The built environment – why a more holistic view is essential

The built environment is traditionally defined as what we, people, have constructed to live, work, move around and get access to a broad range of services we need: from water, electricity, and, increasingly, means of communication and connectivity, to entertainment, relaxation, and care.

In our binary world, we often distinguish the built environment or the human-made environment from the natural environment and proud ourselves over what we have made within environments, both human-made and natural.

The built environment is typically the study domain of several sciences and, in recent years, has become mainly debated in the scope of some of the significant challenges of our time: aging and growing populations, urbanization, climate change and pollution, natural resources and more, with local and cultural differences across the globe.

These broader challenges come on top of questions regarding several aspects of what living means, across our lifespan. Living as in, for example, being educated as children, treated as patients, heard as citizens, empowered as workers, respected and included as we get older or become disabled, being protected, the list is long. Last but not least, there is also our duty to think about the lives of those coming after us, the repercussions of our actions for their future, and how that – uncertain – future forces us to rethink the built environment as we start to learn from the crisis we go through.

Built environment concept future city

The built environment in motion – revisiting priorities

The current crisis indeed doesn’t just have a direct and indirect human toll and consequences for society and the economy (and thus people). It is also a stress test for our built environment and how we look at it.

It will have a definite impact on how we construct buildings, organize cities/communities, look at work (no, not all will be digital and automated), organize care, move around, etc. More importantly, it will force us to question all assumptions on what it means to really put people first as tensions between different priorities will arise. Yet, perhaps most importantly, it will require an even more holistic approach.

The future of the built environment has been studied from ever more angles. The views became more integral as the impact of future challenges became apparent.

There was, for instance, increasing attention for the Internet of Things (IoT) as a way to connect the dots of our built environment. We started talking about smart cities, smart buildings, and the digital transformation of how we live and work overall. Sustainable construction and the circular economy started garnering more attention. And the realization of sustainable development goals popped up in built environment discussions and projects across the globe.

While at the same time trying to be more respectful of the natural environment, we still have an anthropocentric view in which we try to ‘beat’ nature in areas where natural events endanger us. The other way around, we also still use resources and build infrastructure that threatens ‘nature’ in the broadest sense. The challenges are far from over, and it is to be seen what the impact of the pandemic will be.

Thus far, the built environment has been mainly the domain of some interdisciplinary fields and sciences, as mentioned. It has also been the domain of some industries. And last but not least, we looked at it from the perspective of what we have built and build: buildings, homes, parks, roads, ports, critical infrastructure; the list is long.

The European Council for Construction Research, Development, and Innovation once summarized some of the aspects of our lives and society in 2050 as ‘greener, healthier, smarter, faster, accessible, and inclusive; while staying affordable.’

The priorities might shift, and to realize these built environment goals, we might need more than the involved stakeholders thus far, now that we’re starting to see how essential everything we construct and decide truly is, how essential preparedness and resilience are, and how connected everything and everyone really is – in all senses.

A connected built environment – adding stakeholders as the stakes increase

That’s why we feel that the time has come to broaden an already relatively holistic approach regarding the built environment and look at it from an even broader perspective.

The current crisis has laid bare what we didn’t build as we should have, what systems need to be revisited, and where conflicting interests between communities and industries, various countries, population groups, and more will leave a lasting societal impact.

While there are many fields where digitization and digitalization will accelerate in a built environment scope, there are others where we’ll see more attention for the purely human dimension. Short-term priorities will prove to conflict with longer-term goals. And it will take a lot of work and more collaboration and voices to rethink the built environment we need and can have.

The problem with the future is that it’s not here yet, and we tend to predict it based on our world views, ideals, and what we know from the past. Asking questions and why we do something will, however, be more important than ever in looking at our built environment as a whole and what each participant does in that equation.

Without attention to the long-term impact of our built environment on people’s health, well-being, and fundamental freedoms, it won’t work. Many will, for instance, remember how it was to live in a world where older people couldn’t be adequately be taken care of, some infrastructure was not available when it had to be, and how it was to live in a city where there was close to no more pollution in times healthy lungs made a big difference.

A connected built environment becomes more critical than ever. And connected in this instance doesn’t (just) refer to anything digital; it first and foremost refers to more disciplines and stakeholders looking at how we want to live and how we ensure future generations learn from our mistakes. Or, as said before: how connected everything truly is.

Unfortunately, it took a pandemic to value the healing power of a stroll, the importance of a bench in a park, and the importance of the people taking care of our built environment and everyone living in it. Let’s not forget that as we learn, think, and build with the future in mind, regardless of short-term priorities.