Skip to main content
Search
Working Better Podcast

Episode 5

Working Better Podcast Series

How are Cities being Reimagined?

In 19th century London, “The Great Stink” inspired a new breakthrough in civil engineering. Will the COVID-era have a similar impact? We explore how scientists, architects and innovators are approaching the many challenges our cities face. How do we make our cities more sustainable? How can we understand the disproportionate impact of climate change? How can we transform the infrastructure of our cities to more effectively prevent and contain disease? We dive into these questions and more in this week’s episode!

 

You can listen and subscribe to Working Better in your favorite app Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts.

Featuring:

  • Jeremy Hoffman - Chief Scientist, Science Museum of Virginia
  • Chris Weiland - Director of Kin + Carta Americas Labs, Technical Director, Office of the CTO, Kin + Carta

Show Notes

(00:00)The Great Sink

The River Thames, a blue vein running through England and emptying into the North Sea, cuts through London in a magnificent marriage of metropolis and mother nature. 

Back in the mid 19th century, the river was the convenient dumping ground for just about anything; slaughterhouse outfall, industrial refuse and, most notably, human waste.

In July 1858, a summer heat wave in London reached a pinnacle. The heat exacerbated the already pungent smell, and day after day the slow cook of the River Thames perfumed London with an odor that would make a day three porta potty at Coachella seem like a sophisticated powder room. The stench was so bad, it permeated history as the most epic of all smells: The Great Stink. 

But it wasn’t just a nuisance….it was deadly. Londoners had begun to connect the dots of polluted water like this and Cholera epidemics that had plagued the city three times in the last two decades. Smelly River Thames almost caused parliament to move to Oxford. In one incident, the Queen opted out of a boat ride on the river out of sheer repulsion.

So what did the people in power in London do? They fixed the problem. Proposals to address the problem had come and gone over the years, failing to secure the necessary funding. But the Great Stink changed everything. The problem became inescapable, and the pressure was enough for parliament to take action. A massive, decade-long project of remarkable civil engineering revolutionized waste management, giving way to London’s sewer system as we know it.

This week, we asked ourselves: how are today’s cities being reimagined? 

As the threat of climate change continues to reveal itself, what does it mean for cities to be truly “sustainable”? What does human-centered design really mean, and how far are our cities from actually reflecting those ideas? Is the COVID-19 pandemic the thing that will spark new urgent changes to cities? Is this our Great Stink? 

My name is Scott Hermes. This is Working Better. 

(02:15)A New Urban Era

Now pretend 50 years from today, a podcast, or virtual experience, or matrix-type information upload exists. Let’s call it “Better Working.” And some mildly amusing, but also somewhat knowledgeable podcasters are telling you about how cities used to be in 2020. It might sound something like: 

“The covid pandemic suddenly forced an unprecedented volume of adults working from home and children learning from home, requiring a reliance on virtual network infrastructure that previously hadn’t been necessary.”

Or how about: 

Believe it or not, cities used to be called “concrete jungles” because of their lack of green space. Miles of urban areas without a tree, park, or rooftop garden.”

Or maybe: 

“1001101010101011100100010011010101010111001000”

Personally, that last one can’t come soon enough.

By 2050, the human population will likely be north of 9 billion with 68% living in cities, according to a recent UN estimate. The question of global sustainability shifts from responsible to essential. So what will spur us into action? What’s creating a new sense of urgency about improving the cities we live in? 

(03:37)Urban Heat Islands

“I think for many things, nobody cares until it's knocking on their front door, for virtually everything. - Dr. Jeremy Hoffman, Chief Scientist - Science Museum of Virginia

Dr. Jeremy Hoffman is the Chief Scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia & College and a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. On his website, Jeremy is described as “a data-driven Earth scientist connecting people to our planet.” His work has been published in outlets including the New York Times, National Geographic, NPR, and more.

Climate scientists have a well-documented historical struggle getting the general public to grasp the immediacy of climate change. A great deal of Jeremy’s recent work has been centered around an issue that he hopes can help make that leap - from theoretical to very tangible. It’s called the “Urban Heat Island Effect.” 

Jeremy explains, “The urban heat island effect basically is explained by the dominance of those human built environments in our urban areas that, because of their color and their density and the material that they're made out of, they actually absorb more of the sun's energy throughout the day and then reemit it back into the air as heat throughout the afternoon and into the evening.”

Urban heat islands are formed by things like giant asphalt parking lots or black metal buildings that attract more of the sun’s energy. Compare those areas to neighborhoods with substantial greenspace - tree lined streets, parks, even rooftop gardens - and the difference in temperature can be drastic. Neighborhoods even just 2-3 miles apart can be 10, 15, 20 degrees warmer at the same minute of the same day, simply because of how the neighborhood was designed. 

