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Insights from "The role of renewable energy in post COVID-19 public spaces "
27 August, 2020

The webinar was initiated and hosted by Luisa Bravo (City Space Architecture/Journal of Public Space) and Hendrik Tieben (Chinese University of Hong Kong), and co-hosted by Alessandra Scognamiglio, ENEA (Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development) and Agatino Rizzo (Luleå University of Technology, Sweden). This webinar is part of the series “2020: A Year without Public Space under the COVID19 Pandemic”. The webinar brought together an interesting mix of interdisciplinary specialists from urban design, architecture, planning, policy to discuss how renewable energy plays a role in the post-pandemic public spaces in Sweden, Germany, Japan, Spain, and the United States.

Agatino Rizzo
Chaired professor & Head of Architecture, Luleå University of Technology, Sweden

Agatino gave a baseline introduction of the energy sector, juxtaposing it with recent public space issues. First, global energy demand is on the rise, with still a strong reliance on non-renewable energy in the future. Sweden is performing well in regards to shifting to renewable energies, yet still relies on fossil fuels and nuclear fuels, and has to deal with the issue of transmission losses. The possible change in the demand for domestic transport triggered by the pandemic is still yet to be surfaced. Agatino brought up the concept of ‘Resource-urbanization nexus’, where city form affects energy demands, which in turn affects climate, and within the feedback mechanism would in turn affect cities in the form of extreme climate events. Wildfires, floodings, and air pollution are a few examples of such and illustrate the importance for architects and urban designers to urbanize climate & energy issues. 


Like many countries, Sweden has pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emission by 2045, and reach 100% of its electricity needs from renewable sources by 2040, right now the share is 60%, the highest in Europe. Agatino felt that there are three challenges to support the transitions that are relevant to urban design. First, urban planning should support “prosumers” - where consumers of energy can be producers, turning energy monopoly to energy democracy. Second, urban design should help include people in the energy transition by leveraging the participatory design thinking process. Also, architects should lead the idea to rethink city aesthetics in terms of ‘energy aesthetics’. A final challenge is the consequence of COVID-19 in terms of the collective use of public space. 


Wrapping up, Agatino raised several thought-provoking questions to the floor: Are the energy and climate issues losing focus when most people are concerned with primary health issues? What further issues pose the new situation with COVID-19 when we deal with the quest of building future solar public space, and how do we adapt the design thinking process to address these issues? Is the health crisis steering us back to silos thinking or transdisciplinary thinking? What should be the role of architects in the post-COVID-19 resourceful cities?

Alessandra Scognamiglio.jfif
Alessandra Scognamiglio

Alessandra’s interest and research in the integration of renewable energy into the city or landscapes is greatly affected by the recent social and physical distancing, as it amplifies the hunger for and privatization of public space, and possibly the land-use struggles and challenges of placing the renewable energies in the city. Some current solutions include the usage of buildings so that no new land is used, integrating photovoltaic models in urban structures and mixed functions. Such emergence of issue presents the context of this webinar, which hopes to look further into the integration of renewables into public space while maintaining connectivity, social relationships and physical distancing.

Insight from speakers
Björn Ekelund
Luleå University of Technology; Co-founder, Warm in the Winter, Sweden

Björn thought that the concept of distancing is not new to the discipline of urban design, modern infrastructure has been a solution to economic growth, creating the constant global sustainability battle of effect versus efficiency. Large-scale solutions located far away from people are more efficient, yet local solutions can create a greater effect on social and economic sustainability. Sustainable infrastructure adaptation also makes a greater footprint on public space and impact on ecological sustainability.

Björn has been focusing on projects that reduce the distance between technology and humans, advocating all-scale solutions and implementing renewable energy solutions in all spaces possible to make it accessible to all. 


One of the first projects was triggered by the realization of how non-place-specific power lines were and the question of how to redesign so as to make them react to the urban landscape. The energy transmitter was transformed into a public space maker through the use of tensegrity construction technology. The central idea lies in the construction of places and how construction can be adaptive to the place and change its design. A wind power plant project in the Stockholm campus area led Björn into the micro constructions of climate. While he questioned the possibility of the concurrent production of energy and public space, he understood that the main issue at hand was to shape the microclimate so as to create wind and calmness where it suits, resulting in a wind square with turbines. In recent years, Björn has increasingly involved people in design, often generating creative ideas such as turning a car park into energy production and a socializing place on campus. The notion is to transform one space into a better place through the introduction of energy. Another assignment turned leftover nature space that was going to be fenced off for technological solutions into a popular public space that adds solar panels that suit the landscape.

