The sustainable urban century

Materials World magazine
3 Aug 2015

Khai Trung Le explores the rising need for urban sustainability, and the complex balance between cities, government and the community.

We are in the first urban century. 54% of the world’s population live in an urban environment, with this figure expected to escalate to 60% by 2020 and as much as 70% by 2050. It is no surprise to anyone that sustainability – development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own – is an integral consideration when establishing a city’s quality of life, economic prosperity and environmental efforts.

The ever-increasing urban population means cities are experiencing a range of challenges from air and water pollution and waste management to issues brought about by poorly planned growth, or an overwhelmed capacity to pay for new infrastructure while maintaining existing facilities. But balancing the scales is a complex business, and that balance is still being sought.

The city & the city

Europe and Asia Pacific have strong standings in the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index 2015, with seven and three of the top 10 cities in the index respectively. Europe shows consistency, with 11 entries within the top 25, while Asia-Pacific cities show the most diversity – in addition to featuring three top 10 cities in Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore, the region represents four of the bottom five cities in Manila, Mumbai, Wuhan and New Delhi.

Europe’s accomplishment is noteworthy, with Frankfurt, London and Copenhagen ranked top three. However, a recurring pattern in the continent is apparent – while economic and environmental efforts are well served, socio-cultural initiatives concerning areas including infrastructure, work-life balance and green spaces, broadly regarded as quality of life, are poorly met. Cities including Brussels and Madrid fall disproportionately short on socio-cultural accomplishments compared with cities further down the list including Melbourne and Tokyo.

However, James Goodman, Director of Futures at Forum for the Future, was keen to dissuade an overreliance on indices. ‘There are loads, and how they get calculated is always different. I remember Richard Florida’s Boho Britain Index, a combined index calculating the creativity of a city by looking at the percentage of people who were homosexual, the number of patents produced and the ethnic diversity. And, you know, you could contest that.’

The known world

Urbanised areas account for disproportionate environmental damage – about 80% of global carbon emissions and wood used for industrial purposes, and 60% of global residential water use. But, to paraphrase Professor Jianguo Wu, Arizona State University, cities can be regarded as the manifestation of human ambition and creativity, the drivers of knowledge and socio-cultural transformation and the engines of economic growth.

Both Goodman and Sandrine Dixson-Declève, Director of the Prince of Wales Corporate Leaders Group and the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), agree that the primary obstacle towards urban sustainability is not in the hands of scientists and engineers, but of the corporate entity.

Dixson-Declève said, ‘There is a need for a new model across all sectors to ensure that sustainability is fully embedded into business, and also a full systems change. We still have the wrong figures, the wrong economic signals that enable business to move in this direction.

‘For example, continued fossil fuel subsidies in some countries, and the fact that we’re not necessarily pricing carbon across the globe. These are signals that indicate that it’s okay to continue to invest in high-carbon business models and technologies rather than start to switch to decarbonisation.’

An issue with the universal goal of urban sustainability is while the conclusions are shared – lower environmental impact, greater wellness in the population and increased green space and community – there is no formula to reconcile the difference between cities as disparate as Singapore and Mumbai.

Goodman commented, ‘With Singapore, you have a very different form of governance, not democratic, though well known for taking a long-term view from a benevolent paternalistic approach. They invest heavily in futures capacity – every government department has its resident futurist, and horizon scanning is embedded in policy and strategy development, and that is a very positive direction. Is Singapore a sustainable city? It imports a huge amount and is not energy or food independent. But it is a trading and industrial hub and, in the future, I think it can make a big difference through its regional influence, showing a pathway to sustainability.

‘Mumbai is a completely different kettle of fish. They have a city population pushing 25 million, and poverty is the greatest issue. The priority has to be to lift people out of poverty in an equitable way. The challenges are entirely different.’

Mumbai’s population also highlights another potential problem. While the population growth in Tokyo within the next 15 years is predicted to be as low as 1%, other cities including Shanghai (54%) and Nairobi (121%) will need to dramatically expedite sustainability plans related to population influx to meet the increase or risk future efforts being overwhelmed.

If there is a lesson, it is that not all cities are equal, and neither are any given city’s priorities. This difference is indicative of the cavalcade of details that needs to be considered when ensuring a progressive, sustainable urban environment.