It’s like wearing a black baseball hat at a Cubs’ game in a July heatwave. But instead of the hat being made of cotton, it’s made of aluminum. And instead of a hot dog, you’re holding a small space heater against your face. In one talk, Jeremy described these types of heat as “the days where it feels like you’re walking around in someone else’s mouth.” Delightful.

 

There's no silver bullet, it's a silver buckshot.

Dr. Jeremy Hoffman - Chief Scientist–Science Museum of Virginia

(05:28)An Overlooked Hazard

This type of heat isn’t just sweat-through-your-shirt uncomfortable, it can be extraordinarily dangerous.

“The thing that surprised me the most when I started learning about extreme heat was just how deadly it was. “ Jeremy says, “In the fact that it's the deadliest weather related hazard in the last few decades in America. Even more so than the really charismatic storms like hurricanes and tornadoes and floods, because you hear about those things on the news, but you don't hear about this silent killer, realistically speaking, that heat is.”

Climate science clearly shows that we should expect heat waves like this to occur more frequently. Which means those areas, those “heat islands - the parking lots, the giant paved areas - get hit the hardest...causing all sorts of dangers for people that live there, often beyond the obvious things like heat strokes. 

“Heat also exacerbates virtually all other underlying conditions that someone could have. Most acutely, that the ones that are about respiratory systems. So people with asthma, COPD, any sort of respiratory illness, it has that airflow system, their lungs and everything that are further constricted by hot humid temperatures,” Jeremy says. 

Disproportionate Impact

What neighborhoods are more likely to have more paved surfaces and less trees and green spaces? Lower income neighborhoods, often the predominantly black neighborhoods divested since the redlining practices in the US during the 1930s and 40s.

“Some of our research and a lot of research going on around the idea of redlining or the historical practice of basically denying wholesale entire communities of people based on the color of their skin, their access to financial resources."

"I think that's really the craziest thing for, I think, some people that might be hearing about this for the first time, is the idea that your zip code does a lot more to tell me how long you're going to live than a lot of other aspects of your lifestyle. What zip code you grew up in, or where you live right now, tells me more about your life expectancy than virtually a lot of other parts of your lifestyle. That is crazy.

In lower income neighborhoods, residents are more likely to rely on public transportation, more likely to not have air conditioning, and more likely to suffer from existing health conditions that Jeremy described earlier. So as heat waves happen more often, those heat islands reach dangerous temperatures, affecting people already without the means to adapt. 

Jeremy is from the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. In 1995, Chicago experienced an historic heat wave. Jeremy’s memory of that summer, even as a young kid, has become a useful reminder of how his privilege helped him avoid climate-related hazards.

“We had a yard party. We were so thrilled. It was like the hot weather was like, ‘All right. Excuse till I get out the barbecue and the slip and slide and the bomb pops and stuff.’ And across town, there were dozens and dozens of elderly black people just dying in their homes by themselves. And that realization that my privilege allowed me to have fun during that horrible incident." He explained.

"The book that was written about it, Heatwave by Eric Klinenberg, goes into the media portrayal of that situation, and the idea that when we talk about these weather related disasters, we don't dive into the precariousness of the situation before that disaster occurred. And so the fact that the heat wave was befalling predominantly black elderly communities in Southwestern and Western side of Chicago was not really widely talked about when the event was going on. “

The urban heat island effect is a great example of just how layered climate issues are. People are not all equipped to adapt in the same way. And when we look at design decisions - like neighborhoods with miles of asphalt and minimal tree cover - it’s clear that the deck has already been stacked against certain groups of people. As Jeremy says, “It really is this kind of Russian nesting dolls of climate resilience.”

 

Your zip code does a lot more to tell me how long you’re going to live than a lot of other aspects of your lifestyle.

Dr. Jeremy Hoffman - Chief Scientist–Science Museum of Virginia

(09:27)Sowing New Solutions

So what do solutions look like? The good news is, Jeremy says the data is telling such a clear story, that there’s plenty of things we could do NOW to help mitigate the impact of the urban heat island. As in today and tomorrow.

“Small scale interventions like bus stops, shade structures, or any sort of passive cooling system like that, shading pedestrian corridors, green alleyways. Those are sorts of things that take very little investment necessarily compared to some of the other bigger scale things.”

It’s all part of an effort Jeremy calls “Throwing Shade in RVA” - including work with an organization called Groundwork RVA that works with youth in Richmond, Virginia to take a hands-on approach to enhancing greenspace in the city.

