In Spain the architecture sector is working intensely towards A Green New Deal for Cities

Architects and Climate Change

Madeline Carey
2. April 2020
Ángela Baldellou, at right and on screen (Photo courtesy of Consejo Superior de los Colegios de Arquitectos de España)

World-Architects recently corresponded with Ángela Baldellou, who runs Observatorio 2030, a group created by the Council of Spanish Architects that brings together professionals and experts from various disciplines related to construction and urban planning in order to debate ways of complying with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

I met Ángela in February when the Council of Spanish Architects invited me to Valencia to participate in a roundtable about the Green New Deal for Cities. The debate, while lively, was much too short, so Ángela and I made plans to continue our conversation via email, even before the entire country was sent into lockdown and so many of us began working remotely. Much of our discussion about climate change now reads as if we were talking about the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, some of Ángela’s statements are almost eerie given our new reality. Perhaps some of the lessons learned and changes needed are the same. Ángela Baldellou urged the international community to react quickly to climate change, though now we have another collective challenge and the clock is ticking. Edited outtakes of our email interview follow.

When was Observatorio 2030 created? And why did the Council deem it to be so fundamental, right now, here in Spain?

We kicked off officially in 2018. There was an earlier project that we’d been working on that identified the need to get different agents involved — people from the architecture, building, and construction sector — in order to work together on specific issues. But we didn’t have a frame of reference or a clear structure, so being able to identify shared goals and build a certain consensus around them, well that was key.  Observatorio came about because the lack of sectoral unity was clear and we took the opportunity to create something. The  Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development served as a hypothesis for the future around which we were able to structure programs that shared a commitment to society at large. Agenda 2030 was also the perfect excuse for us to create a foundation for our profound belief in transversality and the need for what we call a holistic vision.

Since then Observatorio has become a cross-sector meeting place precisely because we’ve managed to bring different actors together. So we have people working together and are assuming, for the first time, a new collaborative scenario that is fundamental for a social paradigm that is, at least, under review.

Such a paradigm means new economic, managerial and manufacturing models that call for more flexibility, more inclusive practices, and higher social impact. It also means that we have to be sustainable. In that sense Observatorio is fundamental because we approach issues related to cities head on. We work in a dynamic way, keeping these premises in mind, because we assume that it’s in these cities and territories — in urban environments — as a constructed reflection of human identity, where health, technology, quality, sustainability, social justice, culture, resource management, and all the changes and inherent challenges converge and connect. We’re working intensely with the hope of improving cities and built environments collectively. 

Right now over 120 entities participate in Observatorio: ministries, state agencies and institutes, municipalities, industry leaders, real estate developers and builders, labor unions, businesses, business associations, universities, etc. It’s brand new. It’s been a lot of work, but the result is here. Our website is yet another reflection of our evolution. It’s an active site, where we share knowledge, generate strategic alliances, and launch projects. Online we also promote institutional sustainability working from a holistic and transversal vision of the sector, with generosity and in constant collaboration.

Suggesting a Green New Deal for Cities is a fairly political affirmation. What I mean is that A Green New Deal is no laughing matter — it involves a huge investment of time and money, and transversal legislation across the board. Architecture also has a political component, would you agree? What role will architects play in planning the future? And what role do they have what it comes to informing or even “pressuring” politicians to build and plan better?

Of course proposing a Green New Deal for Cities is a challenge! But Observatorio was born out of the need to tackle these challenges, and we’re able to do so precisely, at all levels, because our structure inherently includes all the transversal actors I already mentioned.  The other key factor in working towards a Green New Deal is cooperation between the private and public sectors. It’s absolutely essential and we have no other choice than to step out of our comfort zones and include other points of view. Working together is the only way we’ll be able to offer viable solutions that society is calling for. We have to be ready. 

