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Are we Ready to Build Back Better?


Following a year of lockdowns our thoughts about how we can Build Back Better will start to become a reality. How we go about this journey will determine the sustainability of our built environment in the future, making it essential for this to be a journey we all go on together.

When the phrase “Build Back Better” was first coined it was in relation to disaster recovery at the 2015 UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan. However, its broad definition means it can be applied to a multitude of different scenarios and a brief search on Twitter finds it being applied to many different issues.

In the built environment the Build Back Better hashtag, particularly at the start of the first lockdown, was being applied to a remit of things that could be improved upon in terms of the environment and peoples’ wellbeing, and many of them related to the drive to become carbon neutral. Thinking back to that first full lockdown almost the way we live changed  quickly and dramatically, and differing personal circumstances will have influenced how individuals coped during this time. Collectively, we didn’t have much time to prepare for the lockdown, and the rush to buy toilet paper shows that peoples’ actions weren’t always logical. Although, we did experience just how quickly we could adapt, and this was particularly the case with the immediate and widespread adoption of remote working practices. At the same time, our key workers more than stepped-up to the challenge and their commitment over such a long period of time is nothing short of exceptional. We also know that many businesses particularly those in the retail, hospitality and tourism sectors have, and still are, to varying extents struggling. With Covid 19 dominating our news feeds for over a year with stories covering what seemed to be every possible angle of the pandemic it has to be understandable that a degree of Covid fatigue has also set in. Although this shouldn’t be allowed to turn into complacency. The virus is still with us and it has taken at close to 130,000 lives in the UK, and other countries, such as India, are still desperately fighting the Pandemic.

In Wales, the pace of the vaccination programme is offering us real hope of a lasting return to a more normal way of life. However, that was the 2019 norm and as we head out of this lockdown will we be able to, or is it even desirable to go back to that way of life? The Build Back Better thinking I’ve encountered over the last year has, by and large, presented a vision of urban living that would look a little like this. You’d wake up in your carbon neutral home with its heat pump, PV panels and battery to provide heating and hot water. As a parent your remote and flexible working patterns would allow you to walk or cycle your children to school before you return to your blissfully quiet home to do a morning's work. At lunchtime to help stave off feelings of loneliness you’d cycle to the nearby cafe to meet with friends, then buy some groceries from the local store before returning home for an afternoon of work before picking up the children. Or you could well be living in one of the new city centre apartments that have been carefully designed to provide you with a good sized balcony where you start your day enjoying your breakfast before heading on foot to work. Your central location would also mean you take advantage of the shops, bars, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, and parks etc with no need to even own a car.

I fully acknowledge that I’ve diluted a lot thinking to present these simplified Build Back Better visions. I’m also very mindful that, for far too many people even being able to buy a pushbike is a luxury they simply can’t afford, whereas for others swapping a car centric lifestyle for pedal power may well be totally impractical or even undesirable.

Which raises what is possibly the most important consideration that should be central to our thinking about anything we do to Build Back Better: it is all about people. Changing the way we live, no matter how well intended, has the best chance of success if people have a desire to want the changes to happen.

Whilst its difficult to predict exactly how we will Build Back Better, progress is being made particularly around the retrofitting of housing association properties, and the adoption of modern methods of construction. Both instances present new business and employment opportunities as we transition towards a carbon neutral future.

Most significantly, we are seeing new build zero carbon homes being built, and considering these will be our “mainstream” housing in the near future their importance can’t be underestimated. Sero Homes are leading the way in bringing about this transformation and Managing Director James Williams explains how this new type of housing will help us to Build Back Better:

“This pandemic has taught us the value of the areas on our doorstep and the importance of places and spaces, housing development needs to go further in creating a more biodiverse, green space that encourages active travel. Our Parc Hadau project, which is due to start construction this year will show our vision for sustainable homes coupled with innovative technology that guarantees comfort to the resident. At Sero, we believe that our journey to Net Zero should be an improvement in every way we live, healthier, lower cost and lower Carbon.”

Ultimately, be it carbon neutral homes, increased pedestrianisation in town and city centres, modular homes, new ways of working, rewilding or sustainable transport infrastructures the best intentions to create the sustainable built environment of the future will be best realised by taking a citizen inclusive approach. This will ensure that people from all backgrounds are able to be a part of the Build Back Better journey we are embarking up.