“And then there's really the long-term 20 year horizon kinds of things like tree canopy planting campaigns here in Richmond, we're giving away 10,000 trees over the next few weeks. But realistically, to change our urban canopy percentage, we need 100 times that or more over the next few decades to really make an impact on our urban canopy. There's also then, on the flip side of planting new trees, is protecting the big ones. It turns out that we get a lot more bang for our buck, maintaining the largest and sturdiest and healthiest trees.”

I can see it now. Cities with downtown skyscrapers outlined in bushy green hats from the abundant rooftop gardens, sidewalks painted all different colors and bordered with native plants and trees, alleyways that serve as both community gathering spots and bike paths, large trees between street lights and midrises. And urban tree canopies and parks around every corner. That doesn’t sound too bad!

(11:20) Answers from Every Angle

Jeremy also talks about how even seemingly small design decisions make a tremendous difference: Like designing taller buildings on the southern side of streets that run.

East - West. The buildings cast more shade on the streets below, helping to cool streets during heat waves. In talking through the myriad of solutions to both climate change and specifically the urban heat island effect, Jeremy underscored that there will never be any single solution to these problems.

“There's no silver bullet, it's a silver buckshot.” - Dr. Jeremy Hoffman

He envisions a community oriented approach, one that gives people pride, ownership and opportunity in creating more green space in their communities.

“That feeling of stewardship and wanting to safeguard something. And if your voice and your communities' history is being reflected back by the placemaking that's going on, you're going to be more willing to take care of it and to really Marshall your community around it. It's really something that the urban planning community is really starting to come around to much more publicly than before.”

(12:25) COVID as a Catalyst

While it’s hard to call it a silver lining, Jeremy did say the pandemic does seem to have magnified the importance of parks and green spaces, even if immediately for more selfish “I have nowhere else to go” reasons.

“I'm thrilled that people are starting to see parks and open spaces and green spaces with a new, "We need this, I want this in my life. We need to, if I don't have that space in my living area, how do I move closer to a park?" said Jeremy,

"Why are parks really important? Well, they're virtually like a climate change sponge. They work to absorb stormwater. So it's not only heat that's getting more intense, but also if that rainiest rain events are becoming the add a couple more buckets of water to each rain event. And so parks can be used as an infrastructural investment for our sewer systems.

So it's this really fascinating thing when you start to see people kind of connect the dots between the park that they like and the history of their city and the future of their city, because of climate change. If parks can be where we're going to start having those conversations like, "Yes, I'm on board. It's about time. Let's get started. We got a lot of work to do."

(13:21) Designing for the Whole Human

When we think about “human-centered” design, the impact of urban design choices on our mental health is unavoidable. Of course designing for “sustainability” should be focused on our viability in the future - but let’s not ignore our sanity and overall wellness in the present. In short, nature keeps us sane and we shouldn’t get too far from it. 

“Today, cities are starting to use happiness framework to look at policies,  neighborhoods, and communities to create places to help us all flourish or thrive”.

Paulina is the former Executive Director of the San Diego Green Building Council and current program manager for c40 cities. Paula led a green alley project in Los Angeles, where the city was looking at converting 250 acres into green alleys. 

Paulina describes why, “In most cities, alleys are the most underutilized places. They lack lighting infrastructure, storm water or any paving infrastructure, and often serve as a perfect breeding ground for crime and environmental degradation.”

Through community workshops, interviews, and surveys, the city sourced ideas directly from citizens about how to reimagine alley spaces. Pairing those ideas with environmental research yielded extraordinary new ideas, many of which have been implemented in San Diego. Ideas included closing alleys completely to car traffic, creating permeable spaces that helped manage stormwater, creating spaces for kids to play safely, and adding native plants.

As Paulina explained, “The whole project covers 18 square miles, and touches upon 350,000 residents. It is designed to work as a network, and work in sync with bike lanes, sidewalks, and streets to create connectivity in the neighborhood, encourage people to walk or bike more, and get them out of their cars."

(15:14) Why Community Engagement is so Critical

Paulina emphasizes the absolute necessity of community involvement, and also that creativity is paramount to reimagining spaces that help us reach a greater sense of balance. “So close your eyes for a moment, take a deep breath in, and imagine taking your blissful morning yoga class, in a wastewater management treatment  facility.”

She shows her audience a picture of a few people doing yoga. The room has massive windows overlooking a green field, with a tree canopy in the horizon. Sunlight drenches the room and contrary to your expectation of a wastewater treatment facility, it’s the Pinterest perfect vision of zen.

This is a real place. The Omega Center for sustainable living in Rhinebeck, New York is a gorgeous facility that I would happily live at, host a luncheon at, take a yoga class at, renew my wedding vows. I would pay an admission fee to go here, and yet, again - it’s primary purpose is to process and clean the filthiest water a city has to offer.

