What is sustainability? There are so many definitions of it. Among others, in terms of architecture, it is an ability to face the challenges of the future, such as a rapidly growing population, globalization and digitalization, food and resources scarcity followed by poverty and refugee waves. Moreover, according to scientists, climate change will inevitably lead to more and more unpredictable nature catastrophes. We as planners should take it into account, always keeping in mind that neither of the three factors of sustainability (ecological, economic and social) can be neglected.
The architecture of tomorrow must offer or, if possible, even be the solution to some of the pressing problems. It should provide necessities, give possibilities, unite communities and, most important, – be able to change. After all, change is the only constant in our turbulent and insecure world.
Therefore, sustainable architecture is all about flexibility, modularity, inclusion and eco-friendliness, while sustainable urbanism means short distances, decentralization, safety, diversity and self-sufficiency. Only when we learn to be thoughtful about our planet and its finite resources, we can achieve a sustainable way of living. For example, before spreading further and further into the wild, destroying the natural habitat of animal species, we should focus on the renovation of the existing neighbourhoods and redevelopment of fallow and abandoned territories. Secondly, following the rules of the circular economy instead of perpetuating the wheel of consumerism and waste is crucial. Organic, recycled and recyclable, deconstructible and reusable building materials are the future. I am sure, someday, we will have to build our houses from waste we created over the centuries. In addition, every good urbanist has to make sure that natural cycles (such as the water cycle, sand cycle etc.) are not being seriously interrupted.
All in all, technological innovations in recent years have been very promising. Equipment for CO2-free energy generation, automated household utilities, modular vertical gardens, permeable paving stones, and even structures made out of fungus which can partially be a replacement for concrete already exist. Furthermore, architects would be happy to start testing and implementing such innovations en masse as soon as possible.
So why is the shift towards sustainability so slow?
This is a complex question with no simple answer. The disadvantage of innovations is that brand-new technologies have high investment costs. It means, they will become profitable, but only after many years of exploitation. This way it is rarely possible to make a lot of money very fast, it’s rather a long-term investment. At the same time, capitalistic system has treated nature as if its resources were infinite. It made it easy for companies to destroy habitats in the name of growth. The cheapest option is most often an unsustainable one, be it an energy source, a mode of transport or a building material. That’s why sometimes we, as consumers or experts, don’t have the power to choose the most sustainable option. In our world, who has money – has the power.
As you see, it does not only take urbanists to make a diverse society work in a way that is the least harmful to the environment and to future generations. It requires societal change, although political willingness is not there. It is important, that the decisions at every level of governance are made collectively and not only by those, who put profit higher than the common well-being. Subsequently, it is important to normalize the processes of participation and let the local community decide the fate of their neighborhoods themselves. Let people be the co-designers of neighbourhoods, which they know from the inside.
Needless to say, such a shift requires radical changes in a whole social system, beginning with politics and ending with our own perception. But who said it would be easy? The realities we are facing today are harsh and we can only go through them together, while leaving the stiffness of our own minds behind, opening up to new possibilities and forms of living, embracing change and caring for each other as well as for our planet.