Sustainable Cities?

One of the more interesting outcomes of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro has been the proliferation of Local Agenda 21 plans. The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) currently lists some 460 members, representing more than 300 million people, dedicated to creating sustainable cities. It is believed that cities are the best test bed to protect and repair the environment, because they represent the institutions closest to the people and their problems. If this is true, then one would expect to find breakthrough technologies first appearing in cities committed to sustainability. However, is it even possible to imagine a truly sustainable city?

Greater Vancouver, Canada has developed an award-winning 100-year plan (www.citiesplus.ca). It sees the city of the future being more like a living organism, with buildings fulfilling multiple functions, flows of materials, water, and energy in short loops connected to larger loops, multiple transportation choices as well as less need for longer distance transport, and greening of the import/export supply chains. However, the design is based mainly on technology that already exists or is under development, and does not anticipate new technologies that could totally change the nature of a city.

While the Jetsons cartoon series on television illustrates the extremes of possible new transportation technology, serious efforts are being made to change the way we move people and goods. The mag-lev train in Shanghai is a shining example of such technology, but it illustrates how far the rest of PRC will need to change if city transportation is to become sustainable. There are still more than 540 million bicycles in PRC, but riding them becomes more hazardous every year. Almost all the bicycles made in PRC are now exported. A recent survey in 20 cities by the Association of Chinese Customers found a third of urban families plan to buy a car within five years. In 2003 annual car sales (2 million plus) increased by over 80% over 2002. Yet only three in one thousand Chinese own a car. In Shanghai, the auction price to reserve a license plate is rapidly escalating to over $4,000. If ever there was a case for leap frogging technology, this must be it.

Inventor, Palle Jensen in Denmark thinks he has the answer. Rapid, urban, flexible (RUF) vehicles provide an electric vehicle for short individual trips and become part of a computer-guided train when they enter an elevated, automated guideway. RUF vehicles could travel at speeds up to 100 km/hr. RUF owners will plug in their vehicles to recharge overnight and drive to the guideway in the morning, entering their destination into a computer. They can then sit back and read the newspaper. After exiting the guideways, the driver takes over the controls again and proceeds to the office. A prototype is under development at the Engineering College of Copenhagen.

Another alternative for those who don’t mind mass transit systems is Calgary’s “ride the wind” project. Calgary, Canada, has a light rail transit system completely powered by wind energy. About 157,000 passengers ride the C-Train every day (BLP-UNHABITAT).

Of course, if you didn’t need to travel to the office at all, then commuting would not be such a constraint. In Chula Vista, California, residents can drop into a neighborhood telecenter and telecommute. Telecenters have computers, modems, telephones and other office support services to complete normal office activities. To avoid running around town filling in forms for urban services, e-government can also reduce inner city transport. Digital democracy, telematic participation and citizenship and building an online interactive community is the key idea of Iperbole, an Internet-based citizens free-of-charge metropolitan civic network set up in 1995 by the city of Bologna, Italy. The Municipality of Bologna offers free email, direct access to its website, and free internet connections.

However, even if you don’t need to drag yourself away from your home computer, what about that energy inefficient house? In Germany, the Trade Union Confederation proposed a project to retrofit buildings to reduce energy consumption and create jobs. Approved in 2000, by September 2003 115,000 renovation projects had been approved and thousands of new jobs created, not only in traditional building industries but also in photovoltaics, solar heating, new insulation materials and building materials. For every dollar in subsidies, there has been $5 in private investment. After renovation, owners have experienced up to 85% energy reduction.

For new buildings, the BedZED project in the London Borough of Sutton involves architect designed, well-insulated, low energy, and low land consuming housing that is also very attractive. For low-income housing provided by the government, the Housing Executive in Ireland has retrofitted flats with solar panels, provided energy efficient lights and appliances and energy efficiency advice to the tenants. To date, about half of the energy generated has been surplus to requirement and goes back into the grid (EEB et al 2004).

If you are in an energy efficient house, don’t need to commute (or commute on zero emissions mass transit), and minimize your consumption, and all your neighbors do the same, is it then a sustainable city. Unfortunately not! Disposal of wastes remains a major problem for most cities. One of the most innovative solutions is in Fukuoka, Japan, where wastewater is treated and recycled into a parallel water system for flushing toilets and other water uses that don’t require “new” water. Fukuoka has also devised a semi-aerobic low cost solid waste treatment system that is being implemented in many other Asian locations. Microbial fuel cells that use bacteria to generate electricity from wastewater have been developed and are being scaled up for commercial use (and being shrunk to fit into space modules for a manned flight to Mars).

The final test of how sustainable your city is depends on how much of your building (and other urban infrastructure) is recycled once its useful life is completed. Carpets and acoustic ceiling tiles are being recycled in several cities in the USA. Bricks, cement rubble, timber, and wiring have been reused for many years. Strangely enough no estimate is available of what percentage of the average house can be recycled. Of course, the poor in developing countries are used to recycling their building materials as they are often relocated from land on which they have squatted. They can just load their building materials on a bicycle or their backs and relocate.

There is ample evidence that cities could be made more sustainable – but how much?. The mystery is why no city government has yet provided a comprehensive model for other cities to follow. Is anyone aware of which city would be regarded as the world leader in sustainability? Sydney, Australia is now calling for design suggestions.

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