Impressively, the facility treats water for 119 surrounding facilities from toilets, showers, and sinks. The building is surrounded with green space, and inside inspired by the natural environment. Paulina bridges environmental sustainability with the mental health benefits of facilities like this.

“The Omega center is a perfect example of a building that creates restorative value to both people inside as well as the earth.”

Paulina’s optimism for the future is best concluded, “We all shape our built environment, and return it shapes us. So let’s use that opportunity to create happier lives, in happier cities for everyone.” - Paulina Lis

Amen, Paulina.

We touch up to 30 objects a minute, and medicine has taught us that 80% of infectious diseases are transmitted by touch.

Michael Schmidt - Professor Microbiology and Immunology

(17:08) The Case for Copper

In 19th century London, Cholera catalyzed London towards new infrastructure. Disease dictated design. Will the COVID-19 pandemic have a similar impact? Yes, our apologies–we tried, but we couldn’t avoid talking about the leading candidate for 2020’s Biggest Stink. This episode of Working Better is being brought to you by COVID-19. COVID-19 - God’s way of showing you that you don’t really watch that much Netflix from now on.

Regardless of when we find a solution to this particular pandemic, the fact remains that contagious diseases will be the threat of the future. So are our living spaces suited for these future threats?

Michael Schmidt, a Professor of Microbiology and Immunology has been working for years to mitigate the risk of Hospital associated infections. His focus is the spread of harmful disease.“We touch up to 30 objects a minute, and medicine has taught us that 80% of the infectious diseases are transmitted by touch.” He explained

Just as an experiment, I tracked this randomly a couple times a day. In any given minute, I would touch my computer, cell phone, water cup, coffee mug, beard, beard braids, headphones, cellphone, peanut butter cookie, face, dog, keys, wedding ring, earring...belly button ring…

Professor Schmidt wasn’t exaggerating, throughout the day we are touching SO many things. While it really paints the picture of just how much every surface is a microbial cesspool, he quickly offers a possible solution to these highly transmittable surfaces, one that we’ve actually known for some time. As Professor Schmidt explains, “About 2600 B.C humans appreciated the fact that copper had these tremendous microbial properties would kill bacteria.”

(18:43) Copper in Healthcare

He has been advocating the use of Copper long before covid, particularly in hospital rooms. But now an antimicrobial surface would be beneficial in all public spaces, not just hospital rooms. Professor Schmidt explains that “When a bacterium or virus seems to land on this surface, it dies, simply because of the inherent quantum mechanical properties of the metal itself.”

In the past, his work in preventing more hospital associated infections inspired him to work with manufacturers to create copper handles, hospital bed railings, and fixtures. Small steps to help mitigate a lot of risk in spreading disease. A study in 2013 published in the journal Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, showed that using copper-alloy based surfaces reduced healthcare-acquired infections by 58%.

(19:31) Building for the Future

But the benefits of copper don’t stop at its antimicrobial properties, it also happens to be one of the most energy efficient, durable, corrosion resistant, ductile, electrical conducting, thermal conducting, and infinitely recyclable materials. It checks nearly every box. Now just to find more copper belly butt-I mean doorknobs.

Electric car manufacturing is embracing copper like never before. It’s a primary building material of new high speed train systems, and on full display in buildings like the Belvedere Palace in Vienna, The Berlin Cathedral Church in Germany, and even city hall buildings in American cities like Minneapolis and Austin, TX.

The bottom line–the extraordinary benefits of using copper aren’t new. But particularly as the public health benefits get a new spotlight in COVID era–could Copper be a favorite new tool of architects and innovators looking to make our cities better equipped for circumstances like these? Only time will tell.

(20:32) Summary

So how are cities being reimagined? Urban heat islands are being discovered, cooled and transformed into community-driven green spaces. Alleys and wastewater treatment facilities are becoming places of renewal and escape, and copper is presenting itself as an indispensable building block of the future.

Two things at the core of every one of these stories:

(20:53)Designing for Humans, by Humans

Community engagement and multi-disciplinary thinking are absolutely essential. In London, the Great Stink catalyzed one of the biggest breakthroughs in public health technology in human history, but it also took decades and a team of architects, designers, builders, and government leaders to complete. Without a doubt, solving today’s urban challenges will require the same type of collaboration.

(21:23) It all Starts with Data

We can’t fix what we don’t understand. And we can’t understand what we can’t measure.

Just about every business on the planet is looking for more of it. In the case of cities–how do we see the unseen? How can we collect the type of at-the-source data that Jeremy and his team drove around and measured manually to uncover heat islands? How can we get our roads, rooftops, sidewalks, and streetlights to talk back to us? Without microdosing on LSD.

We all shape our built environment and return it shapes us. So let’s use that opportunity to create happier lives, in happier cities for everyone

Paulina Lis - Project Manager–C40 Cities