What can we change to help consume less of the earth’s precious resources – and in doing so, improve our lives?

Joan McCoy is President of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects and writes in support of #OurChangedPlaceNI – a campaign which asks people what they’d change about the built environment

During lockdown, I have been entertained by receiving and sending memes commenting on the current situation – some funny, some less so. One has stuck in my mind though – it was a cartoon of the earth, battered and bruised and coved in bandages – beside an almost equally large coronavirus cell. The earth was thanking the virus ‘for the break’.

Not only are we enduring a global emergency due to the pandemic, but we are in the midst of a climate crisis. With reports of clean air over global cities and clean canals in Venice, the earth appears indeed to be ‘getting a break’.

One thing that many of us have been given over the past few weeks is the opportunity to reflect on how we live our lives. The effects on us all personally have been different – ranging from coping with illness, even death, at a distance from loved ones; to home schooling and juggling working with restless, cooped up children; or the boredom and isolation of furlough; the relentless work to keep frontline services working; to struggling to keep businesses and livelihoods from going under.

One common theme however is that many of us are experiencing our homes and the places we inhabit in a completely different way and are questioning if our environment and lifestyles could be better. Those questions and the answers to them could and should have a profound impact on how we choose to live, work and play in the future.

“This storm will pass. But the choices we make now could change our lives for years to come.” Yuval Noah Harari ‘The world after coronavirus’ Financial Times 20 March 2020.

We find ourselves in a moment of great opportunity – one that should not be allowed to go to waste. That is why RSUA has launched its #OurChangedPlaceNI campaign.

In the short term, we need to come up with innovative ways of making our existing towns and cities work for the ‘new normal’. We have an unprecedented opportunity to challenge many of the accepted norms and to try out something different. We can try on ideas for ‘fit’, see how they work and take the best of them forward into long term visions and plans for the future of this place. We can change our cities and towns to be more liveable, now. The government has shown how things we thought impossible, can happen in this emergency. What do you want to change?

Have you ever wondered why you want to, and are able to sit outside a restaurant or bar in a square in freezing cold Prague or Krakow in November? Why people in Copenhagen or Amsterdam cycle to work, shop, school, despite it being a similar climate to Belfast – and they don’t feel the need to wear lycra to get on a bike? What would it feel like to cycle to work or school in Belfast or Newry or Ballymena – if you felt safe because there were full road lanes dedicated to bikes and no parked cars at the side of the road? What streets could be temporarily closed to cars to be opened up to customers?

In the lockdown, access to green spaces and the need to experience the outdoors have become crucial. Could there be more pocket parks? Trees in the city? Shared spaces for apartments? Places for play? Streets where cars don’t have priority?
Our priorities need to change – the lockdown has shown that we can do much more than we all thought at home – is the office dead? If we are going to work from home, do we need to change our designs? Should our homes be in the new revived multi-cultural, open air, pedestrian and cyclist friendly, diverse town and city centres?

What can we change to help consume less of the earth’s precious resources – and in doing so, improve our lives?

#OurChangedPlaceNI – show us your ideas to make our place better!

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