Have you ever arrived home after a tough week of work and remembered that you left the lights on? Or perhaps found a tap left running overnight? Our conscience knows that this is an environmental misdemeanour, and yes there may be an immediate regret. But how much did you really care?
This response mechanism is often characterised by “what difference do I make?” Being a tiny percentage of the global population, your footprint is tiny in proportion. But consider if this behaviour is being replicated by another few hundred million individuals? The collective impact quickly begins to add up.
I discovered that this type of thinking has a name – a cultural attitude called 'disavowal' - knowing and simultaneously not knowing. A concept of denial whereby our minds simply erase a threat. We both know and don't know who makes our clothes and goods, who cleans up after us and where our waste disappears to (this waste could be sewage, consumer goods or greenhouse gas emissions). We choose to exercise this disavowal attitude regularly when the consequences don’t exactly suit us. We play down the risk, put it to the back of our mind, attribute it to others, or convince ourselves that a technological solution will soon arrive.
Disavowal is one of the examples I use to describe some key aspects behind social sustainability. Often considered the ‘forgotten pillar’ of sustainability (behind the environmental & economic elements) due to its complexity to define, quantify and regulate.
When Darryl Condon, Managing Principal at HCMA speaks on social impact, he uses a few case studies to illustrate the context. For example highlighting the CO² emissions reductions achieved through the LEED rating system in Canada and comparing this figure to annual Canadian oil sands emissions. This isn’t done to detract from the importance of cutting GHG emissions from built environment activity; it focuses on the audience's consciousness that climate change is a man-made catastrophe. It isn’t pretty viewing, but it is a critically important point – an inconvenient truth that we must face. Our disavowal of climate change is evident in our societal infrastructure, and acceptance of ‘extractivism’ in oil sands production is just one example of this. One person cannot make the difference, but does have an ability to influence another towards more environmentally conscious decisions. Our collective societal decision making is at the centre of any solution.
A Social Foundation
Nick Cohen, a columnist for the Observer once asked "how can you persuade the human race to put the future ahead of the present?” when commenting on climate change mitigation. This viewpoint assumes that the present is desirable in many ways. But consider the paradox that the needs of the present may not be sustainable, or beneficial to preserve for so many areas of society. And consider the current economic growth index, designed to consistently pursue growth above all else. It is time to question ‘how good is the status quo?’, assess how fruitful the current system is and how it benefits our wider society. Is the reluctance to change simply a fear of the unknown, as we have never known anything but the present?
In order to become successful, the climate change movement must tug at the core beliefs of societal norms. In doing so we push climate change into the public consciousness - not through scientific emissions projections, but in tangible and relatable formats that impact our daily lives. We have to question humanity's current ideology to dominate a natural world that is limitless in resources and controllable. Create a new relationship to the planet. This is the point at which the sensitivity of our environment will become apparent. Using a wider agenda to highlight attention to the impacts of climate change will drive more wide-ranging change. Fragmentation of the issues only serves to make them easier to overcome.
Social capital is a foundational element towards this heightened public consciousness. Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’ theory provides a representation of social capital as the critical foundation towards a regenerative and distributive economy.
Architecture provides a means through which society can interact, integrate and thrive. Much is made of the built environment's direct impacts on global GHG emissions, yet so little is paid to its indirect impacts. This is the side of architecture that we take for granted - how does architecture influence our lives and that of wider society? How do our public and private spaces facilitate a public consciousness, and a togetherness which can serve to strengthen communities?
Consider the anecdote of the three legged stool – equally propped up with economic, environmental and social legs. But if one leg is the wrong length this imbalance will cause the stool to topple. Architecture is a great representation of this stool – influenced by a combination of economic, environmental and societal factors that govern our relationship with it and the wider environment. Our built surroundings are not simply energy or emissions based outputs; they are the places where we spend up to 90% of our time, so are intricately linked with human health and well-being. The success of buildings lies with their success in occupation and operation. And until we become advocates for more fundamental change in the way we build our cities, we’re going to face greater challenges reaching our climate change mitigation goals with this social deficit.
At its best, architecture provides magnificent stimulating environments that foster societal cohesion, strengthen communities and improve our health. At its worst, architecture provides environments that erode community connections and discourage interaction, creating unsafe and unhealthy places. The physical frameworks in which we live and spend time have a huge influence on our behaviour and lifestyle. But how does the built environment facilitate a transition to a clean economy and environmental recovery? Taking a more human-centred approach to architecture, developing spaces that benefit societal development as opposed to constrain and hinder it is critical to forming not only a resilience to the ensuing 'locked in' effects of climate change, but more importantly a means to stimulating development of social capital that can strengthen mitigation efforts to divert from the current climate course.
If we are truly serious about making a difference, we need to be advocates for large scale systemic change. We should treat this as a call to action. To design a difference.
I was recently exposed to a presentation by Jason Roberts who described his journey with The Better Block Foundation. Better Block is a non-profit organisation based in the US who have dedicated themselves to educating and empowering local communities to reshape and reactivate undervalued neighbourhoods to provide vibrant urban spaces. They do this through a range of guerrilla style interventions, based on community needs assessed through detailed engagement exercises. But the rehabilitating effect on community cohesion that these interventions provide is quite remarkable.
We have committed to transitioning our firm and redesigning our processes around a social impact model. We know an increasing amount about the planet's ecological ceiling, but we know much less about developing the social foundation which is equally important in supporting a quality of life worth sustaining. Our focus must be on securing both. We are developing the processes that we utilize as a firm while recognizing that our work can leave a legacy, create capacity, and have greater impact. At the head of this are the products of design – the design strategies we implement. Developing methods to recognize, assess and quantify the effectiveness of these strategies helps us to increase understanding and create a feedback loop to benefit the impact of future work.