Does architecture have a political component? It probably does, even more so than we imagine, not only because architecture falls under public policy (city planning, housing codes, etc.), but because there is a political component that’s intrinsic to the form. Architectural form instills respect and emotion, induces movement and gazes, and historically it has been used to influence and generate reaction. Urban planning responds to cultural factors that reflect certain social structures, so architecture, via urbanism, and often almost subconsciously, influences us, guides us. We’re so used to moving in and through architecture, through urban environments, that we’re not able to discern its enormous, vital impact our on our daily habits, our everyday lives, our decisions. 

As architects, we are one of many professions that should be involved in the transformation of cities; perhaps it is a profession of special relevance due to our ability to structure and arrange factors that affect how humans interact. But we must work with engineers, with economists, with surveyors, with lawyers, with doctors, with sociologists, and we do that at Observatorio. We don’t want to shy away from the challenge, but we are aware that it implies a great responsibility that we are also willing to transfer to politicians — to help us and to help them too.

Spain has excellent examples of urban planning — some projects that are truly first-rate and pioneering — but the country has huge challenges to face in terms of environmental policy. Could you tell us what you see as the two or three greatest challenges in Spain over the next few years? The things you see as complicated and yet essential?

I’d point out two important issues. On the one hand we have the change in the sector’s model. The sector has to modernize, become more professional, more industrialized, adapt our means of production to a circular economy, become more sustainable. That implies a restructuring, a reset. The Green New Deal for Europe is going to force us to be more sustainable and competitive, to adapt to the new rules, regulations, and new ways of working. Architecture, as a sector, has to go through a transition in order to survive. But we have to see this as a chance to prepare and reinvent ourselves with new professional profiles, new products, innovation in terms of materials, better processes, systems, ways of managing. 

On the other hand we’ve got to take into account flexibility and the homogenization of planning codes. Urban planning has to adapt to the new needs of the population, to changes in labor, mobility, accessibility, conservation and energy reconversion. Health has to become a pillar of planning because it affects quality of life in such a direct way. We also have to incorporate public-private cooperation in housing policy in order to meet demand — and do all this with strategic and long-term vision. What we need is a National Agreement that safeguards our heritage and the quality of the built environment as guarantor of our identity and values, without renouncing inclusiveness and innovation. A tall order!

Do we still have time? Some experts say we’ve already lost the battle in terms of global warming, that the damage is done. You strike me as a very proactive, extraordinarily optimistic person. Could you argue, from a positive perspective, for the role architects play in the environmental terrain?

Although, you’re right and I am a very positive person, I’ll put on my serious face in this case because I’m worried. I don’t think we’ve lost the battle yet, but it’s true that we don’t have much time.  The complexity of applying the measures needed to effectively reduce carbon emissions will mean huge changes in consumption and production. We have to take into account change in very diverse scenarios and circumstances — simultaneously but on different scales. 

The brutal asymmetry to which the world population is exposed — with shameful rates of social inequality and access to resources, on top of exponential demographic growth — place the planet at its limits. The environmental fight is now a crusade, a mission in which the solidarity of the West, more than ever, must be exemplary, because there are places where access to food and water isn’t guaranteed. The cost of acting is enormous but what would not acting cost us? 

What I mean is we still have time if we cast away prejudices, change our mindset and really accept the seriousness of the situation. A Green New Deal for Europe won’t be enough, we need a Global Deal that entails major sacrifice and great leaders; the survival of humanity is at stake.   

I think the profession of architect is in and of itself proactive because we’re trained to work “from” the project. The project is an open phase: a dynamic, flexible, adaptable space, and I think that makes us propositive. We’re at war with our own way of life, which has taken our planet to the absolute limit. Still, we haven’t come up with a new mode of operation; we’re in transition towards a place still undefined. 

We must "rebuild" certain principles, "unlearn" others, and learn to coexist not only among ourselves in a fairer way, but also, with the planet, that up until now we have only lived upon. Architects have to propose, imagine, innovate, and collaborate in this project phase of a new, undefined, future. It is the greatest challenge we face. It’s the project of our lives!

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