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Perhaps one of the more serendipitous outcomes of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the sudden and rapid reduction in global air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The pandemic did for the environment what human beings haven’t been able to do, and as nature temporarily reclaimed urban areas in the initial phases of the worldwide lockdowns, it seems that a shift more profound and long-lasting may be on the horizon. Jacques van Embden, managing director at property development firm Blok, believes Covid-19 has heightened consumers’ environmental awareness and that this growing consciousness is here to stay.

“In the early days of lockdown, people found that they could suddenly breathe better, see the stars more clearly, hear the birds sing and rest more peacefully at night. They are now demanding a continuation of this sense of sanctuary. There’s a clear change in everything from their consumption patterns to where and how they choose to live,” he says. He believes consumers are becoming increasingly aware of our impact on the planet and the long-term effects of our short-term decisions. “This is increasingly important to the younger demographics who are seeing first-hand the impact of industrialisation.”

Global research backs this. A study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research in China revealed that in those cities that had experienced the greatest reduction in air pollution during February and March 2020, citizens” interest in environmental issues increased and consequently they adopted more green behaviours in the months that followed. Meanwhile, in a 2020 global survey by Accenture, 60% of consumers surveyed were found to be making more environmentally friendly, sustainable or ethical purchases – with 90% claiming that they were likely to continue doing so – while another study by Kantar says sustainability was highlighted as more of a concern for consumers since the onset of the pandemic.

“It’s clear that consumption is looking very different than it did,” says Oliver Wright, global lead of consumer goods and services at Accenture. “This is a black swan event. It is making people think more about balancing what they buy and how they spend their time with global issues of sustainability.” This shift is also evident in how people are choosing to live in a move dubbed the ‘greening of the home.’ Nigel Beck, head of sustainable finance and ESG advisory, RMB, says that real estate developers ‘must keep pace with tenants’ green demands for energy and water efficiency with respect to both existing and new leases”.

Van Embden feels that water wise and energy efficient fittings are now the standard for new developments and there is a responsibility to do more to reduce our carbon footprint. With Blok recently adding solar PV power for common areas in its latest Sea Point-based development, ONE26 ON M, he believes those developers that will differentiate themselves in the future are those going above and beyond in their designs.

He also believes that the green theme is extending beyond the purely functional into the realm of aesthetics. “For ONE26 ON M, our most green project to date, we’ve also looked to the natural resources within our immediate environmental as inspiration and paid homage to these through the addition of green living spaces in the design.” This is in line with Danish architect Bjarke Ingels’ ‘hedonistic sustainability philosophy’ which talks to the integration of sustainability into our cities, while creating pleasurable environmental for people. Ingels eschews the view that sustainability has to involve a less desirable living space or should compromise one’s lifestyle, and instead views it as a design challenge that seeks to improve the living spaces while being better for the environment. “The only way you can make sustainability win is if you make it more desirable than the alternative,” he says.

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