Designing places for a changing climate

Architecture & Design Scotland, Scotland’s design agency, has been working with the Scottish Government’s Energy and Climate Change Directorate. Here, Heather Claridge, principal design officer at A&DS, writes about a pilot project to support local authorities to create more carbon-conscious places...

OVER the last decade, A&DS has collected intelligence on sustainable design. However, with the introduction of a target to be a net zero carbon society by 2045, we recognised we could both support and gain more understanding of the practical and creative ways places can help achieve this ambition.

With the support of the Energy and Climate Change Directorate and four local authorities, we spent around 18 months testing some approaches.

The Scottish Government is committed to a national, just transition to net-zero carbon emissions by 2045, and, to that end, we have been exploring what designing for a changing climate means for Scotland’s places, where we consider a ‘whole-place approach’ to the net-zero carbon challenge.

Our work was underpinned by a learning-by-doing approach, which included supporting four Scottish bodies – Shetland Islands Council, Moray Council, Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park and Glasgow City Council – to develop and implement spatial plans that prioritised de-carbonisation.

Along the way, we collected a series of blogs on topics as diverse as energy, food growing, brownfield sites re-use, mobility and behaviour change. 

These and other initiatives, including an online forum, led to the drawing up of eight principles of a ‘carbon-conscious place’.

These were: (1) A place-led approach; (2) a place of small distances; (3) a network of small-distance places; (4) a place designed for and with local people; (5) a place that re-uses, re-purposes and considers ‘whole-life’ costs; (6) a place with whole and ‘circular’ systems; (7) a place that supports sharing; and (8) a place designed in time.

These principles are, of course, inter-connected, but should not be considered definitive; instead, they outline important concepts to consider when shaping places.

A place-led approach involves understanding, appreciating and working with the existing assets of a place, its landscape and identity. This is partly summarised up by the well-known Place Standard Tool, which allows people to consider the existing social and physical resources of a place, and to potentially explore how they can form the basis of any changes.

A place of small distances, meanwhile, seeks to encourage the creation of complete and self-sufficient neighbourhoods, where everyday facilities and services are within a short walking or cycling distance. The concept is being developed in Paris, France, and its ’15-minute city’ ambitions, and also in Melbourne, Australia.

Moving on, a network of small distance places involves connecting complete neighbourhoods to provide a matrix of places that support greater self-sufficiency and low-carbon living – ultimately enabling people to live, work and play without generating unnecessary carbon emissions. The Borders Railway is an example of this in action, encouraging a significant shift from car use to public transport, estimated at 35,000 single car trips per year.

Places designed for and with local people involves putting people’s needs at the centre of design-making, ensuring people are actively involved in key stages of the design process. A prime example is Deveron Projects – in Huntly, Aberdeenshire – where artists, places and communities are connected through creative research and engagement.

A place that re-uses, re-purposes and considers ‘whole-life’ costs champions the retro-fitting of existing structures and the development of brownfield sites first, giving consideration to the embodied carbon already in place. This principle involves viewing structures during their entire lifetime as ‘material banks’, with components that are de-mountable, re-buildable and re-usable. The innovative retro-fitting of high-rise flats in Woodside, Glasgow, by Collective Architecture and Queens Cross Housing Association, qualifies as a good example of this principle in action. 

A place with whole and ‘circular’ systems involves enhancing, repairing and joining up different systems which support a healthy, carbon-conscious place. For inspiration, see Sheffield’s Grey to Green project, which, by using wild flowers, trees and shrubs, seeks to introduce colour into the city centre, turning once dull streets into vibrant public spaces. Drainage, habitat and active travel networks are combined to deliver wider climate, social and economic benefits.

The Edinburgh Tool Library is a good example of our seventh principle: a place that supports sharing. The library is about the sharing of assets and skills, not just to promote low-carbon living but also to help connect people to their neighbourhoods. From the micro to the macro, sharing can include not just tools, but bikes, electric vehicles, accommodation and education facilities.

And finally, our eighth principle. A place designed in time considers place planning and delivery in various timeframes, from long-term visions to short-term test projects. The Glasgow Canal Project is an amalgam of long-term vision and short-term, so-called ‘meanwhile’ use of places to grow the community over time.

Applying these principles to a typical neighbourhood could include many of the following: (1) Street trees, to enhance the streetscape, while providing shade, shelter and a home for nature and also, carbon absorption; (2) substantially renovated homes, providing energy-efficiency and healthy indoor air quality; (3) refurbishment of any tenement blocks, to offer inter-generational living and space for local services to operate and people to work; (4) the installation of ‘rain gardens’ in streets, to not just ‘green’ the streetscape, but also slow and clean the water going into drainage systems; (5) vehicle access to be limited to zero-emission cars, buses, taxis, etc, plus emergency and cleansing services and for people with mobility issues; and (6) re-purposed garage and ‘back court’ spaces, to provide workshops for local residents and creative enterprises.

Meanwhile, in a city centre context, many of the neighbourhood possibilities also apply, such as enhancing the streetscape (perhaps now pedestrianised) with trees and rain gardens and limiting vehicular access (while encouraging zero-emissions public transport). And the facades and roofs of buildings can be turned into ‘green walls’ and ‘green roofs’, to assist with urban cooling and carbon absorption. Building facades and roofs can additionally be put to work, for on-site electricity generation. 

In a town setting, it is possible to imagine increased food resilience, redundant roads being used for active travel, and natural flood defences, if required.

In a rural setting, there are possibilities for community-owned wind turbines, the restoration of peatland and woodland, and eco-friendly affordable housing.

Our work continues – with support from the Scottish Government – and Architecture & Design Scotland is at the service of local authorities and other bodies, to put it into practice.

Heather Claridge is a principal design officer at Architecture & Design Scotland. She led the pilot project on ‘Designing for a changing climate – carbon-conscious places’ (here). View an accompanying A+DS video, here, and news story (here).

Image credit: A&DS/Richard Carman