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Last week was an amazing week for all of us at OpenPlan. We met some almost impossible deadlines but, even more importantly, we gained a wonderful new addition to our family: our colleague and great friend Laura and her husband, Paul, became the proud – and utterly exhausted – parents of Alfie.
Now, I am sure this will be the last thing on Laura’s and Paul’s minds just at the moment, but to me their baby’s arrival has given our work renewed purpose, focus and responsibility. All being well, Alfie can expect to see the beginning of the 22nd Century. By the time he is my age, the forward-looking plans we are working on now will be distant history – whether they have worked or not. Alfie and the other 2.5 million babies born across the World this week will have lived with the outcomes of the work we and thousands of our planner, urbanist, place-maker colleagues have done, and the extent to which that work may – or may not – have affected political, economic and social decisions and actions. Our success or failure in responding to climate change, rapid and massive urban growth, global inequalities, and all the other economic, social and environmental challenges we know we need to face up to urgently will have had profound impacts on the lives Alfie’s generation will be living in 2100. So, in our small studio here in Lincoln, we have a new incentive: we are now planning for Alfie!
Let’s just think about some of the predictions and expectations for the years in which Alfie will grow from baby to boy to man…
It seems likely that the world’s population will have grown from 7 billion (now) to around 11 billion and will be continuing to grow. A much larger proportion of those people will be over 80 – like Alfie – in 2100.
Globally, Alfie’s generation will be predominantly urban. The proportion of the world’s people living in towns and cities is expected to have grown from its current 54% to 66% by the time Alfie is 35 (2050) and by 2100 he will probably be one of more than 80% of people worldwide who live in urban places.
According to the most recent climate change forecasts by the United Nations, our net carbon emissions will need, somehow, to have been reduced to zero by the time Alfie reaches his 40th birthday if there is to be any chance of keeping global warming to no greater than what many consider to be the critical ” tipping point” of 2 degrees celsius. Because we are currently such a long way from achieving that reduction ourselves, it looks like Alfie’s generation is going to have to shoulder more than its fair share of the burden of hitting that target – and if it is missed, Alfie’s own children are going to have even bigger problems to live with, as sea levels and climate volatility continue to rise well past 2100. Of course, with so many of the world’s people living in big coastal cities, and with climate change likely to affect agricultural productivity, things may be getting a bit difficult by that time!
That all looks challenging enough, even without considering the political and cultural impacts and tensions resulting from possible resource shortages and mass migration.
Seeing the bigger picture is helpful in many ways, but it can also make you feel a bit helpless too – unless you have faith in the cumulative effects of millions of small actions. Alfie is one of two-and-a-half million babies born last week. Of course, to us he is the most significant, but all the others are the most significant too – to their own people. Some will not have the advantages Alfie has, some will not make it to adulthood, some, sadly, will not have made it to the end of the week. Most, though will be living through these challenging times with Alfie and it is down to us – collectively – to make sure that the tasks that fall to them are only challenging, not impossible.
So, how should planning for Alfie affect our work and our priorities?
As a small studio, we can’t change the world on our own – but we make a contribution. We can continue to apply a global perspective to every piece of ‘local’ work we carry out – whether it’s local to our Lincoln base, our UK base, our Caribbean “second home”, the places where the students we work with from Asia, Africa and the Middle East will be working, or any of the places we’d love to work in ourselves when opportunities arise.
We can continue to play our part in understanding the workings and cultures of urban places and communities better, and helping to make villages, towns and cities more liveable and more sustainable.
We can continue to practise – and promote – an integrated and inclusive approach to spatial planning and, placemaking, and to ensure that local people are engaged as fully as possible in planning the future of their own places.
We can also continue to value the contributions that children, teenagers and young adults can make to planning and placemaking.
Surely, we owe at least this to Alfie and all the other citizens of 2100 who were born this week!