Greener cities

CW looks at the growing problem of global urbanisation

Urbanisation is spreading.
Urbanisation is spreading.

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In a region where cities shoot up out of nowhere and young populations continue to expand, a trend of urbanisation is almost certainly inevitable.

The problem with increased city dwelling, as pointed out by industry professionals at the World Future Energy Summit held in Abu Dhabi earlier this month, is that with it comes high carbon emissions, inefficient building and a renewed stress on communities and system capacity.

In a discussion on how to minimise the impact of climate change, it is therefore equally inevitable that the issue of increasing urbanisation crops up. While currently cities account for almost 80% of the world’s total carbon emissions, by 2050, three quarters of the globe’s population will reside in an urban area. In the Gulf specifically, cities will have experienced a 250% increase in energy demand by 2030.

Making the situation worse, according to WFES conference speakers, is the existing ‘business as usual’ approach to going green, with only a small amount of effort to achieve LEED ratings – themselves flawed.

What needs to replace it, they say, is a city-wide approach, whereby architects and developers work together to design and develop eco-efficient urban areas, or ‘green cities’.

“It is important in this part of the world that we are honest, and that we come up with true solutions,” said Sue Roaf, a professor in architectural engineering from the UK’s Heriot Watt University. “At the moment we do not have a handle on change, which happen nowhere more quickly than in the built environment.”

Another recommendation is that we act now, rather than later. With $350 trillion set aside for infrastructure projects around the globe between now and 2040, there are clear opportunities to reinvent cities, and some obvious scope for developing a new culture of eco-efficient living.

In the Middle East, it will be important to target this early. “Typically cities spend the most in the early years when a lot of infrastructure is being built,” says Booz & Co.’s VP Nick Pennell. “It is important to get small developing cities on the right track from day one.” But what is a green city? And how can architects, developers and consultants go about creating one?

A green city has several key characteristics. First, it would be well-designed and based on good urban planning, taking account of system capacity (ie: the region’s ability to supply the city with food and water, and its resilience to natural disasters). According to Roaf, cities like Las Vegas, which is due to run out of water in the next 20 to 30 years, have been poorly planned, in sharp contrast with developments like Masdar City, designed specifically to create a sustainable community.

Second, a green city would be filled with the right kind of buildings in the right places.

Roaf described the “right buildings” as those which are durable and economically viable over long periods of time, located next to the appropriate infrastructure, and which rely on renewable energy or which run eco-efficiently using the latest sustainable technologies.

By contrast, she referred to buildings such as the Burj Khalifa, which use a large proportion of Dubai’s electricity, as ‘car-crash’ buildings, due to their lack of regard for eco-efficiency.

Adding to the argument, other speakers said green buildings should be prioritised in a green city, with green technology considered during the design phase.

“I view green buildings as one of the most essential elements of sustainable cities,” said Thomas Braig, Bayer’s VP for the EcoCommercial Building Programme in the EMEA region.

“Buildings must consider environmentally-friendly solutions at an early planning stage, as minimising energy consumption requires an optimisation of the building design and the right model for the building envelope. It also requires selection of appropriate technologies.”

Of course, it is not always possible to implement sustainable technology at the design stage, as pointed out by Clay Nesler of Johnson Controls.

“There are a number of challenges with creating sustainable cities. The reality is that a lot of buildings which will be around in 2030 are already built or being built.” As a key player in the high-profile retrofit of New York’s Empire State Building, he recommended using a similar model to retrofit existing buildings.

Of course, there is the added complexity of deciding between a building that is genuinely eco-efficient and one that is pretending to be. Roaf argued that many LEED-rated buildings are actually not eco-efficient at all, and that similar rating systems are often misleading developers.

“Some of the buildings being rated as LEED Platinum do not look like they could run on solar energy. Again and again we are seeing rating systems that are leading you up the garden path, so a six-star rated structure in Melbourne, which is supposed to be the greenest building in Australia, when built actually turns out to be using two to three times as much energy as an ordinary building.”

Examples of good green buildings, Roaf said, are those being developed at Masdar City. Incidentally, she added: “These traditional buildings which run on renewables come at a fraction of the cost of a big glass box.”

To create a green city or reinvent existing cities, it is important not only to spend the funds set aside for such development wisely, but also to be armed with a certain set of prerequisites.

According to a study conducted by Booz & Co and the World Wildlife Fund, there are three key prerequisites that cities must take into consideration.

First, they must adopt aggressive energy reduction goals and best practice approaches to urban planning if they are to reduce carbon emissions. Of course, this will require ambitious and forward-thinking urban leaders, who can come up with realistic solutions for change.

“The effect of urban planning on emissions is best illustrated by comparing US and European transportation emissions,” said a study summary report.

“Since the 1950s, a period during which the US experienced a high urbanisation rate, most cities have been planned to accommodate auto transportation for every individual. In contrast, European cities were largely planned before the widespread ownership of cars. As a result, transportation emissions per capita are almost three times higher in the US than in most European countries, including Germany, the United Kingdom, and France.”

Another prerequisite detailed in the report is that countries will need to think of innovative ways to finance development. Although green technologies can save up to $77trillion in the long term, initially cities will require an additional $22trillion-worth of investment if they are to achieve their aggressive goals.

Thus it will be important to look at public-private partnerships, as well as other financing strategies, wherever possible.

“Sustainable construction can be realised only with a minor increase in investment using solutions which are commercially available,” commented Braig. “If we consider that a building will have a sustainable lifecycle of 30 years or more, this will almost certainly increase competitive advantage.”

A final consideration, according to the study, is the deployment of the best and latest ‘green technology’. By this, the study’s authors are not simply referring to energy-saving lightbulbs or high-efficiency air-con, but a new breed of technology with a global impact.

“Incremental technological improvements cannot provide the absolute emission reductions needed given the rates at which our cities and consumption levels are growing. The technological solutions that we seek must offer transformational levels of improvement.”

Separately, Booz & Co. also has relevant ideas for what is necessary when it comes to actually constructing these cities. “There needs to be a focus on livability,” said Pennell.

“Merely setting targets for CO2 reduction does not actually work; you have to focus on bringing the population with you. Also, solutions have to be relevant to the local community. There is no point installing solar in a country where there is very little sunlight. We need to come up with different types of solutions for different types of cities.”

Top green projects:

The Empire State Building
When complete in 2013, the eco measures on the famous New York skyscraper will make it 38% more energy efficient, while total carbon emissions will be reduced by 105,000 metric tonnes over the next 15 years.

Masdar City, Abu Dhabi
The 6km2 Masdar City is an emerging global cleantech city. Expected to house 40,000 residents and hundreds of businesses, it will focus on renewable energy and sustainability technologies. It aims to be one of the most sustainable cities in the world.

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