New London Architecture

Five minutes with... Adrian McGregor

Tuesday 13 September 2022

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor talks to Adrian McGregor, landscape architect and founder and chief design officer of McGregor Coxall about his forthcoming book BioUrbanism – Cities as nature: a resilience model for anthromes.

David Taylor  
Hi, Adrian. How are you doing?
 
Adrian McGregor 
I'm great, thanks. Thanks for having me.
 
David Taylor  
So, you're here in Shoreditch House in London, which is not your usual abode! What are you here for? Is it to do this tour of launching your impending book 'BioUrbanism'?
 
Adrian McGregor 
Yes, I'm here in the UK to visit our design studio here, and also to launch and talk about my pending book, titled 'BioUrbanism: cities as nature'.
 
David Taylor  
How long has that been in gestation? How long have you been working on it? And what are the general themes? What's its main thesis?
 
Adrian McGregor 
Well, it's been a 15-year exercise for me, so really represents a kind of a trajectory. It's ideas that I've had in my career for over that period of time. The key ideas are - it's actually a model for creating resilience in 21st century cities. And it describes the history of cities, the challenges that cities are facing in the climate emergency. And then it proposes a model, which is a 10-system model for creating resilience and decarbonizing cities. It has five Biosystems and five urban systems. And then it sets forth a model for how we can better understand cities; position cities as part of nature. So, we've forgotten that we're a actually a species in the biosphere like other species. Homosapiens have a place in the biosphere. And unfortunately, we have disconnected ourselves. So, the philosophical premise is that cities are, even though they're operated and managed, created by homosapiens. And they are a fundamental part of nature. And part of the failure of us to understand this has created in turn, an environmental predicament where we have pollution, and the carbon pollution is fundamentally changing the world. And, of course, the extinction of other species. So, for us to move forward, we need to really understand our place in the biosphere, and our cities' place in the biosphere. And use that to move forward in a way that is productive and allows us to be prosperous as a species.
David Taylor  
What's the best way of unpicking some of the failures that have resulted over the last 50 years of city planning and city development? And I suppose as a subsidiary question to that, to what extent do you think the motor vehicle has been a key part of wrong turnings?
 
Adrian McGregor 
Well, I propose in the book that the environmental crisis really is a design process. And that many of the decisions that we've made have been working against our environment and our long-term prosperity. And therefore, we've known for a long, long time that carbon pollution is a problem, and that it's fundamentally changing the biosphere and our world and that that's having a heavy impact economically and socially across our cities now. Some of these poor design outcomes are creating the current predicament and the motor vehicle is one of those. We've known for a long time that cars have really severed a ton of connectivity of our cities in many ways. Many cities are now trying to retrofit that and come back to walkability and to repair some of the damage that the motor vehicle has done to cities. We're seeing, all around the world, electrification of public transport now, and better connectivity in terms of how we move around cities. And we also know that there's a connection between human health, obesity, and many other aspects of human health related to too much time in motor vehicles as well. These things are all interconnected. So: if we are smarter about how we design our cities, then we make improvements to human health and environmental health.
 
David Taylor  
Which cities on the world stage are exemplars in what you propose at the moment? I think Vancouver's on the cover. Does that mean that's one of them?
 
Adrian McGregor 
This is a question that I'm asked many times, and there are really few cities that demonstrate excellence across all of the 10 systems. So, you can single out individual cities for high performance, if you like, across individual systems. And certainly, Vancouver is one good example. Singapore is really a good example. Copenhagen is another one, even Amsterdam. So, it really depends on which of the systems that we're talking about, as to which cities excel. But what we need to do is really get to a place where cities improve performance across all systems, and then achieve mutual outcomes across those, and then that leads to, ultimately, prosperity and better health for citizens.
 
David Taylor  
And where does London rank, would you say, in a league status, kind of equation across the world? Where does it rank? And where can it improve? And how can it improve?
 
Adrian McGregor 
I think that London clearly needs to decarbonize very, very quickly. Like most cities. It's a mega city as well. It's an economic powerhouse. And I think that, you know, continuing to work on cycling, and decreasing the role of motor vehicle in the city, obviously has an impact on things like air pollution. And we're starting to understand the role now of air pollution and long-term impacts on human health, across any large cities. So certainly, that's one thing. Open space, I think it needs to work on. It really struggles with a high population and a low provision of open space, which, again, has impact to the health of its citizens. And as it continues to increase its urban population it has got to find creative ways to increase commensurate open space. Its commitment to being a national park city I think is really innovative. And I'd be very interested to see how it can use that idea to continue to enhance prosperity and improve its urban conditions.
 
David Taylor  
Final question, because we're up to time. But you mentioned right at the start, that it has taken 15 years of work to work on this book. So, I'm presuming in that period, the world situation's got a lot worse, climate wise, and knowledge about climate issues have risen up the agenda. How do you stay optimistic?
 
Adrian McGregor 
I think that human beings are ultimately very, very intelligent. And I think that we understand our predicament. And really, we have the technologies; we know what to do. I think it's really now unlocking the political and economic levers that we need to drive forward our continued progress.  I think you've got to remain optimistic that we can do it, and that we know how to do it. We just have to move. And I think that there is a growing awareness now of the impact of carbon on temperatures and what it's doing to extreme weather across the world and sea level rise. So, we understand the issues. And I think we have the solutions. And now it's about speed. It's implementing those solutions.
 
David Taylor  
Well, good luck with the book and the wider, slightly larger project (laughs) of biourbanism across the globe!
 
Adrian McGregor 
Thanks so much.  

More info on the BioUrbanism book, which is set to be published next month, is at https://biourbanism.info


David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly



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