By 2050, two-thirds of the global population will live in urban areas. Experts have long called for reducing the negative environmental impact of cities, but Walter Merida believes this is not enough.
“I am convinced we have the technologies and knowledge to ensure urban systems go beyond having a zero impact – toward achieving a net positive impact on the planet and on society,” says the associate dean, Research and Industrial Partnerships, UBC’s Faculty of Applied Science and director, Clean Energy Research Centre.
Dr. Merida is not only talking about a community’s environmental performance: he also envisions benefits for the economy and the health and well-being of all inhabitants.
Such panoptic vision can only be advanced through the collective effort of multiple stakeholders and experts from a broad range of disciplines. At UBC’s Faculty of Applied Science, for example, three schools “become the perfect interface for creating comprehensive solutions – the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (SALA), the School of Nursing, and the School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP),” says Dr. Merida.
Ron Kellett, director of SALA, agrees that an interdisciplinary approach provides better answers to the question of what makes communities healthy, vibrant and inclusive. “While public policy initiatives still contain goals such as improving energy efficiency, water quality and carbon resilience, these agendas have become part of a larger objective – to make communities better places to live for everyone,” he says.
How, then, can communities be designed for eight-year-olds and 80-year-olds alike? The parameters for different age groups are not that different, insists Prof. Kellett. “When we design places where essential services are within walking distance and linked by pathways, then the likelihood of the services being used and people connecting is much higher.”
At a time when the number of Canadian seniors is increasing, investigations into the factors determining their health and well-being are crucial not only for improving outcomes for older individuals but for the health of our communities and society, says Elizabeth Saewyc, director of the School of Nursing.
“Nurses are concerned about issues such as walkability, because we know that if seniors aren’t staying active, they lose muscle mass and balance, which can lead to falls and fractures, and these can affect their ability to live independently,” she says.
Technology may help improve the quality of life for seniors. Smart homes and the Internet of Things, for example, offer opportunities for health monitoring and achieving a timely response to health events, says Dr. Saewyc. Targeted tools, such as virtual reality software to help manage chronic pain, or video messages from family members to comfort people living with Alzheimer’s, are promising new interventions.
“But we also need to ensure that nurses and other health-care providers are not distracted by gadgets and data,” she cautions. “We have to engage with technologies in ways that are ethical and ensure that people’s humanity and needs remain central to the care we provide.”
I am convinced we have the technologies and knowledge to ensure urban systems go beyond having a zero impact – toward achieving a net positive impact on the planet and on society.— Walter Merida Associate dean, Research and Industrial Partnerships, UBC’s Faculty of Applied Science and director, Clean Energy Research Centre
In cities, technologies only achieve the desired impact when the whole system is functional, says Prof. Kellett, who compares a community to an organism. “You need to get the basic structure – the bones – of the place coherent, before you add the other components, like the muscles and circulation system, to make it work together.”
Prof. Kellett’s team leverages planning and urban design expertise to model the impact of different policy or technology interventions. “In our laboratory, we create simulations that merge numbers and pictures to show how a transportation system would work, what a corridor of larger buildings and services would look like, and how different measures would affect performance metrics and livability metrics,” he says.
Heather Campbell, director of SCARP, believes it is vital to consider technology and policy in tandem. There are a number of emerging technologies that are shaping communities, for example, car- and ride-sharing methodology and autonomous vehicles, or systems that make buildings healthier and more energy-efficient – but all technological advances need to be accompanied by an appropriate regulatory framework, she explains.
“Smart cities may be the ones having all the technology on board, but really smart cities will effectively integrate and manage the technologies to ensure they deliver the maximum potential,” says Dr. Campbell. “That’s where UBC’s Faculty of Applied Science has a huge advantage: it brings together the people with the technical know-how and the people who can establish which technologies benefit a community as a whole and how to make sure no segment of the population is excluded.”
Engaging all key stakeholders from the outset to determine which technology solutions best meet specific societal needs can deliver even stronger results, says Dr. Campbell. “Rather than sit in separate silos, it makes sense to join efforts between health, engineering, planning and architecture, because we all live in places that integrate all those things.
“And since we don’t have infinite resources, it’s important to maximize the potential of all projects,” she adds.
“One of the things we have learned from working in clean energy is that advancing one aspect cannot come at a cost to another,” says Dr. Merida. He suggests that considering a range of diverse perspectives allows us to determine how research and innovation can best serve community interests, so we can focus on technology and policy interventions that advance the common goal of achieving net benefits across all areas of society.
Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.