Although my childhood dream to be a flight attendant was not meant to be, I did become an international architect who has worked in China, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia, Myanmar, Australia, Germany, England, Italy, the U.S. and my home country of Canada. Travelling to, and in many cases, living in these amazing places, the opportunity to engage in local culture and context has been foundational to understanding, designing and realizing our clients’ visions for the places they want to live, work and play.
When the World Stopped
In March 2020, a fundamental part of my life was disrupted. That is, my ability to travel. My small world, which was a good part of our whole world, became infinitely smaller and limited. I currently work on active projects in China, Singapore, Hong Kong and Vietnam from my dining room table in Toronto. Cultural interaction is limited to my immediate family and a small dog. My context is the public park across the street as I observe how our neighbourhood awkwardly engages with the concept of social distancing. Not to mention the April snow flurries which I have managed to avoid for the past 16 years of working in Asia.
I have to admit that I tried to outrun Covid-19, but this ended unsuccessfully. My family’s one-week trip to North America for Chinese New Year in late January became an extended “holiday” when our return flights to Shanghai were cancelled. China’s swift and strict response to containing the virus left people across the country trapped at their family homes, yet seems to have allowed the country to get back to business in what now looks like record time. Unfortunately, the return to “normal” did not include welcoming back international residents. Grounded in Toronto, Covid-19 caught up to me and I am experiencing WFH, social distancing, learning how to do simple tasks wearing masks and gloves and lining up the length of a hockey stick apart to go to the grocery store.
Haste, Exhaustion and Carbon
Even before this happened, Greta Thunberg and other notable public figures began to highlight the tremendous impact of air travel on carbon emissions. Originating in Sweden, the “flygskam” or “flight-shaming” movement aims to educate people (if left unchecked air travel could consume a full quarter of the available carbon budget for limited temperature rise to 1.5C) and encourage alternative types of transport. I have to admit that boarding an airplane had become as novel as taking the local city bus. The frequency of flights between that I could choose from to work in cities across Asia and North America was hourly. I thought nothing of getting on a plane in the morning to meet a client and make it back home for a late dinner. This has all come to a sudden and complete stop, and I now have time to consider that perhaps this was indeed getting out of control.
One World, Interconnected
This virus is demonstrating like never before that we are one world, interconnected. We are all reevaluating the importance of things we too often took for granted – food, shelter, health, work, education. And when these needs are satisfied, what is it that we miss most? It is our connection to our fellow humans and to the great outdoors. Shared meals, mountain hikes, coffee with friends, swimming in the sea, the arts, dancing…each of us has a different, and likely long, list. We will emerge from confinement more desirous to connect, travel and explore than ever before. We’re intelligent beings on a small planet – we are capable of dreaming up new ways of connecting that are somewhere between “Zooming” and getting on planes every day. There are intriguing clues to new possibilities if we care to look. Our new reality may be just the impetus some of these nascent models need to take flight (pun intended!)
The counterpoint to “flygskam” is “tagskryt” – train bragging! Anyone who has had the pleasure of being whisked from city centre to city centre by high speed train in Europe or Japan, and most recently China, will tell you with enthusiasm that it is the only way to travel. Imagine a return to the days when the transport was part of the experience. Leisurely Atlantic crossings with wining and dining and efficient trains with wifi and waiter service have a lot to recommend them. And we now know we can work from anywhere so what’s the rush?
WFH – Work from Holiday
Zillow CEO Rich Barton just let his entire staff know that they are free to work from home (or anywhere) through the end of 2020. So why stay home? Programs like Remote Year, with the tagline “Come with your job and a suitcase. We’ll take care of the rest.” provide opportunities for untethered professional to live like locals in cities around the world in a community of professionals from different backgrounds and industries. As we all learn how to work remotely these opportunities could open up for more of us. Allowing us to travel less but stay longer.
Virtual Experiences in a Real World
Since lockdown bands, brands and venues have quickly pivoted to provide virtual cultural experiences. From a virtual festival featuring live DJs streaming from an empty London nightclub to Lady Gaga’s One World concert hosted by Amazon these events show that we can share experiences together while apart. Perhaps we could see hotel chains offer access to virtual events allowing people to stay locally but participate in say, Coachella, the Venice Carnivale or New York Fashion Week. People could stay close to home yet participate in a unique cultural experience and share it with others around the world.
Our enforced confinement and the cessation of world industrial activity has also rekindled our appreciation for the natural world. The glamping and vanlife movements have been growing for some time, offering access to remote locations and the opportunity to connect with nature. Companies like Pacific Northwest-based ROAM Beyond have combined the best of both worlds to provide off-the-grid experiences that are at the same time refined and comfortable. Proving that sustainable travel doesn’t have to be uncomfortable travel!
Planning our Next Trip
I am sure that many of us are gazing out the window dreaming of our next trip, but wondering when and if we can make those plans. While we plan and dream we have a wonderful opportunity to reinvent the way we travel.
Experiencing the cultures and contexts of people around the world certainly made me a better architect and resulted in the creation of places which bring together the best practices, experiences and aesthetics from around the world. I am now pondering how, in light of all we have learned during this unprecedented moment in history, we can leverage our shared experience to keep the best bits, lose the worst bits and set free our ingenuity and creativity to do what we love while protecting the very Earth that makes it possible.