In a time of global crisis, thought leaders from NYIT School of Architecture and Design and the Consulate General of Demark hosted a collaborative forum to reimagine a more sustainable and equitable future for our cities.
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the harsh realities of what can happen when cities fail to prioritize sustainable urban design. At the height of the spring outbreak in New York City, the Bronx had nearly twice as many COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations as Manhattan, demonstrating that disproportionate exposure to air pollution and urban housing disparities, in addition to other inequities, can pose grave consequences.
In response to these pressing challenges, “The Future of Cities: Urban Regeneration in a Time of Crisis,” held on September 15, provided a virtual venue for a distinguished panel of urban planners, architects, and experts to examine the critical role that urban regeneration and resilience will play in addressing the global climate crisis.
Kicking off the event, Mark Chambers, chief sustainability officer for the City of New York, reminded viewers that shaping a more energy efficient future will require the perspectives of newcomers and historically marginalized communities. Calling upon attendees to be inclusive of fresh voices, he said, “This is how we can rebuild and get to a future that we all deserve…cities that serve residents and prioritize the most vulnerable. Those are the cities that will be inclusive and be thriving.”
Echoing Chambers’s message, moderator Maria R. Perbellini, M. Arch., dean of the School of Architecture and Design, introduced panelists with a key reminder. “This is an important moment for our agencies; it is an opportunity to build collaborative practices and enact action,” she said. “The COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and social justice are all related issues, and all simultaneously in front of us.”
The virtual panel sparked wide-ranging discussions from industry experts, including:
- Matthias Altwicker, M.U.P., associate professor of architecture in the School of Architecture and Design, discussed how cities can respond to the challenges of the built environment. In advocating for more spaces designed for flexible use, he noted that in looking to the future, architects must analyze past and present building use. Altwicker shared that he is currently doing this in a project with his firm, which is being completed in partnership with the Skyscraper Museum and New York City Housing Authority and will analyze how building use has changed over time. “We’ve taken a look at these issues in relation to the housing density of New York City, both historically and what could become of it in the future,” said Altwicker, who also noted that while the city currently has a reduced need for office space due to COVID-19, that need may shift once again in the future. Altwicker and New York Tech architecture and design students also completed an exhibit last year on housing density and urban landscapes.
- Ehsan Kamel, Ph.D., assistant professor of energy management and mechanical engineering and director of the Energy and Green Technologies Laboratory (EnTech) at NYIT College of Engineering and Computing Sciences, discussed sustainable solutions that New York City has taken to improve its carbon footprint. In addition to providing insight on public policy initiatives, including state plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030, Kamel discussed opportunities and challenges for smart building innovation. He noted that optimal efficiency can be achieved with temperature control, lighting, and other energy-saving features, but also warned of the cybersecurity risks of storing building data. “How is that data going to be protected? These are questions and challenges that researchers are working on, especially during this pandemic,” he said.
- Mirella A. Vitale, senior vice president of marketing, communication, and public affairs for ROCKWOOL Group, a manufacturer of insulation materials, noted that even before the pandemic, most people spent, on average, 90 percent of their time inside a building. However, most people rarely questioned how building conditions impacted their daily lives. “There are so many things in the buildings that impact our well-being and our general state of feeling happy in a home. You must take into consideration the noise impacts, the fire impact, the moisture impact, how lack of sleep impacts us, or [in schools], the frustration of children who are unable to hear the teacher’s voice,” she said. “All those aspects that normally are not really considered have to be looked at.”
- Suzanne Musho, AIA, NCARB, New York Tech vice president for capital planning and facilities management, raised six key action points regarding the future of New York City’s resilience. These steps included engaging the public, developing spaces for healing and societal repair, attracting creative thinkers, solving homelessness, providing power without fossil fuels, and the conservation and reuse of buildings, when possible and practical. Musho, who was raised in Manhattan, noted that she has witnessed homelessness throughout her life. “The truth is that homelessness is a symptom of a lack of prioritization about care of the people that we love, the people that we live with,” she said. “That’s not what a city can do if we have a plan to be resilient and to be responsive.”
- Dan Stubbergaard, M.A.A., founder and architect of the firm Cobe, a Copenhagen-based laboratory for architecture, noted that urban planners and architects should view the global crisis as an opportunity to reshape the way they view public space and nature’s ability to improve urban environments. “This is an incredible opportunity to actually reinvent things on a completely different level than we have done,” he said. Stubbergaard explained how architects can incorporate the natural landscape into their designs and pointed to an example of a recharging station designed by his firm, which offered space to grow strawberries and a beehive for fresh honey.
Closing out the event, Berit Basse, ambassador, Consul General of Denmark in New York, delivered moving remarks:
“Perhaps it took a global pandemic for many of us to finally comprehend that what seemed normal then, was not a sustainable way of how we should live in the cities of tomorrow. In this sense, the COVID-19 pandemic has lifted a veil of ignorance. It has underlined the social inequities of our cities and externally exposed them in full view and emphasized the ever-present need for green spaces in our urban cities and equitable access to the green spaces. It also showcases the mobility challenges endured by millions of urban residents every day due to outworn infrastructure.”