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Why you should go to Green Sky Thinking

Process zero exterior facade of HOK's Vanderweil

Next week more than 2,000 built environment professionals will come together to share knowledge and champion cross-disciplinary collaborations for Open City’s Green Sky Thinking week. Rory Olcayto - Open City’s new director and former AJ editor - gives his low-down on this year’s programme

Click here for full programme of events

Rory Olcayto

Rory Olcayto, Open City’s new director

Why should architects attend Green Sky Thinking?
My former colleague, the AJ’s Hattie Hartman, puts it best when she says Green Sky Thinking offers a ‘crash course in contemporary sustainable design’ for built-environment professionals. There are 48 events across the five days. But it is as much about fortifying established cross-industry partnerships as forging new ones, too. We want to help the industry find better ways of working together to address the challenges - climate change, energy, population growth - facing our cities.

When does it start?
Green Sky Thinking runs from 25 to 29 April, although we have a sold-out launch debate on 21 April at AHMM’s offices on the future of London’s housing. Eleanor Fawcett, head of regen and design at London Legacy Development Corporation, Stirling Prize-winner Alison Brooks, Jonathan Manns of Colliers and PLP’s Karl Sharro - a keen advocate of skyscrapers - will each present contrasting proposals.

Tell us about your programme of events.
There are 48 events this year, with each assigned to one of three themes - urban resilience, green tech, and health and well-being - which should help people pick and choose what they want to attend. As ever, events take place ‘on site’ so you can learn directly from the evidence around you.

For example, Bennetts Associates will host delegates at its Camden Council Building at King’s Cross (28 April, 8.30-11am), which boasts one of the highest BREEAM Outstanding scores in the UK, starting with a talk and then a guided tour.

Bennetts Associates' Camden Council HQ - PM Better Public Building Award winner 2015 [BCIA]

Bennetts Associates’ Camden Council HQ

Bennetts Associates’ Camden Council HQ

So is Green Sky Thinking all about BREEAM?
Definitely not. Bennetts’ tour actually winds up in the Skip Garden at King’s Cross, where you will be able to see one of this year’s AJ Small Projects winners, the Welcoming Shelter by Bartlett student Charlie Redman, which proposes a very different take on sustainable place-making. And engineering firm AKTII is hosting an interesting event at the South Bank Tower (25 April, 6-8pm) that asks Sustainability: Is It Only Skin Deep? This session will look at alternative thinking and finding opportunities that go beyond the confines of BREEAM.

What does going ‘beyond the confines of BREEAM’ mean in practice?
You’ll have to go along to find out. But from Open City’s point of view - and my own personal view as well - sustainability as an approach, as a movement, a philosophy - whatever you want to call it - has to evolve. So it means asking what we must do to make our cities more open and inclusive, more accessible, more equitable, for every one of their citizens. This notion of a more equitable city, a built environment that serves the public interest, won’t go away.

King's Cross Skip Garden Welcoming Shelter

King’s Cross Skip Garden Welcoming Shelter

So is equitability the new sustainability?
Pretty much, yes. We have to ask what flows from sustainable design: why do we do it? What’s it for? Where’s it all leading? Critically, does it serve the public good? London’s transformation this past decade has been incredible, but there is a sense that ordinary people have been left out of the equation. That is why, as we move into the second age of Open City (it’s our 25th anniversary next year) we are framing an approach around equitability.

So if you are attending events, keep this in mind throughout the week. Ask the panellists, how, as cities grow in size and complexity in the coming years, their ideas and plans address equitability. Ask them what sustainability with a social dimension looks like, and don’t accept what you hear if its sounds like a box being ticked.

Does Green Sky Thinking continue after the events week?
Yes. Last year we launched Commit5 - a framework we developed with Mace and Buro Happold that will help delegates build on the relationships they formed during Green Sky Thinking week. Commit5 asks that you give five hours of your time over the next year in support of the programme’s core USP: sharing knowledge across the professions.

This silo-busting initiative means you can learn from adjacent experts and close the knowledge gap across the professions. This year Open City will host a number of activities to this effect - hackathons, debates, consultations and workshops - to get the ball rolling. The emphasis is on proactive engagement; these are not static, listen-only events.

What are the other must-attend events?
There are nearly 50 to choose from so while I’m bound to say ‘all of them’, personally I’m interested in Cullinan Studio’s Island Estate: Reintegrating the Neighbourhood (26 April, 5.30-7.30pm). The studio has looked at an adjacent housing estate and is proposing design moves that could reconnect the estate and recast the neighbourhood, in their words, as as a ’proper, active-fronted, two-sided street with new public spaces’.

I’d also like to go to POE - The Importance of Collaboration, run by Metropolis Green, University of Liverpool & Meritcape. It’s focused on Liverpool University’s London campus and how post-occupancy evaluation can be used to help improve the experience of using the building day to day.

That said, while POE is an important endeavour, the terminology sounds too vague, technocratic and elitist - everything sustainability, or equitability, shouldn’t be. We need a new word!

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