Not just energy's problem

Green cities are a hot topic, but where are we going wrong?

Elizabeth Broomhall
Elizabeth Broomhall

On receipt of an invitation to the World Future Energy Summit, I initially put it to the bottom of the priority list.

The four-day event was probably going to be the same as any other, unlikely to generate any ground-breaking construction news, just more of the usual “use-my-eco-friendly-product” exhibition stands.

The green cities session changed my mind. With urban areas currently responsible for almost 80% of the world’s carbon emissions, the pressure on both the developing and developed world to establish green cities is increasing.

And the situation is inevitably only going to get worse as three quarters of the world’s population adopt an urban lifestyle before 2050. Based on the way cities have developed in the past, we should expect this to put huge stress on communities and system capacity, whilst inducing a culture of waste, inefficient building and high levels of carbon emissions.

In truth, urbanisation isn’t just energy’s problem, it is construction’s as well. With such a massive role to play in creating new urban areas and retrofitting old ones, the building industry needs to take a leading role, not just in the construction of green buildings, but in the development of green cities and centres.

Developers should be working together with governments to develop whole communities; architects should be inspiring developers by generating more innovative designs for green living spaces, and even contractors and consultants could play a part by submitting tenders with green building and sustainable technologies at heart.

In the Middle East, the interest is there and the technology is available, but while developers remain inhibited by heavy initial investment and contractors fear losing out to cheaper bidders, the capacity continues to be directed in the wrong way.

Then there are the flawed business models and rating systems which continue to narrow the definition of green building and keep the industry preoccupied with individual buildings and minor changes. LEED, for all its benefits, is far too focused on singular projects, and demands limited effort and collaborative working.

Hence, why sustainability experts critique it. From architect Frank Gehry’s remark that ratings are awarded for bogus add-on features, to engineering expert Nick Lander’s comment that LEED is a marketing tool used to tick a box and avoid being left behind in the property market. The truth is: while the industry remains hung up on LEED, city-wide sustainability will be put on the back burner.

In sharp contrast, the really good examples of green building, Masdar City and KAUST, are making energy and water savings of more than 50% and serving whole communities.

This is because they bring public and private together; they push the boundaries in relation to design, infrastructure and transport and they continue to revise plans to ensure optimum sustainability at all times. In short, they never take the easy option, and it pays off.

Of course, the regional construction industry has at least started on the road towards green communities, otherwise the likes of Masdar and KAUST wouldn’t have been contemplated in the first place.

But something tells me that these projects could be one-off trophy developments. For every KAUST there are hundreds of glass towers flying up, and it’s unlikely that governments are going to stop them.

Places like Qatar and Saudi in particular are counting on fast-paced city development to attract tourism and reduce their reliance on oil and gas reserves, and, while they might care about going green, they not going to let it get in their way.

What the industry really needs is to redefine the notion of ‘green building’, so that it no longer denotes the addition of simple features to stand-alone structures, but refers to big, collaborative steps towards the development of eco-friendly cities communities and wider public spaces, through the use of the best technologies and expertise for a far-reaching impact.

Clearly, this will take some brave steps on behalf of the construction industry.

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