Iñaki Alday is the current dean of the School of Architecture of Tulane (New Orleans). Founder of Alday Jover arquitectura y paisaje, he also offers advice to the United Nations as an expert on the urban planning of rivers and deltas. In this context, he is a noted co-founder of the ‘Yamuna River Project’, a university research project for the recovery of the Yamuna River in New Delhi - one of the most polluted in the world.
Below, we talk with Iñaki Alday about innovations in cities related to the climate emergency, with questions that approach the urgency of research and how universities should prepare students to face the global challenge.
Fabián Dejtiar: As dean of the School of Architecture of Tulane (New Orleans) and promoter of research on sustainable development and climate change, we would like first of all to ask for your thoughts on "sustainable development" and "climate change"?
Iñaki Alday: “Sustainable development” has become an almost commercial standard, so it is better to go to the essence of the matter: how are we going to continue inhabiting this planet. This is not a rhetorical issue. Without a radical change, we have the days counted, all or a large percentage of human beings. This dilemma puts our grandchildren at risk: Will they be able to breathe the air of our cities? Will they have water to drink?
In India, United Nations forecasts indicate that in 2030 the demand for water will be double the amount of water available. Meanwhile, New Orleans sinks below sea level; one of the oldest and most interesting cities in North America and its delta is in the process of disappearing. Will future generations be able to inhabit or at least visit the city, or will they only know it through photos and stories, as has already happened with the lost continents of ancient narratives?
"Climate change" is what we read every day in the newspapers: practically every year we beat historical records in catastrophic floods, hurricanes or tsunamis. In some of our parks in Spain, in the Ebro river, we have already suffered a flood that has meant 500 years of return period, two 25-year floods and several 10-year floods, all in just a decade. This can be extrapolated to any river on the planet and to any weather phenomenon.
With this defined future, how do we adapt the built environment? Or, rather, how do we modify it radically? What is clear is that we need to adapt to floods and storms, increasingly frequent and larger, getting the city and its public space to flood without causing a catastrophe and maintaining urban vegetation. We must also propose solutions to collect, store and reuse rainwater in many parts of the world. These are just some examples of how architecture has to respond urgently to this crisis.
FD: In this sense, what do you think is being done badly in cities? And what is the first change - or innovations - that should be done to face the effects of climate change?
IA: First, start by rethinking our footprint. In this sense, we have to stop expansion that generates more impermeable soil, forces more displacements, and increases the energy expenditure of buildings with little occupancy and much exterior surface that lose heat or cold. Then densify our cities to be more energy-efficient and socially more diverse and rich. We have known this for a long time, but now the urgency converges with the habits of the new generations that return to the city, they do not want to own cars and value urban social life. In the great crisis of 2008, for example, in the United States, city centers did not lose value or population while many suburbs sank.
Second, we have to innovate in the design of public spaces and buildings. We need public spaces that absorb water from rain and floods, created ecological wealth and recharging the water table. Spaces that change during the seasons and adapt to the weather; that is, the opposite of the artificial grass gardens that we find today in dry climates, or the large paved or concreted pavements that raise the air temperature and generate floods during storms. As for buildings, innovation should seek air conditioning solutions, for example, by absorbing the sun in cold climates or absorbing shade in hot ones; the opposite of the generic glass buildings that we see today in any city on the planet that aspires to ‘be modern’.
Both society and architects must accept the change, instead of pretending that the rivers are stable, that the temperature is constant throughout the year or that the gardens look like static photographs that comfort us with a sense of false naturalness. In the construction of the urban space, the inclusion of different users, the “in situ” management of energy and the control of excess and shortage of river water must prevail.
FD: From the academy, what is the urgency of research on climate change? And how should universities prepare students to face this urgent challenge?
IA: Climate change is the great urgency for humanity. How and who it will affect first is the next issue. The answer is: to the most vulnerable populations socially and economically. The fight for social justice is becoming social-environmental justice for populations that are suffering from floods, droughts, pollution and other effects. This population does not have the resources to adapt their homes to the new weather conditions, to migrate or to have a decent life in a new place if they move. There are already places in the world with extreme pollution levels where only those who cannot live elsewhere live, and this effect will be extended including ‘mega capitals’ like New Delhi, in India. We are creating black holes where life expectancy and infant mortality have medieval ratios. These are real problems.
Universities should prepare students to identify problems at multiple scales and work on giving appropriate answers. However, there are still many schools - a majority - that continue to do intellectual gymnastics discussing about ‘angels’. It is urgent that architecture take responsibility for the built environment. Universities have an obligation to educate the new generations that will take on this urgent challenge more closely: make a planet habitable that previous generations, especially mine, are putting to the limit of collapse.
For this, new architects, urban planners or landscape architects need to be educated in a transversal way, incorporating themes such as the humanities, social sciences, environmental sciences, technology, economics or laws, among others, that allow them to acquire a broad look that creatively address the reformulation of our physical space, through collaboration, a sense of responsibility and confidence to be able to undertake the most complex challenges.
Architecture has two unique qualities: on the one hand, it places in the space all the complexity of the disciplines mentioned before, overlapping them and making them interact. On the other hand, it is the only field capable of creating alternative scenarios, which can be evaluated and towards which society as a whole can go.
Universities have failed the profession by educating these new architects, and the profession has failed society by not taking on this responsibility. We need to correct these essential failures now! The School of Architecture of Tulane University is clear that there is no other alternative.