in the future," says Ng San Son, director at DP Architects.

He adds that Singapore's building industry has been championing sustainable architecture through private and public developments. "In recent years, we have seen a rise in buildings here with ever higher energy efficiencies pegged at international standards. Given that being 'green' has become synonymous with Singapore's urbanscape, I have no doubt that the number of green buildings will continue to rise, with or without Covid-19," says Mr Ng.

Building better will not just be limited to Singapore. Joshua Radoff, vice president of sustainable built environments at WSP USA, says that a global outcome of this pandemic is an awareness about how fragile society is. "I think people will look at climate change and realise that there is a huge vulnerability out there and that we should do everything we can to accelerate the decarbonization timeline, and integrate resiliency planning in everything we do."

He believes that there will be more pressure and more commitment from local governments and hopefully national governments to raise expectations for building only zero carbon buildings, converting the grid to renewables, and electrifying transportation systems.

NO EFFORT TOO SMALL

While more lasting environmental and building changes may require policy change, individuals can also play a part when they shop, by supporting businesses that have sustainable practices.

Local furniture brand Commune Lifestyle is one such example. Joshua Koh, its CEO says, "As a company that designs and manufactures furniture, we feel personally responsible for the creation of products that will alter the way others live."

Mr Koh adds that Commune consciously chooses to shrink its ecological footprint. The wood used in its furniture is sourced from sustainable forests in North America, Europe and Asia, which minimises the harm and damage caused to the environment. Timber off-cuts are repurposed into other products so as to minimise waste.

"Manufacturers should look at sustainable sourcing of their materials regardless of whether the world is facing an international pandemic. I am definitely an advocate and am pushing my company as well as my partners in the right direction," says Mr Koh.

Even the simple act of bringing a container for takeaway food during this circuit breaker period is a small but helpful step. Coco Oan, founder of Project bECOme, an environmental project that aims to reduce single-use waste, says, "the least we can do to reduce our waste is to BYO for takeaways and opt for zero-waste food delivery options. Many businesses would appreciate the BYO gesture because they are also struggling with rising packaging costs and depleting inventories."

The third-year environmental studies major student at Yale-NUS College, has compiled a list of zero-waste food delivery options that include restaurants, tingkat caterers, and grocery businesses. She is also running a campaign called #skipfnssg where businesses provide fork and spoons (fns) to customers only upon request rather than by default.

Ms Oan says, "I don't think it will be a cleaner planet if we don't deliberately make the effort for it to be so. We'll more likely go back to our old ways, and perhaps even with a vengeance.

She adds, "I really hope that the public will see that improvements to the environmental indicators happening right now are important changes that should be happening even without Covid-19. This is thus a short but much-needed respite that we're unintentionally giving to the planet."

Woha's Mr Hassell concludes, "I think the longer-term impact will mainly be mentally and culturally. Right now we're experiencing a global pause, kind of like a mental circuit breaker, where we have to stop going about our daily lives and business in the way we have become accustomed to, and we have the chance to reflect on how things are done and to re-focus on the collective, or common good."

ECO-FRIENDLY CHOICES

Go green during this circuit breaker period by choosing these options.

REUSABLE CONTAINERS

barePack is a service started by Roxane Uzureau to lend out reusable containers to reduce takeaway packaging waste. It works on a subscription basis where customers buy food and drinks from partner F&B establishments using barePack reusable containers. After consumption, customers return their clean barePack containers to the merchant they got it from or to another eatery on barePack's list.

Since circuit breaker measures started, Ms Uzreau has seen more F&B establishments interested in working with barePack. "They realise how much waste single-use containers generate. Customers are also more aware and willing to do their part."

Go to barePack.co.

WORKING FROM HOME

When the government announced its circuit breaker measures, Adrian Chua of cardboard installations design firm Paper Carpenter immediately wondered how it would be possible to run his business while his kids are doing home-based learning in their cosy apartment. He came up with a collection of environmentally-friendly cardboard furniture - collapsible and lightweight enough to move around anywhere in the home. It includes a desk and stool, plus accessories such as a laptop stand. Sturdy, easy to assemble and pack away, it's no wonder that Mr Chua says orders for the series have been overwhelming.

Go to papercarpenter.com

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