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Interview with Angela Baldellou, Director of the Higher Council of the Spanish Architectural Colleges

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Angela Baldellou is a PhD Architect and journalist, specialised in strategic projects and sustainability, who manages the Observatory 2030 of the High Council of Spanish Architects. This is a cross-sectional workgroup from the building sector with a holistic, results-oriented vision bringing together central and local administration, the financial sector, civil society, industry, promoters, constructers, companies, universities, professional associations and technical institutes.

She also directs the first Masters in green economies and new business models in Spain. Here she talks to us about what the city of Madrid has learnt from the Covid-19 health crisis and which changes have to be made.

Madrid is a densely populated region where many people live and as such move around the city. How has the city adapted to this in the face of Covid-19?

The Madrid region’s local authorities are implementing measures to promote a safe return to work and to reduce overcrowding on public transport. These measures include the extension of bus and bicycle lanes, providing more public transport despite a decrease in demand, and implementing capacity control measures in the metro. In addition to these measures, the local and regional authorities have reached voluntary agreements with companies based on teleworking and flexible working hours. Companies have made an effort to adapt to flexible hours and allow people to organise their own time. I think the role of companies and the private sector is very important. 

During the first lockdown, everybody was in shock, and adaptation was difficult. The measures were very restrictive and people were naturally very concerned. Now we have learned to live with the pandemic and take some new habits. We follow the guidelines but with a sense of normality. People are conscious of the situation and are responsible.

Do you think the pandemic has forced us to become more aware of our environment? How do you think this will affect the way we interact with and build cities? What about social inclusion? 

The pandemic has undoubtedly revealed our vulnerability as a species. Addressing the climate crisis was already of critical importance and a matter of survival, but the transition was happening too slowly. Citizens weren’t able to see how the consequences of climate change could affect their life in a palpable way. The pandemic has accelerated such awareness, and issues which were around pre-Covid have become urgent. The Covid-19 emergency has had an accelerating effect and promoted a necessary debate on our way of life and on our way of inhabiting the planet and cities. We must rethink our built environment and make peace with the planet and regain balance. To achieve this, we need to involve citizens, reclaim the culture and identity of individual places, and put people at the centre of comprehensive urban policies that recover humanism. 

How are we doing? Is this kind of change happening?

When you plan a city, it’s on a 100 or even 200 years scale. Each decision has serious consequences and is the result of rigorous transversal debate, involving experts as architects, investigators, economists, sociologists and citizens. Decisions are very complex to make and we can’t simply follow trends. 

Angela Baldellou

Citizens are the ones who must demand that public authorities integrate health and sustainability into the design and planning of cities. This will then have a knock-on effect in improving the quality of life for people, and in the creation of more resilient environments.

Angela Baldellou
Architect and journalist
Spain

Madrid is one of the European cities working with EIT Climate-KIC, a community that work towards a zero-carbon, climate-resilient society. Why are such initiatives important for the city of Madrid? Is sustainability and concern for the environment likely to become more present in our cities as a result of the health crisis?

With the EU’s new target of reaching a 55% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared with 1990 levels, European cities are set to accelerate their transition towards carbon neutrality and climate resilience. The model of a healthy, clean city programme provided by EIT-Climate-KIC is helping a select group of 15 European cities, including Madrid, with this process. 

The collaboration with EIT-Climate-KIC will help Madrid to put in place a multi-actor engagement process to deepen and accelerate climate action plans and projects in the city. In addition, the business case for energy transition in Madrid, supported by EIT-Climate-KIC, has revealed that a reduction in carbonisation levels brings positive economic outcomes for the city due to energy savings, and operational and health improvements. For example, a report by Grantham Research Institute report  has shown that in China the economic cost related to the 1.23 million death caused by pollution amounted to 9.7-13.2 % of China’s GDP in 2010. For the US, the cost of 103,027 air pollution deaths was equivalent to 3.2 – 4.6% of its GDP and the UK’s 23,036 air pollution deaths cost the equivalent of 4.6-7.1 % of GDP. By actively engaging in schemes to reduce carbon emissions, the impact to the economy for all cities and countries would be substantial. 

After experiencing a few months of clean air, citizens may well be more aware of pollution. The investment in green infrastructure and initiatives could benefit this momentum. Environmentally positive behaviour or changes may arise from the crisis, and structural changes to travel could become permanent. Companies have successfully implemented remote working across the world, and they may choose to continue with this model.  

In 2015, the city of Madrid launched Decide Madrid, an online platform designed to engage citizens with decisions related to their city. How import is citizen participation in city construction and initiatives? 

Decide Madrid is a platform for citizen participation that already has approximately 400,000 users over the age of 16. It also has neighbourhood associations and, since this year, it has been open to participation from universities, professional associations, business organisations, and for certain specific processes. During the pandemic, it enabled the opening of online spaces such as Madrid Comes Out to the Balcony, where citizens could present different initiatives during the lockdown.  

What do you think the biggest changes will be to the city of Madrid as a result of recent events? 

This is the most important question! In Madrid, as in the rest of the capitals around the world, the biggest changes will result from the new habits imposed on us by the pandemic – especially consumer, work and mobility habits. 

Technology as a tool will be fundamental, and will affect other areas such as education and the responsible management of resources in cities. We want smart cities, but for smart citizens. Change will also be driven by citizens’ new awareness of the need to take care of the environment: both public and private spaces, their homes, our homes, our leisure and workspaces. Citizens are the ones who must demand that public authorities integrate health and sustainability into the design and planning of cities. This will then have a knock-on effect in improving the quality of life for people, and in the creation of more resilient environments. 

Could the pandemic have a lasting effect on how people perceive cities? 

I think the relation people have with cities has changed. During the pandemic, cities have been seen as aggressive, and people have often been looking for friendlier environments in the countryside. Until now, we have been living in a world that only promotes big cities, and I don’t think that is the best model for success. Now, we have an opportunity to reinvent and connect smaller towns with big cities in a new and more productive relationship. Cities can work together, like in Holland, where the National Smart City Strategy means cities work in a collaborative network to improve life in Dutch towns and cities by focusing on mobility, sustainability, accessibility and low-energy homes.