The wise man built his house upon the rock
Donald Trump spent the first months of this year claiming firstly that COVID-19 was totally under control, then it would magically disappear in a few weeks, then that it was a hoax and then that he always knew it was a pandemic long before anyone knew it was a pandemic. Now, that he will be the saviour of a million or more Americans who would otherwise have died without his intervention (providing they don’t inject bleach or swallow light-bulbs in the meantime!).
For better or worse, re-writing history is a great skill of the leader of the free world. A former colleague of mine, who shall remain nameless, used to call it ‘writing history backwards’. And, to be sure, he was a master of the art.
Wouldn’t it be nice though if, rather than trying to write history backwards in order to justify decisions taken at any point in time, we could project history forward and be pleased with the decisions we made at difficult times?
A billion years ago, in school assembly, we used to sing a song about the wise man who built his house upon the rock. ‘The rain came down and the flood came up and the house on the rock stood firm’.
The clear inference being that we should be planning carefully for the future to avoid having to write history backwards later to justify badly made decisions. Including, of course, considering resilience to climate change (45 years after I unwittingly mumbled about it at school).
The thing with the future though is that it is heavily influenced by the past. The past may actively prevent some future possibility or our experiences from the past may stop us from seeing some of the paths that might exist for the future. The past is also, very obviously, a huge store of learning and knowledge that we forget at our peril. Our challenge, therefore, in projecting history forwards is to carefully filter past learning, past baggage and future opportunity to create exciting new, thoroughly well considered possibilities.
There is no doubt that the current crisis has turned so many norms upside down. Some of these new norms; social distancing, lockdown, queueing for the supermarket, will, hopefully, be temporary and fall away in due course. Yet others such as international air travel, where we work, what work we do and how we move around may be more profoundly changed in the long-term.
We need now to be thinking like the man who built his house upon the rock. He foresaw that if it flooded, his investment would be at risk and so he built his house on firm ground above the one in a thousand-year flood datum (possibly).
And therein lies both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is that we are not unique in being wise (if indeed, we even are that wise at all), our forebears understood the basics of what made a sensible place to create a community and so many of the best rocks have already been built on! The opportunity is that these rocks are frequently hubs of commerce, transport and leisure. This makes them a great place to look at afresh and to consider the threats and opportunities of the 21st century.
There is no doubt, as I sit here today, that we have not beaten the SARS-COV-2 virus and its COVD-19 disease and even when we do get it under control, there is no guarantee that SARS-COV-3 or some other form of highly transmittable disease won’t come along and cause similar global challenges all over again. Indeed, history suggests that this is highly likely and we have just been fortunate to go for the best part of a century without a major pandemic, accepting that the Ebola, swine flu and MERS outbreaks were/are clearly horrific medical and human crises, their impact was thankfully contained. None of which is to suggest that we should live in a state of fear and fret about leaving our homes or going to work. Rather, we need to learn to adapt and, where we can, be resilient to such risks. And, whilst we are at it, we need to consider the impacts of climate change, bio-diversity, social inclusion/inequality, new ways of working and, indeed, entirely new jobs, renewable energy, AI, robots, self-driving vehicles and economic stability without relentless growth that consumes ever increasing amounts of ever dwindling physical resources.
There’s quite a bit to get to grips with there and whilst finding new rocks and creating answers in new developments will help to respond to this, real progress at a national/global level will only be made if we tackle the current stock of buildings and infrastructure. To be clear, I am not promoting a return to 60’s style slash and burn re-development. Our responses will need to be both subtler and finer grained, whilst at the same time profound, thoughtful, far reaching and well executed.
In earlier blogs I have suggested that we start our journey with our current town and city centres. I am more convinced than ever that these global challenges will be addressed, in many instances at a local level. Keen MAMILs and those with a passing interest in cycling will have come across the phrase ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’ that drove the current British domination of road and track cycling. And this, I think, is the way we need to think about transforming our towns and cities; not sweeping all away and starting again (we couldn’t afford it even if we wanted to (which we shouldn’t)), but making lots of small changes that add up, in the aggregate, to something big and impactful.
We should all be wary of silver bullets. They are only effective against werewolves, vampires and witches and, as we all know, these aren’t the primary threat to our wellbeing in 2020!
The recent announcement by Grant Shapps of £2 billion investment in walking and cycling infrastructure is a great start and Manchester and Liverpool’s ‘Build Back Better’ is right on the money. A quick Google of ‘love where you live’ throws out a vast array of schemes and ideas to make our towns and cities more attractive, more liveable and to strengthen local communities. As I have said before, the more the world becomes the same, the more the local matters.
As with any journey, it will take time and persistence, but one of our most pressing challenges in the short-term is likely to be to try and arrest the decline in our high streets which will only be accelerated by COVID-19. How many shops will re-open in a couple of months is anyone’s guess and how many bars, restaurants and cafes will make it through, likewise, remains to be seen. Repurposing our high streets, I believe, offers many opportunities for us to strengthen and re-invigorate our town and city centres reflective of many of the social and economic changes that will stay with us after the virus has, hopefully faded into the past. My blog ‘Are houses obsolete?’ sets out a few thoughts on what some of these changes might bring. And, of course, the act of building and investing will stimulate local economies and be key in pulling us out of the economic slump we will face as the country comes out of the current state of largely suspended animation.
I suspect we will be caught between a desire to move very quickly, capturing both the mood of the moment and the very pressing need to make bold steps and our customary caution and fear of failure that has the potential to bring things to a shuddering, bureaucratic halt.
Let us be thoughtful, resourceful, inclusive and impactful. Smart, bold and confident that we won’t need to write history backwards after the event because we looked both backwards and forwards as we planned our journey to a better future for the homes we have built on our collective rocks.