During Covid-19, there has been lots of noise on social media about what the new normal will look like when this is over and there appears to be a growing agreement that things should change and that the current situation may provide the perfect opportunity to do that…What then does the new normal look like? Will things change? Should they? Could they? Here are some thoughts…

Our way of life has not been ‘sustainable’ for some time so it would make sense that we do try and reset it in some way but how do we do that?

1. The climate and biodiversity crises have not gone away and the top priority agenda items (health, mental wellbeing, environmental quality, nature and access to it, education / learning / reflection) are all linked up. The COVID response shows governments, businesses and communities can work to a common purpose and change how they do things and quickly…let’s build on this momentum and create a new normal…nothing is impossible.

2. More caring and empathetic society. Companies becoming more humane and in that sense more personal with more meaningful relationships. More businesses helping in their local communities and greater connectivity between businesses and local communities.

3. Stop unnecessary travel and travel differently. The current situation has shown that digital methods work and that a lot of work can be done from anywhere and doesn’t require a flight across the country for a 2 hour meeting. Of course, people will always need human interaction and business thrives on it but perhaps we can reduce travel to a point that we can still have this but not at the cost of the environment - live within our means perhaps?

A great example of swift and proactive change has come from Milan, the city has announced that 35km (22 miles) of streets will be transformed over the summer, with a rapid, experimental citywide expansion of cycling and walking space to protect residents as Covid-19 restrictions are lifted. The Strade Aperte plan includes low-cost temporary cycle lanes, new and widened pavements, 30kph (20mph) speed limits, and pedestrian and cyclist priority streets. As the Milan Mayor correctly states It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take a fresh look at your streets and make sure that they are set to achieve the outcomes that we want to achieve: not just moving cars as fast as possible from point A to point B, but making it possible for everyone to get around safely”. Scotland has also announced £10million to support pop up active travel infrastructure….the question is does it need to be temporary?

4. Do we need offices that have seats for everyone? Perhaps ‘having a desk’ will be a thing of the past….imagine large meetings rooms, creative breakout spaces and hot desk areas or spaces for working that maybe only cater for up-to 50% of people based in the office. Surely this would encourage less silo working and more collaboration…no bad thing. Commercial spaces could be repurposed for flexible expansions, pop up offices/shops/art…this will in turn affect our transport requirements and could change how we live in our cities…again no bad thing.

5. Refocus our obsession with GDP and growth. Growth in itself as a concept is challengeable (controversial) – in a world with limits to resources and absorptive capacity – can we realistically continue with GDP growth and seriously live within the means of the planet?

The pandemic has also shown that oil and money is useless if we don’t have our health and our health is directly linked to our environment. We need to protect and restore the world around us so that it in turn can protect us. The health and related value (£) of our environment will have to become a greater focus and something that could influence national and strategic development strategies. Restore and protect rather than remove and compensate.

6. Recognise the importance of our local environment. People’s worlds have instantly shrunk to their local areas and this further emphasises the importance of ensuring that we design, build and maintain residential areas that provide conveniences that are within walking distance, quality green open space, inspiring design and appropriate active travel facilities that link to economic and cultural areas, improve mobility, provide low-cost exercise options and ensure sustainable travel is the easiest option. The current situation will make people spend more time in their local area and may in the future influence people when choosing where to live based upon proximity to services and employment without requiring the private car and this, in turn, could drive changes in what is provided by the private and public sector housing market, promoting better connected areas. This will take time and we will only really see the benefits of this over longer time but in the shorter term, perhaps the focus should be enhancing our existing communities across the urban framework and ensuring that they are better connected.

We must look after everyone’s wellbeing and for Sweco this perhaps means continuing to do our work to not only design communities of the future but also to work with councils and developers to help improve the communities of the present.

7. Consideration of health – prevention not cure? Considering health in development has been growing in importance over the last couple of years but you can imagine it will be front and centre of any decision going forward… Re-focusing from growth to wellbeing – concepts already being discussed by more progressive governments (inc Scotland, NZ, Iceland – notably all with female premiers) now rise up the agenda. Focus instead on global health, rebalancing economies, wealth distribution, fairer taxes, natural capital approaches … and a system underpin by principles around public money for public goods, polluter pays and committed to ensuring welfare for all.

The striking thing here is that these are all large issues to overcome but are completely integrated – this is what sustainable development is meant to be about and it is not rocket science, it just needs political will and everyone to be on board to ensure change. To make this happen we need appropriate (top down) central governmental, institutional and fiscal responses and re-direction – with (bottom up) grass roots/community and NGO responses and maybe (in the middle) enlightened business, science led policy making and local / city governments working together to make it happen (as so many are already on climate even in countries with a Federal denial of the issue).

It is time for change and the time is now.

Please note: the views expressed in this blog are those of the individual contributing member, and are not necessarily representative of the views of IEMA or any professional institutions with which IEMA is associated.

Photo of IMG 2359
Rebecca McLean

Sustainability Director for their Energy, Water and Environment Division

Rebecca is a EIA Technical Director in Sweco and has over 17 years’ experience. Rebecca has technical and specialist skills in the areas of environmental impact, environmental innovation and digital reporting. Rebecca is also a trained air quality consultant. Rebecca is passionate about influencing design for positive environmental and social change and about making a difference.


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