The Pandemic Awakening: FAQ with an Environmentalist

Pandemic Awakening: A series of reflections on how COVID-19 will impact the design of cultural places and beautiful spaces.

Sizemore Group CEO Bill de St. Aubin recently hosted a panel discussion that gathered an epidemiologist, environmentalist and economist to discuss the “pandemic awakening” that has occurred across the three sectors since the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 caused most of the world to shut down.

The webinar was sponsored by Sizemore Group and presented by the Atlanta chapter of Lambda Alpha International, a land economics honor society.

In this FAQ, we compiled the responses of panelist Brad Bass, PhD, an environmentalist and status professor with the University of Toronto, to questions posed by Bill about how the pandemic has affected the environment.*

During the global shutdown, are we seeing any impact on the global environment?

We’re in the midst of a grand experiment like we’ve never seen before. We’ve seen some gains in the environment, but they’re not as dramatic as we thought.

First, we’ve seen a change in water quality. We know that the virus survives in water; it’s found in wastewater. This teaches us that perhaps there was an early warning signal that we missed that can be used in future pandemics.

Second, pollution. If you go to cities, you’ll notice the quiet. The amount of noise pollution has decreased. You’ll also see less garbage because fewer people are using the spaces.

Third, energy usage. We’re using less energy than we did before in many sectors.

Fourth, air quality has been the most obvious positive change. We’ve seen improvements in air quality across the world.

People want to make assertions about climate change. But we must consider whether we have seen a drop in greenhouse gas emissions? We haven’t. We’ve decreased vehicle usage, but that only accounts for one third of greenhouse gas emissions. Two thirds of emissions are still coming from somewhere else.

We’ve seen a decrease in automobiles, but what was left on the road are the heavier polluters: the trucks driving with diesel. We still need the truck transportation because we want our Amazon deliveries the next day. That takes energy.

Brad Bass, PhD, an environmentalist and status professor with the University of Toronto

What environmental lessons can we take away from the global shutdown?

We’ve discovered that we can make a dramatic change in behavior quickly. We can live with less private transportation. We can work from home.

When we start to move on issues that say, “People will never do that,” we can now say, “No, we’ve seen people make remarkable change and do it over a weekend.”

Have there been different environmental effects across geographic areas?

There’s been a rural/urban divide. As densities get higher, there’s a higher risk of getting infected. In Toronto, diversity was also an indicator. In fact, the rate of infection in the most diverse neighborhood was three times higher than the least diverse neighborhood. Diversity may provide another indicator on potential transmission rates along with the density of a city.

In the US, the largest area of decline in ozones was in the middle of California: LA and Santa Barbara. Pittsburgh, Houston had similar declines. The biggest surprise was not seeing a measurable decline in ozone in the NYC area.

What can we modify to put us in a better position moving forward?

We can look at our approach to work and redesign it.

Densification is still a good idea in urban areas. We’ve seen a short-term change keeping people away from dense cities. But most people who previously enjoyed trips into the city or living in those areas will still be willing to embrace urban density. They may want it done differently–designs that allow them to not be so close to everyone. But they still want to be in denser urban areas because they’re more exciting.

We have to rethink public transportation. After the pandemic, how are people going to move? We need to restore public trust in public transit so that everybody doesn’t get back in their cars.

There could be a movement to more green roofs. We may see a larger demand for factories and warehouses because of supply chain issues. Adding green roofs to factories and warehouses can have a tremendous impact on the environment. Why not make green roofs a design feature of factories and warehouses and take advantage of the environmental and social benefits?

Do you think there will be a long-term impact on the design of environments because of the pandemic?

If I knew this pandemic was going to occur only every 100 years, I would say invest in density. But I don’t know how long this will last and what people’s long-term reaction will be to it.

In parts of the world that have reopened safely, they have embraced density because they’re already built that way. But we need to rethink a new model that embraces what we liked about density but keeps ourselves safe in case we’re faced with this again in our lifetime.

 

*The opinions reflected in this article are those of the author and do not represent the organizations for which they are employed.