• Spatial sustainability anyone?

    7 May 2012

    I was recently invited as a plenary speaker to the 2nd Vertical Cities conference in Hong Kong – a thought-stimulating cornucopia of ideas by leading built environment industry professionals and academics that sought to push the boundaries, through debate, of where we are today in terms of vertical urban habitats, to where we could be tomorrow, with technological advancement, population growth and the continued trend towards inner city migration. 

    Professor Jason Pomeroy

    The setting and delegate demographic came as little surprise. It was undeniable that the majority of the delegates hailed from India – a country that has seen enviable social and economic growth rivalled only by its Asian neighbour – China. This in turn has seen its cities such as Mumbai come under threat by increasing accessibility suffocation. And here we were in Hong Kong – the antithesis to this – a compact city that, with a total area of only 1,104 square kilometres, occupies a developed land area of less than 25% and retains one of the highest population densities in the World (a ratio of 29,400 persons per square kilometre). Yet it is a city on the move – financially, physically and psychologically. 

    Space is a commodity worth preserving and nowhere does one feel more conscious of this than in Hong Kong – whether it is within the confines of a micro-apartment or even simply sharing a table in a restaurant that has been ergonomically attuned like a spatial tuning fork. This was, in fact, what my plenary speech was about – the importance of fostering a spatial sustainability to ensure that that equilibrium of space and object is made as we continue to densify our vertical cities for the benefit of society as well as the environment. 

    It was perhaps only natural that the foreign delegates would get to experience the vertical, diagonal and horizontal richness that Hong Kong has to offer as a successful case study of what could be replicated elsewhere– a sustainable, vertical microcosm of urbanity that provides sinuous connectivity from tower to tower for the ease of movement of the pedestrian and the success of its local economy. The very fact that the Mass Rapid Transport system is an integral part of such high density developments demonstrate the importance of a critical notion that besets the 21st century city – just as one should have a freedom of speech and activity within the public domain, so too should there be the freedom of movement – be that on the ground or in the sky. 

    The challenge lies within one singular word – space. The Street and the Square historically provided us with the arterial connections that permitted an ease of movement and the ability to meet, greet and be actor and spectator in public. It offers natural light and ventilation and, when planted with urban greenery, creates a more pleasurable forum for social interaction under the shade and shelter of trees. This is not withstanding the environmental benefits of the very same in their ability to reduce ambient temperatures, storm water runoff as well as being able to offer socio-physiological benefits to the individual. But with population increase, inner city migration and advances in technology, we have seen the gradual eradication of those open spaces that were once so intrinsic to fostering civility in our day-to-day lives, and the continued use of virtual space to satiate our yearnings for connectivity to the outside world. We see a constantly changing global skyline of ever-taller buildings in lieu of the figurative spaces of the traditional city and the increasing need to employ sub and super – terranean movement infrastructures in order to keep us on the move and to avoid the potential catastrophe of accessibility suffocation. 

    Space and society are intrinsically linked, and one cannot have a discourse about society and the way people interact without also discussing the space in which they can do this. The ability to consider a spatial sustainability as a counter point to social sustainability seems key to the success of our high-density urban habitats in the 21st century if we are to foster a greater sense of community and thus turn space into place. Alternative social spaces, such as sky courts and sky gardens, can help do this by reducing perceived densities, providing natural light and ventilation, and facilitating opportunities for vertical urban greenery. Collectively, these parameters can create a new forum for social interaction and in doing so; reinterpret those urban qualities of the street and the square by lifting them to loftier climbs – for the betterment of society, the urban and natural environment. Such an approach need not be seen as a replacement, but an accompaniment, to the broader open space strategy of a city, and seeks to balance open spaces within high-density objects to create new hybrid structures that are more akin to the past historical models of the 18th century court and 19th century arcade. 

    These alternative social spaces in the sky have become welcome additions to the rich architectural vocabulary found in new hybrid buildings by firms such as Moshe Safdie, Llewelyn Davies and Yeang, Steven Holl, and KPF. After all, with increasing open space depletion, should we not be advocating for the spatial replenishment of those spaces that once allowed us to socially interact in public? Social, economic and environmental sustainability? Time to add ‘spatial’ to the triple bottom line.

    Professor Jason Pomeroy is the founding Principal of Pomeroy Studio, a thought leader in the field of sustainable design for the built environment who balance a creative vigour with an academic rigor. For the betterment of communities today and tomorrow, the practice’s Evidence-Based Interdisciplinary Sustainable Design (E-BISD) approach enables the creation of innovative and human centred built environments, from the micro scale of a dwelling to the macro scale of the city. Contact him at: [email protected].

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