In the span of a few weeks, COVID-19 has ushered in a series of protocols that would have seemed unthinkably draconian under any other circumstances. From self-isolation and social distancing to closed offices and shuttered stores, nations have swiftly mobilized in response to this global health crisis. Having dedicated most of my career to building resilient communities and championing sustainable places and practices, I am left wondering why we have been unable to take such urgent action on the climate crisis.
Especially now, as we are beginning to see evidence that the drastic but necessary constraints placed on economic and human activity to curb the spread of COVID-19 has given nature some much-needed “breathing space.” The global decline of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution levels has prompted significant knock-on effects. Researchers at Stanford University, for example, estimate that improved air quality in China over the months of February and March has prevented over 78,000 deaths.
Even if this measurable improvement is a drop in the ocean of what needs to be done, the timing couldn’t be better for the World Green Building Council to launch its “Plant a Sensor” campaign. The pandemic was bringing to light just how much could be accomplished if we acted collectively, steadfastly and globally. As part of the “Earth Challenge for 2020,” the information-gathering project involves a network of organizations championing action towards a healthier, more sustainable built environment by making real-time environmental conditions visible and transparent to the public. Using mobile technology, the program will involve participants in gathering data across six environmental topics. The first focus is tracking local air quality and plastic pollution. The second focus, starting in June, will be on insect populations and other critical ecological indicators. Aiming for one billion data points globally, these data sets will provide evidence to promote policy change and mobilize action.
This type of universal connectivity can enable us to tackle the world’s wicked problems. And it provides us with new tools that have multiple uses: As Earth Day 2020 and our current global health crisis coincide, for instance, what more can we leverage from the Plant a Sensor network to promote public health? Could we calibrate these same monitors to track airborne pathogens – or, like COVID-19, respiratory droplets – so we can better contain future pandemics? Anthrax, chickenpox, influenza, measles, SARS-CoV-2, smallpox and tuberculosis are just some of the other common infections that we know can spread via airborne transference in our shared spaces.
Our environment and our health, after all, are intricately intertwined. The better we understand this connectivity, the better we can protect ourselves in the future. This reality is made especially clear by the suggested correlation between pollution levels and COVID-19 mortality rates. In her recent study, Francesca Dominici, a biostatistics professor at T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University, stated, “If you’re getting COVID, and you have been breathing polluted air, it’s really putting gasoline on a fire.”
Green and “healthy” buildings must be a key part of the solution – especially considering the recent research showing that the vast majority of COVID-19 transmission happens indoors. From the built-up pathogens that cause “sick building syndrome” to cramped office layouts and lack of access to green space, the built environment is key to both public health and carbon emissions. So is urban vegetation, including the proposed investments from various governments and cities around the world to support local sourcing and production of goods, including locally produced food. Urban agriculture has many benefits. In addition to providing a nutritious, resilient food source for residents, it provides jobs and reduces both food waste and transport-related carbon. Plus, it provides engaging visual appeal to our cityscapes.
It is our social, professional and environmental responsibility as planners, architects, designers and citizens to advocate for sustainable practices in everything we create. Our current crisis has demonstrated that we have the tools, technologies and global connectivity to take action on both human health and environmental health. Imagine what can become possible if we use these enablers and pathways for one common purpose – a consolidated brighter, healthier future for all of us.
The climate crisis can no longer be dismissed or hidden. We must realize that sustainable design is not a choice, but a necessity, if we value not just our planet, but our lives. COVID-19 is a wakeup call. Will we listen?
Lisa Bate is the Global Sustainability Lead and a Senior Partner at Toronto’s B+H Architects, and also serves as the Chair of the World Green Building Council’s (WorldGBC) Board of Directors, and Chair of the Canada Green Building Council.
Ahead of Earth Day, architect Lisa Bate argues that universal connectivity can help usher in a new era of green design.