The Poetics of Space: Reimagining the Built Environment - GTEC Green Technology Education Centre

Listen to the author reading this article (9:31)

As the impacts of climate change become more apparent, more frequent and more intense will the built environment learn or will it stand still and mute awaiting its fate? Will an evolving built environment evoke hope or will its intransigence add to despair?

In a beautiful room overlooking the Georgia Straight at the back of the Vancouver Museum, Urbanarium gathered architects and city planners for an extended lunch in early spring to imagine what a climate change responsive, built environment in Vancouver could look like. This meeting took place on the unceded traditional and ancestral homelands of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations adjacent to the Squamish Sen̓áḵw development.

Architects and city planners speak the lingua franca of the built environment, whose intimate effects on us we take for granted, rather than appreciate as the way our consciousness takes material form and links to the natural world. Architects and city planners translate our dreams and stories into the language of pattern and structure. They speak the language of shape and line, form and materials, canals and roads, land use and zones. They are artists who work within the constraints of function and codes. Their conversations create, re-create and maintain our homes, places of work and whatever sanctuaries we afford ourselves.

What changes to the built environment do the city planners and architects imagine in response to the impacts of climate change? It is not an impoverished world, they see. They see a different, more local conception of space, more densely inhabited, but, at the same time, on a more human scale. They see living neighbourhoods in which the arts, public services and commerce are integrated; neighbourhoods with corner stores and boutique manufacturing sites, centres of arts, culture and community, schools and university annexes, health centres and recycling depots. Criss-crossing this city of the future, they see walkways, bicycle paths, automated vehicle corridors and electrified public transportation. Underlying it are grey water recovery systems and cisterns. This much quieter urban space invites birds to sing, coyotes to howl and the wind to rustle audibly through the leaves of trees.

Vancouver is a shoreline environment in which the intimacy of sea and strand is always present. The shapers of this intimacy envision regions of the shoreline becoming Indigenous managed marine parks with traditional buildings serving as centers of community-based, Indigenous education. They imagine the return of marshlands better equipped to absorb the impacts of more aggressive king tides and rising water tables, as well as inviting ell grass and ducks to return. They see wetlands effortlessly merging into canals lined by trees and gardens carrying rising sea levels into the city and off the shore and serving as, yet another, form of urban transportation and recreation. Indigenous knowledge guides re-wilding of planted environment. Desalination stations dot the shoreline.

This city of the future is not futuristic, but timeless, eschewing uniformity and embracing honky-tonk. Housing is widely varied with an emphasis on re-purposing existing structures, rather than tearing them down and re-using materials, rather than consigning them to the landfill. Building space is staggered rather linear. The latest trends in building resemble the Ottoman houses of Istanbul with brightly coloured front doors like in Dublin. Much of the space that was previously streets has become gardens lined with walkways and bicycle paths. Gardens are sources of local food security, as well as centres of social life with neighbours stopping by to admire one another’s crops. Street life is vibrant, public and witnessed by many eyes from children to the elderly. Each neighbourhood manages its own micro-grid with spaces in local parks allocated to wind and solar. Patches of brush and forest everywhere draw down carbon.

As the office culture of the past becomes obsolete and replaced by neighbourhood based shared working areas, skyscrapers and parking lots are transformed into vertical farming sites and food markets. Other downtown buildings become centres of an increasingly localized production of dry goods, hardware and medicines. As more and more downtown buildings are disassembled, parking lot markets expand into plazas. Increasingly, the atmosphere of these downtown plazas become more and more like the agoras of a city state.

A loosely linked set of neighbourhood-based Climate Response Centres drives the transformation of the built environment providing the adaptive vision, education and community development resources necessary for change on the scale demanded by the impacts of the climate crisis. These Centres are the hub of many different organizations with expertise and interests in climate change issues from advocates of cycling to practitioners of environmental law and, during climate emergencies, they become cooling centres and sources of refuge. Centre buildings exemplify carbon minimalism combining the best of sustainable design with intelligent recycling of materials. Recognizing that changes in the built environment accompany changes in the social and emotional worlds of people, Climate Response Centres include a range of programs that are designed to enhance resilience, wellness and community life.

These designers, in the mediums of wood, tile and steel, in fact, in the mediums of soil and sand, know that the transition to this new paradigm will be painful. Sometimes change is born of cruel necessity. They are aware that the impacts of the climate crisis will be disruptive and stressful and that solutions will entail breaking many of the current conventions that govern the lexicon of space, the design of buildings, the deployment of materials and the use of lands. But, it is clear that they have gifts to share, creative ideas in abundance and willingness to reshape the built environment in ways that fit a zero carbon future and a new time.

In the early days of his career, Arden Henley started a street based program for at-risk youth in Vancouver, BC. He designed and implemented two treatment centres for children, youth and their families and co-founded a Family Therapy Institute. At City University, Arden initiated a Masters of Counselling degree, now the largest program of its kind in western Canada, and served as Vice President. Widely published, Arden is a speaker and leader and holds a Doctorate in Education from Simon Fraser University. Currently he is the Executive Director of the Green Technology Education Centre (GTEC).