It is in this scenario that Ana explained the situations and responses on the ground. Streets in Latin America are filled with commerce, informality and social inequality, the proliferation of such during the pandemic has triggered more conflicts among different stakeholders. The government’s formal interventions in public spaces mostly disregard society as an active actor in urban life, ignoring the capacity of public spaces to adapt to new and uncertain realities, often through informality. Ana felt that informality can actually be used as a tool through social appropriations that respond rapidly to the city and often can fight for equity. The occupation of public spaces during COVID and turning them into, for instance, bike lanes is a great example, and also, community trade in neighborhoods, let it say, at a small scale but across the city. Ana also advocated an increase in collective spaces that are sensitive to people and contribute to the soft city, rather than managing the extension of public space.

COVID-19 is going to rewrite the rule of the concept of density in urban design, increasing social footprint and the need for public space. 

Daniele Santucci.jfif
Daniele Santucci
Founding Partner, Climateflux, Germany

Focusing on the energy exchange between the human and environment, Daniele suggested that the lockdown has drastically changed the way we interact with the environment, leading to a state of disembodiment. Energy transfer from people to the environment and the other way round, affecting comfort, health and wellbeing of all. The continual increase in temperature presents a huge health threat; most cities are projected to have a 4-degrees increase in their annual mean temperatures by 2050, with peaks reaching over 10 degrees. Heat island effects and high tides are just two examples of effects brought by climate change, which seriously can affect public space. Right now people are suffering and impacted by the climate in everyday life. 


Basing on the notion that health is a fundamental right, Daniele developed sensor technique with hopes to quantify climate effect. In essence, ‘climate walks’ are conducted across different cities by carrying a portable weather station that can measure and map different factors of the built environment that affect human comfort in terms of thermo-exchange and energy flux. Combining human sensation and physiology, it can explore the transition between outdoor and indoor spaces. Applying this in Singapore, the team explored the possibility of reducing the cooling load in buildings, and redesigning transitional and covered outdoor spaces. For instance, a canopy design in Napoli has reduced the perceived temperature to a great extent, showing insights on how to reconfigure public spaces and make them more comfortable. As Daniele concluded by stressing on the importance of public space and its design in our life, as proven by the pandemic.

Robert Ferry and Elizabeth Monoian
Founding Directors, Land Art Generator, United States

Robert and Elizabeth started off by stressing on the health effects and risks of climate change. 250,000 people will die due to the effect of climate change every year in the years between 2030-2050. Air pollution coming from the combustion of fossil fuels is a public health risk and costs 10,000 lives every year. COVID-19 revealed and exposed the lack of resilience in our system. 


Land Art Generator looks at the impact of land use on public spaces. Power plants used to be at city cores, housed in beautiful buildings that are mostly revitalized like the Tate Modern. Leaving the city meant that power plants lost their relationship with humans and became pure utility. The renewable sphere is rethinking the relationship between energy, utility, and aesthetics, and the proliferation of pure-utility infrastructure. Looking at the land-use implications of using renewable energy and going zero-carbon, it’s exciting to see that it is possible to place all that we need into the urban cores and not disturb nature. This calls for a collaborative and interdisciplinary process of bringing community and designer together to work on energy landscapes, which lies at the core of Land Art Generator and boils down to a few key questions: What would renewable energy installations look like if they are public art, and if they respond to culture and sites? What if these energy landscapes are designed in collaboration with communities, could that reduce the resistance to renewable energy infrastructure? 

The group has been hosting annual international design competitions since 2010 and was also invited to different cities to reimage their energy landscapes. Some of the ideas include laminated technologies creating colourful urban landscapes, artistic organic PV, solar hourglass, wave energy devices, and desalination technology forming public amenity. Elizabeth noted that all of the teams are a true representation of multi-disciplines, bringing together experts like architects, urban planners, landscape architects, and energy scientists. An important underlying principle is participatory design, energy camp is one example of empowering communities to design their own energy landscapes so that energy is not distant and alien, but a tool to make cities vibrant and liveable. Energy projects can also be intergenerational, shown by the solar mural artworks that are created by children and elders. Robert wrapped up by reminding all that there is a serious health crisis that is caused by air pollution, and it should not be overlooked even during the pandemic. 

