Lessons from a pandemic

Our biggest learning from COVID-19 is that we ought to regain the connect between nature and our built environment, says Anupama Mohanram

Humans are very much a part of nature and access to sunlight and fresh air is not only rejuvenating, both mentally and physically, but also promotes healing.

During the 1918 influenza pandemic, it was found that severely ill flu patients, who were nursed outdoors, recovered better than those who were treated indoors. A combination of natural light and greenery resulted in faster recoveries.

Considering this, it is imperative that our built environment provides us with opportunities to remain close to nature for our own health and wellbeing.

However, we have been destroying that very nature to create our cities and live in enclosed, man-made spaces. Biophilia, according to biologist E.O.Wilson, is ‘an innate and genetically determined affinity of human beings with the natural world’. This connection is essential not only for our health and wellbeing but also for our planet’s sustenance.

The big question, though, is whether this realisation will continue to stay within us even after this crisis is over. Only if it does will the future of urban design result in eco-friendly buildings that exist in harmony with our surroundings.

However, looking at the past, it would not be wrong to assume that it won’t be long before people go back to their fast-paced, frenzied design and construction practices. These systems, unfortunately, do not focus on users but on total built up area and cost.

If we were to ensure our building practices stay healthy, here’s what needs to be done:

Our building codes and regulations should focus on user health and wellbeing and not only on FSI / FAR, setbacks and building heights. Codes will have to mandate minimum requirements for natural light, ventilation and access to green spaces.

Natural and healthy building materials should be promoted. These, along with clean energy, rain water harvesting, waste water management and solid waste management will ensure our cities will last longer. In other words, all new buildings should comply with green building standards.

The building plan approval process should also mandate the owner to tend to his/her surrounding neighbourhood. Streetwise zoning codes should be initiated and enforced prior to awarding plan approvals, wherein each of us are also held responsible for our surrounding environment. For example, regulations should insist plot owners plant trees along their plot.

The study of environmentally-sensitive design practices should be brought in, and, in a much more vigorous manner in architecture colleges. Students need to understand the importance of designing built spaces in harmony with nature.

Most importantly we, as building professionals should continue to educate the public on the importance and need for eco-sensitive building design and construction, their benefits to human welfare and the planet’s health. This ongoing education should be mandatory, lest we forget today’s crisis and remember our lessons when the next crisis hits us.

The author is the founder of Green Evolution, a sustainable architecture firm

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