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Institutional warming as debate over mankind's future hots up

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We seem set for an intense period of 'institutional warming' over the sustainability agenda - this month alone has seen conferences on this subject in Manchester and London and the press is awash with articles and letters covering everything from sophisticated commentary to home-spun remedies on the problem of the age, that is: 'How to live in harmony with our environment.'

My friend Martin Pawley set out his stall on the matter at last week's Building Audacity conference, much as he has already done in this journal and in his recent article in the Independent entitled 'Sustainability - a big word with little meaning'. In a black and heavy doom and gloom mood he argues that 'there are no more examples of sustainable development in our solar system than there is a mandate for it in our social system. Nothing in the universe goes on forever, so how can human society be organised to enable it to go on forever?'

All wonderfully pessimistic but, of course, a complete denial of either hope or responsibility. Indeed, why not die today and why not take the planet with us? Why give that child a kidney transplant? Life offers no joy or delight anyway.

But it is precisely the reverse of that philosophy that drives most people. In this respect today's sustainability agenda is merely the latest in a long series of initiatives aimed at alleviating human suffering and improving mankind's condition.

For example, my grandmother and George Orwell were among the last to die in the UK when tuberculosis was endemic. Since then modern medicine has effectively eradicated tuberculosis from these shores - surely a worthy achievement!

Moving from disease has been linked to planning and architecture, Queen Elizabeth I issued a proclamation (1580) banning the construction of new buildings 'within 3 miles from any of the gates of the sayd Citie of London' to prevent outbreaks of the plague.

In 1665 alone 100,000 Londoners - more than 20 per cent of the population - died of the plague in one of four epidemics during that century. Following the fire of London new controls on building were introduced in pursuit of public health and safety - a sort of forerunner to today's Building Regulations.

Public health improvements in nineteenth-century London were a response to widespread problems including severe cholera epidemics. Edwin Chadwick led an inquiry which concluded that contaminated water supplies, inadequate drainage arrangements and poor methods of rubbish disposal in big towns and cities led irrevocably to disease. As a consequence, doctors, civil engineers, politicians and architects all worked together to produce responsible legislation that would guide sustainable development in our cities.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 had similar hopeful aims and had a profound impact upon the customs, appearance and economics of our towns, as well as on our health.

The struggle intensifies as we face the more complex problems that now arise from the growth of our cities and the greater demands (in terms of travel and so on) that we make upon our environment. But it is clear that the current sustainability debate is just another chapter in a long process of endeavours to provide safe conditions under which mankind can exist. The stakes get ever higher but the issues remain the same: hope, knowledge, commitment to change, social discipline, and moral responsibility.

In terms of the RIBA's current work on sustainability, many people, including Peter Smith and Brian Edwards, have made considerable contributions to bring the debate to the fore, and their contribution must not be forgotten. But it is Marco Goldschmeid who has finally put sustainability at the top of the institute's agenda - firmly and irreversibly. His presidency has coincided with a growing public awareness and that has helped, but we should use this new mood to maximum effect.

That duty lies collectively with us all. Our principal role as architects is to put in place alternative visions for a safe and better future.

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