Creating Built Environments

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 2. November 2020 - 19:05

Creating Built Environments

Creating Built Environments: Bridging Knowledge and Practice Divides
by Roderick J. Lawrence, New York and London: Routledge, 2021. 241 p.

Book review by Arthur Dahl

With half the world population living in cities, one might think that we are good at building cities for people. Unfortunately, many of our social, economic, environmental and health problems are created or aggravated by poor urban design. Humans are among a small number of species that create their own living environment, along with coral reefs and colonial insects, so this is not something beyond our control. We have no excuse not to do better.

Finally, Professor Roderick J. Lawrence from the University of Geneva, Switzerland, has written a book that tackles this problem head-on. In Creating Built Environments: Bridging Knowledge and Practice Divides, Professor Lawrence has drawn on a lifetime of practical and academic experience to diagnose the causes of disfunctional communities and to propose new transdisciplinary approaches to urban design and renovation bringing together designers, planners, academics, politicians and the people most affected, the urban inhabitants themselves. Importantly, he emphasises the moral and ethical dimension in ensuring the human right to good housing, good health and contact with nature. Today, too many decisions are taken for partisan or ideological reasons, to respond to the pressures of foreign investors, to maximise private sector profits at the expense of public services, or to inflate egos with prestige projects.

I have know Roderick for a quarter century, since I helped him initiate a Certificate of Advanced Studies in Sustainable Development at the University of Geneva, and it is rare to find someone in academia so attached to breaking down barriers between disciplines. In this book, he combines the approaches of systems thinking with many practical examples to show that, while many solutions must be site-specific, we already have most of the tools and processes to do a much better job of building cities and communities for people.

The first part of the book considers five strategic domains. In "Constructing With Nature in Mind", the importance of the environmental dimension and the role of nature in urban life are described, including the systems perspective and the role of fundamental values that I explored in my book "The Eco Principle: Ecology and Economics in Symbiosis" (Dahl, 1996), and as developed in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Practical examples in Malaysia, Singapore, Korea and Taiwan illustrate how nature can be incorporated into urban areas. The second domain is "Planning for Health and Well-being", taking a comprehensive approach to healthy cities and people-health-environment interactions, including adapting to the needs of an ageing population. Next is "Food for Thought" showing the impacts of a urban diet increasingly dependent on highly-processed industrialised food associated with non-communicable diseases like obesity, heart disease and cancer. It proposes urban farming and designing built environments for local food production, with social as well as health benefits. In "Housing Matters for All", the challenges of affordable housing and environmentally-sustainable building are reviewed, with case studies from Stockholm and Zurich. The final strategic domain, "Creating Incremental and Radical Change", addresses the dynamics of changing human needs in cities and the lessons learned from past failures such as large housing estates. It emphasises the social dimension which has often been ignored in past planning.

The second part of the book explores conceptual and methodological foundations, such as human ecology, bridging knowledge and practical divides, and transdisciplinary methods. Overall, Professor Lawrence delivers five key messages:
• built environments and infrastructure in cities, and all the activities they contain, are sources of persistent ecological, economic and social problems, but also have high potential for innovative change and alternative responses;
• built environments are key components of urban and economic development, both conventional production and consumption and innovation, and should address global challenges and implement the Sustainable Development Goals;
• researchers and practitioners in the field of the built environment should reconsider their core competences and their moral responsibility in defining effective responses to global challenges in specific situations and localities;
• the growing number of achievements by community associations, citizens and other enterprises in the associative sector are complementary to contributions by both the public and private sectors, and should benefit from the knowledge and know-how of practitioners and policy-makers as well as local populations;
• sharing conceptual/theoretical frameworks and methodological/practical approaches between researchers and practitioners will be beneficial for a broader understanding of, and coordinated response to, complex urban challenges.

Creating Built Environments should be widely read by all those - professionals, decision-makers and concerned citizens - who want to address the pressing urban problems of today and build for a better tomorrow.

Last updated 2 November 2020