So I bought a little city, awful pretty

British Initiatives such as the widely reported and controversial Garden Bridge need no introduction. However, the esoteric need not be confined to the likes of a floating pedestrian park. Foster + Partner’s proposed SkyCycle, a sprawling neon-lit network of cycle paths positioned above existing railway corridors more Tron than La Route Verte, aims to give cyclists car- and pedestrian-free passages for safer, faster pushbike travel throughout the capital. The architectural firm of Lord Norman Foster has persistently introduced bold attempts at urban sustainability, including its residential London Towers featuring one bike parking space for every bedroom (1,486 to only 200 car park spaces) to facilitating the outright ban of cars in Masdar, a planned city in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

Not all attempts at innovative city life have proven successful. Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67, one of two surviving pavilions from Montreal’s ‘world’s fair’ Expo 67, is a cubist complex renowned for its wildly ambitious, government-sponsored attempt at reinventing apartment living. Then 27, Safdie realised this desire upon seeing the tight, cramped corridors of New York during a travelling fellowship. Decrying its congestion, lack of light and absence of nature, Safdie condemned it with a succinct statement – ‘Those who have no choice live there.’

Habitat 67 would operate on a simple premise, ‘for everyone a garden’. An emphasis on providing individual green space for each occupant and architecture focused on enabling as much light as possible, it started as an ambitious daydream but would be regarded as a resounding failure. From a spiralling budget that would later determine rent levels far above the socialistic intentions that have themselves been wildly exaggerated – Habitat 67 was always intended to service middle-class earners – to the range of architectural problems culminating into the decision for Canada to sell Habitat 67 to the private sector in 1986. Since then, Habitat apartments are routinely listed on Sotheby’s, valued up to US$1.5 million.  Safdie has continued to take the same ethos into projects including Singapore’s Bishan Residential Development and The Esplanade, Massachusetts, but fails to evade the question of how far his efforts go to reach the less privileged.

More recent and successful efforts include Brooklyn Grange, a rooftop farm in Long Island City showing that environmental concern need not be detached from entrepreneurship, and the 300,000 hectares of city-managed green space circling Shanghai. The latter was established in the late 20th Century and produces impressive numbers, including almost 100% of the chicken, eggs and milk consumed in the city, 80% of vegetables and freshwater fish, and 50% of pork. While the two have succeeded on vastly different merit, both are held as prime examples of urban farming.

Epic of Gilgamesh

Uruk was the first known city of the world, established in southern Mesopotamia around 6,500 years ago. Best known for its king Gilgamesh, Uruk is notably the site of many of history’s firsts – the origin of writing, the first examples of architectural work in stone and some of the earliest examples of immigration in urban settings, among others. From its establishment to abandonment in 630, historian Stephen Bertman claims that Uruk had a lifespan of 5,000 years.

Many would challenge similar lifespans for contemporary cities. Urban sustainability is of absurd importance, ambitious by necessity and the responsibility of all. The role of community, government and the corporation is undeniable, with many arguing that a fundamental change in attitude and operation is required to bring about real change. But, discussing the CISL and Corporate Leaders Group’s work with the Mayor of Warsaw, Dixson-Declève believes that substantial change is beginning to assert itself.

‘I think the emerging economies are actually moving very quickly in some regards, especially in cities. A great deal of new types of urbanisation in the emerging economies are a real switch from state-owned operations and state-run cities to local authorities having more power to be able to do what they want.

‘You’ll find cities like Warsaw with an enlightened mayor who wants to green some of the zones in the city and change the way urban development occurs. I think the key factor is where local authorities feel that they have greater power and jurisdiction over their cities to be able to really transform them, and where some of them are enlightened leaders, you’ll see some real shifts.’

Change is slowly occurring, and while it may not be as dedicated or dramatic as many view necessary, its importance cannot be underestimated. While not every city can prosper as Uruk once did, as former Secretary General of the UN Kofi Annan stated, the future of humanity lies in cities.

Percentage of global population living in urban environment

1800 – 2%

1900 – 14%

1950 – 30%

2007 – 50%

2014  – 53%

(Jianguo Wu, Urban sustainability: an inevitable goal of landscape research)