“We live in a world that is still characterised by an overabundance of barriers: some are visible, others invisible, but all of them inevitably foster inequality. Real estate is one of the fields which now have the capability and the duty to act decisively towards breaking them down”.
Ersilia Vaudo Scarpetta, Chief Diversity Officer
of the European Space Agency (ESA) and
Independent Member of the Steering Committee
of the COIMA ESG City Impact Fund
Based on this reflection, Ersilia Vaudo Scarpetta, Chief Diversity Officer of the European Space Agency (ESA) and Independent Member of the Steering Committee of the COIMA ESG City Impact Fund, offers a new perspective in a discussion which sees sustainability meet change and inclusion becoming a virtuous result of carefully thought-out strategic and design choices.
There are a great many common points between the issues raised by the Italian astrophysicist and the reflections which, in recent years, have equally been hot-button topics in the property development and urban planning sectors. “We live in a time when there is a lot of talk about innovation, and it’s easy to forget just how simple its definition is. Innovating means going from 0 - your starting point - to 1, your intended point of arrival. Innovating means moving, changing your point of view on things, endeavouring to go beyond everything that has been done so far.”
Nowadays, the true revolution is having the ability to see things through new eyes, largely by leaving your comfort zone. “When a point of view transforms, that signifies that a revolution is about to be sparked. The wheels of that change are already in motion. And, if you think about it, perhaps the most interesting thing is that anticipating any change also means risking people’s approval, because doing something new means challenging existing knowledge, habits and beliefs. It’s much the same in the world of physics: all the great discoveries were born out of a constant oscillation between the desire to take a leap of faith and the irresistible pull of our comfort zone”.
This separation between the comfort zone and space for innovation can easily become a metaphor applicable to the contemporary world as a whole, and not only scientific research: indeed, it is typical of human beings to identify boundaries (of our country, our city, our neighbourhood, even our person), the violation of which is automatically considered an invasion, meaning that these borders must be tightened up, bolstered and protected to as to keep out those on the other side.
Urban planning has a great deal to contribute to
new inclusion policies: anywhere there is a border,
there is always exclusion
But these barriers and separations must be overcome: “I believe that urban planning has a great deal to contribute to new inclusion policies, because anywhere there is a border, there is always exclusion, and this goes for both visible barriers - such as architectural ones - and invisible ones, which take the form of, for example, the cost of housing in one neighbourhood as compared with another, or whether or not an area is served by a metro line, and so on”.
Just consider the impact of a study conducted by the OCSE, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which showed that with each passing stop on the Jubilee Line on the London Underground, the life expectancy of the inhabitants in the area went down by one year, casting light on the considerable impact that environmental context has on society. With this information in mind, it becomes clear how urgent the need is to invest in property to create and improve inclusive spaces where all segments of society can interact, removing any and all kinds of distinctions within urban centres.
In this regard, it is essential to overhaul our approach to urban planning and try to establish new connections between spaces, abolishing the traditional division into areas along with the distinction between the ‘centre’ and the ‘outskirts’ of a city. This echoes a concept expressed by Renzo Piano who, in our podcast entitled ‘Nuove Radici’ (‘New Roots’), offered us a remarkably coherent vision of Italy’s urban fabric: a large ‘sprawling city’ in which the clear separations between the regional capital and its neighbouring centres, as well between ‘labelled’ neighbourhoods populated by offices and companies or nightlife venues, for example, and those with a residential focus, absolutely must be overcome.
But urban planning with an innate proclivity for openness and sharing will only be possible in future if all the infrastructures that make up an economy and a society are reinforced: “perhaps my view is somewhat distorted as a professional,” continues Vaudo Scarpetta, “but in my eyes, one thing is absolutely certain: tomorrow’s Ministry of Infrastructure will have to take into account not only material infrastructure, but also digital and spatial kinds. When this integration has taken place, then we can talk about the prospect of connections in a much more concrete way”.
The contribution that work on space and the cosmos can provide to the liveability of our planet becomes much more tangible than we might have thought. “I chose this path because studying space means collecting a wide range of skills and information that can be used to make a positive impact on the great challenges faced by the planet, from poverty to climate change. My chief concern is that we should start to move away from a stereotypical view of space, consisting only of technological achievements, and instead consider it in terms of our ecosystem, too. As just one example, thanks to the work of the ESA, we can now demonstrate much more clearly that choices made in terms of urban planning in cities later have knock-on effects on the climate”.
This has been shown, for example, by the city of Rotterdam, which has launched a project to assess its surface temperature by using satellite images, allowing it to monitor the emission levels in its various neighbourhoods: in so doing, the city has turned space-based monitoring into a useful way of planning targeted operations to protect the environment.
“Another aspect that I would like to highlight is that redefining boundaries also has implications on sustainability. We have already discussed many ‘horizontal’ barriers, so to speak, but there is another one - a ‘vertical’ barrier - which we are much less used to thinking about: the barrier between ground and sky”.
Indeed, if we looked up for a moment and tried once again to shift our perspective, we would quickly notice that the light pollution of our cities is in itself limiting our ability to see beyond our everyday surroundings.
Gazing up at the sky, says the astrophysicist, “is also a means of relativising our existence against the infinite span of a starry sky, giving us the drive to renew our commitment to preserving the beauty of our planet, which is but a small pebble lost in a vast and empty universe”.
What arises out of this is a crucial issue: what if urban planning took into account the light pollution we generate, rather than simply our air emissions?
“The situation is incredibly worrying: nowadays, countless children cannot see the stars by simply going out onto their balconies and looking up, and this is due to the excessive use of lighting in large, developed urban centres,” claims the astrophysicist. “That is why we set up Il Cielo Itinerante - The Wandering Sky - an association with two main goals, namely to offer children new images and prospects for the future and to make Italy the country in which the highest number of children have looked up at the sky in a single year, based on the assumption that STEM subjects are essential building blocks for an inclusive society”.
In this case, the aim of fostering young people’s passion for the sciences is geared mainly towards girls, who still make up a much smaller percentage of the scientific community than their male counterparts. “True, this may be a complex revolution, but it is one that is not only necessary for our society,” explains Vaudo Scarpetta, “but more importantly, wholly possible: we have an all-female team working on Il Cielo Itinerante, and the ESA has made great leaps and bounds in improving the gender balance, in no small part because it has shown itself to be capable of demonstrating the impact of its research on the everyday lives of everyone, both men and women”.
It is incredible to consider that the third person to go into space in 1963 was a woman, Valentina Tereškova, at the age of just 26: “the Soviet Union had a fairly advanced gender balance policy for its time. It would take another two decades for her Western counterpart, American astronaut Sally Ride, to do the same. Now, thirty years later, we are proud to be able to say that during the last round of selection for female astronauts at the ESA, 39% of the candidates successfully passed the tests”.
Innovation, sustainability and inclusivity are the three guiding principles on which scientific research, urban planning and property development must interact in order to make our cities safer, more inclusive and more welcoming, without the need to fortify their boundaries; on the contrary, it is only by creating spaces for exchange, dialogue and resilience that we can contribute to mitigating the effects of climate change and the great societal challenges of our time.