Taichi Kuma

Taichi explored the public realm inside the house by introducing projects related to the design and management of shared houses in a Tokyo neighbourhood. The team learnt from primitive share houses from 300 years ago, where 30-40 people lived under one structure and was very efficient. During the Edo era in Tokyo, people used to live together and share facilities as well; the shared way of living lies within the culture. SHAREyaraicho was designed in 2012, accommodating 17 people. The facade is made out of a membrane and the entrance is created by a zipper. Entering the space reveals a high ceiling, which serves as an insulation layer to create comfortable airflow. This capsule housing contains 8 ‘floating’ boxes, with always a gap and thus airflow in between, achieving greater energy efficiency. The first floor is a multi-functional space that can be turned into a fashion exhibition, talk venue, or as public space for neighbours. The main material used is plywood, yet by employing the right proportion and design, quality space is created. Cohousing is uncommon in Tokyo as people really want distance, the team tries to create commonality through shared housing projects. TRAILER is a project in 2004 that turned an empty lot into a popular park. By attaching the plywood trailer to a car, there was no need to go through architectural regulations and the furniture naturally turned into a wine bar and is highly mobile. Inspired by New York’s outdoor staircases, the team is working on a new share housing project at the trailer lot. It is a 9-story building for 15 people with staircases connected like a ‘vertical park’ and mix-used - first floor as a restaurant and second floor as an office. Taichi stressed that while we could all learn from technology, we can also learn from historical and traditional examples for our future life.

Jorge Toledo García.jfif
Jorge Toledo García
University of Alicante / Ecosistema Urbano, Spain

Ecosistema Urban works in public space with a great variety of contexts. It uses technology and social technology to involve the environmental and social contexts into the project. Jorge introduced one of the projects in Dordrecht, Netherlands to showcase three main ideas around how energy relates to public space. The Energy Carousel is a piece of play equipment - when children turn around, energy is generated and stored, and is then used to light up the structure at night and create a safe environment. The first idea behind this is combining functions - combining energy production with other functions such as play, shading, or other public space functions. The second idea is to make the energy cycle short and local, generating and using it at the same place, and making it more visible with an educational approach so that people understand the efforts that go behind the production and management of energy. The carousel’s lighting varies according to the energy condition.


Madrid’s Eco-boulevard was a place designed for cars but not developed. The major notion behind the project was “one of the best things you can place on a public space is a tree” as it supports and generates a lot of functions. The design idea was to develop three artificial trees which have the function of trees while the rest of the boulevard is developing. Air Tree focuses on improving the climate underneath with airflow based on ancient systems used in hot and dry climates. Solar panels of the structure generate energy for the entire boulevard. The Tree has become a focal point where people meet and host activities in this otherwise not developed neighbourhood. Playful Tree and Media Trees employ different systems but achieve the same effect. A 10-degrees difference is measured between outside and inside of the structures. The boulevard becomes a happening place, and more importantly, it has become the identity of the place. Interestingly, it presents a challenge for the municipality since they don’t know how to manage the energy generated; this is not regular furniture and building that would appear in public space. 10 years after the structures were built, the team went back to understand the effect of these artificial trees. Under the pandemic, the structures have become single nodes in the neighbourhood, people adapt their use according to the situation. The size of the structures allows people to spread around and compliment the extensive nature of the boulevard. Jorge has also experimented with the base structure and adapted that to different climates.

Vincent Kitio.jfif
Vincent Kitio
Chief of the Urban Energy Unit, UN-Habitat

There is a general perception that renewable energy generation requires a large amount of space but the presentations show that it’s possible. Vincent echoed that there is an increase in the demand for energy that comes with rapid urbanizations. The impacts of climate change cost more damage and fatality, even when compared to COVID-19, and thus cannot be placed in the backyard or the back of our minds. Instead, we have to address it, adapt our cities and promote climate mitigations. COVID-19 seems to lead to some improvements in air pollution in some cities and can be worked on further. The technology and the participatory designs of public space presented clearly show that it’s possible to use renewable energy via community participation. Solutions of low carbon and climate mitigation exist and are demonstrated by the presentations; there is a clear role for renewable energy to play in cities. The issue of thermal comfort is addressed as well, as simple as having a tree would create a huge difference in temperature, like how the Eco-boulevard project “re-created nature using artificial means”. Vincent highlighted the message of “going back to basics'' - to look into traditions and find solutions that can be implemented today, like how the housing project in Japan learnt from traditional architecture. The artificial evaporative towers provide relief in the desert climate in Abu Dhabi, similar to how Jorge referenced ancient structures and Arab structures to cool down open spaces. Vincent agreed with the concept of cities as prosumers, to generate and consume energy so as to reduce transmission loss and carbon footprint. Going beyond wind and solar power, one presentation showed an example of using human power to generate energy, which can be used to charge mobile phones and enhance communication. Similarly in South Africa’s roundabout pump project, kids help pump water for their own needs while they are simply playing around. We should not look at energy as means, it is there to serve a purpose.  Addressing the issue of acceptance, Vincent is convinced that it is possible to create beautiful places that incorporate renewable energy. People would have to choose whether to hold a NIMBY mindset or suffer from the effects of climate change; we should compromise our expectations. Although fossil fuel still takes up a large portion of energy production, the presentations have shown that it is still possible to move towards the net-zero carbon emission goal.

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