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Housing and the Climate Emergency: The Spaces Between the Buildings


We're excited to share this article by Sheena Raeburn (Director, RaeburnFarquharBowen), originally published in SEDA Magazine. Keep reading to find out how we as Landscape Architects can play our part in tackling the defining challenge of our times.

In our existing and future neighbourhoods, what can we do to meet a reduction in C02 emissions through embodied carbon, whilst strengthening opportunities for carbon sequestration?

According to a UN Global status report* from 2017, building and construction account for 39% of energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Of this figure 17% relates to residential development. In addition, a further 22% of all CO2 emissions relate to the transport sector.

Although progress towards sustainable buildings and construction is advancing, improvements are not keeping up with a growing buildings sector and rising demand for energy services.

The most effective measures to reduce emissions in buildings are uncomplicated in theory: Use less – by using technological advances that can support material efficiencies; Build less – use and reuse buildings better; Switch materials – where possible swap steel and cement for more sustainable alternatives.

But writing from a landscape architect’s perspective, what can we do with the spaces between the buildings, to better reduce emissions and embed carbon?

Housing and transportation are inextricably linked, particularly if we think about a place or community rather than a building. The World Health Organisation identifies air pollution as one of the leading causes of premature death (WHO 2018). There is an awakening that walking and cycling in a clean air environment be regarded as a basic human right, which will then reduce our dependency on private car use. This requires planning housing around how it connects to school, work, leisure and amenities through emission-free or low emission transportation modes, that are safe, convenient and attractive to use.

This calls for a major modal shift from the status quo in the UK. But it can, and is being done well, particularly in Northern Europe. This is not just confined to retrofit urban schemes with super-cycleways in Copenhagen, and from less obvious quarters in Paris with introduction of bike lanes, bike sharing and restrictions on cars, that has seen cycling increase by 54% in just one year, but through large-scale new development as well. Seestadt in Vienna is one of the biggest urban developments in Europe. It will eventually provide affordable housing for 20,000 inhabitants, in a green environment, with sustainable mobility, nearby workplaces and a low carbon footprint.

It would be unwise to overlook the importance of protecting existing natural assets when considering new housing development and masterplanning. Mature trees and woodlands are exceptional living entities: purifying the air by sequestering carbon; providing a home for wildlife; reducing temperatures in urban areas; as well as soothing our soul.

Many other landscapes are natural carbon sinks – wetlands, grasslands, oceans and rivers and peatland blanket bogs, which may only cover 3% of the world’s land surface but store at least twice as much carbon as the all of the Earth’s forests. Many of these habitats are vulnerable to loss or damage due to development pressure, climate change, poor management and pollution.

We have the opportunity to integrate and enhance existing landscapes and housing within an overall plan for green infrastructure. These can contribute positively to carbon sequestration, as well as: providing habitats for wildlife; food growing; leisure and an attractive setting for a network of paths to our homes, schools, workplaces and amenities. The creation of new landscape features and habitats, such as wetlands, meadows, woodlands and tree planting adds an additional layering of future carbon capture to new developments, as well as positively assisting in rainwater management across a site.

Any new development – landscape-rich, green or otherwise, inherently has embodied carbon, that is: CO2 emissions arising from the production, procuring and installing of materials and components, including the lifetime emissions from maintenance, repair, replacement and ultimately demolition and disposal.

This is where we need to take on specification writing as the art that it can be: sourcing sustainable alternatives to concrete and steel, such as timber and hempcrete or lower-carbon cement; reusing and recycling materials such as site-won topsoil and subsoil where possible, recycling stone into aggregate and felled wood into woodchip and mulch.

This resonates with the principles of the circular economy, where it is possible to tap into the creative reuse of what would have been unnecessary waste elements and materials that can be processed for reuse multiple times. It builds value into things that currently hold little value, but we can also lead as architects and landscape architects in our design strategies by avoiding the creation of waste to begin with.

Taking an approach that recognises value in the protection and enhancement of our natural heritage assets; assures an efficiency in the design of our external spaces that work hard through providing multiple functions and uses; and carefully considers material choices, thereby minimising the use of natural resources, must be part of the solution and a way forward in tackling the defining challenge of our times.

*UN Global Status Report, 2017, Towards a zero-emission, efficient and resilient buildings and construction sector