Sustainable cities: innovative “hubs” and battlefields against negative change

Only ten years ago, knowing about sustainability meant that you might have accidentally read a piece of avant-garde research, speculating about harmful changes in our climate. In the blink of an eye, sustainability has gained wider momentum, and today has established itself as a global goal for our future and that of our planet.

However, years have passed but we still have a long way to go: threats to our environment and humankind haven’t disappeared as quickly as we’d hoped, and industrial production has largely been favouring short-term interests over environmentally-sound long-term benefits. Hence, the war against negative environmental impact is still on. What better battlefield than cities today?

Cities are expected to be home to over 70% of the world’s population by 2050[1]. In Europe, urban areas account for 75% of the population already. It is anticipated that US350 trillion are to be spent on urban infrastructure over the next 30 years[2]. How can we use those monetary resources effectively and sustainably?

Real Estate is a sector with one of the most comprehensive sets of tools and practical standards aiming to improve sustainability and resilience in cities. And thankfully so, as buildings account for almost 40% of carbon dioxide emissions globally, and in bigger cities up to 80%[3]. Ensuring that buildings are sustainable means finding ways to use resources efficiently, without compromising their overall purpose. Buildings should be designed with the best solutions and ideas at stake and should be a grounding element of future-proofed cities.

Great theory, great lesson, but what has been done so far?

Practical learning n 1: Business for sustainability, or sustainability for business?

A lot of initiatives and developments have taken place in the real estate sector to advance sustainability holistically. More and more, environmental standards and certifications such as BREEAM, LEED and many more have set out criteria to measure buildings’ sustainability and determine which actions can contribute to better results. Along this line, the GRESB sustainability survey has become a turning point for real estate investors’ business-wide future decisions. The speculative market environment can therefore easily be influenced by what investors believe to be future risks. This means that sustainable cities and structures are at the core of the international agenda, and they have the power to steadily shape what is next.

Practical learning n 2: All that glitters today is not gold tomorrow

Industries such as Real Estate, which deal with infrastructures that need sustainable (re)development, have started rewriting their founding lessons, with an eye for long-lasting value, rather than short-term benefit. Why is business, often the enemy to our environment, suddenly turning towards more sustainable solutions?

Industries such as Real Estate, which deal with infrastructures that need sustainable (re)development, have started rewriting their founding lessons, with an eye for long-lasting value, rather than short-term benefit.

Sustainable cities mean resilience, hence resistance to future risks and challenges. This means better stability and reward for the years to come as well as a greater understanding of how to peacefully live within our environment, rather than harming it or feeling threatened by it.  More in cities than anywhere else, where consumption patterns are the direct cause of environmental degradation, there is a need for enduring value, which can only go hand in hand with an increasing respect and understanding of how to treat our urban surroundings. What glitters today is not going to be the gold of tomorrow, if it cannot last until tomorrow!

Practical learning n 3: The happier, the better

Cities are a hub of production, which means innovation, creativity, financial reward, increasing services and ambitious professional, social and cultural opportunities. As a result, however, cities can also be stressful environments, filled with people, vehicles, infrastructure, but with little space and resources to support them. This does not only affect the resilience of businesses and infrastructures, but also of the people contributing to them, who increasingly suffer from psychological distress, anxiety and hence lower productivity. Sustainable cities and their infrastructures can only achieve enduring value if they become healthier environments for their people.

The Real Estate sector has recently made advancements in establishing health and wellbeing as a part of the sustainability agenda. Not only do sustainable buildings mean good management of resources, which inevitably meet future human needs, but research has shown that proximity to more natural elements within our urban spaces is fundamental to advancing our well-being, and as a result our productivity[4][5]. Standards such as the WELL, RESET and Fitwel have taken health and wellbeing as their main focus to aspire to resilient and thriving communities within urban spaces. Similarly, GRESB recently introduced a health and well-being module in their annual survey and it will likely gain wider coverage in future years. It seems that if you feel great within your environment, you will be happier, healthier and will reach your full potential. Isn’t this what we are all looking for?

If you agree, then you have reason to believe that because our current cities are the major obstacle to improving sustainability and finding enduring value, they are also the inherent solution.

This blog post was originally written for and published on GRESB Insights.

[1] Neij, L., Bulkeley, H. & McCormick, K. (2015) Cities and climate change: The great decarbonisation challenge, Climate in Focus, 1-4.

[2] WWF (2012) Reinventing the City: Three Prerequisites for Greening Urban Infrastructures, p. 6

[3] WF (2012) Urban Solutions for a Living Planet. P.10

[4] WF (2012) Urban Solutions for a Living Planet. P.9

[5] Ryan, C., Gaziulusoy, I., McCormick, K & Trudgeon, M. (to be published) Virtual City Experimentation: A Critical Role for Design Visioning. In: Evans, J., Karvonen A. & Raven, R (eds) The Experimental City. London: Routledge.

Net Zero and Urban Sustainability: The future really is green

This blog is part of our Net Zero series for World Green Building Week 2017 – read more here.

I’ve taken the name “World Green Building Week” a little more literally than most. All too often our urban spaces are at odds with the natural environment; masses of steel and concrete trying to control and contain the elements. However, increasingly planners and policymakers are waking up to the benefits of incorporating vegetation into our towns and cities, urban sustainability is a trend I fully expect to accelerate in the coming years.

It is an adage as old as civilisation that mankind should seek to ‘dominate’ over nature, and this insistence on control is reflected in the design of our urban environments. This persistent societal axiom has almost certainly contributed to the incredible rate of human technological advancement over the last few centuries, and has resulted in some engineering feats that are nothing short of remarkable, but we shouldn’t forget that nature’s R&D department has had an extra couple of billion years to perfect the art of living on Earth.

[clickToTweet tweet=”Increasingly planners and policymakers are waking up to benefits of incorporating vegetation into towns and cities” quote=”Increasingly planners and policymakers are waking up to the benefits of incorporating vegetation into our towns and cities”]

Take the Amazon Rainforest as an example. It is essentially able to completely to self-regulate its internal conditions, it recycles resources in situ again and again and again, and it has survived millions of years of ice age and El Nino cycles, all the while developing into the most biodiverse ecosystem on Earth. Such longevity is testament to its ability to both adapt to long-term change and to deal with major exogenous shocks; it is the ultimate display of sustainability.

Incorporating sustainability into urban environments

Whilst I’ll admit that the Amazon is far from ideal for human occupation, there are a lot of lessons we can learn from nature, and opportunities to incorporate its sustainability strategies into our urban environments. Some of the major ecosystem services that vegetation can provide include:

1.     Drainage & Flood Prevention

Sealed surfaces such as roads and buildings increase the speed and volume of runoff during precipitation events, increasing the likelihood of disruption due to flooding. Having vegetation present means that some rainwater is caught in plant canopies, before either evaporating away or dripping more gradually to the ground, thereby alleviating some of the ‘shock’ of flooding. Meanwhile, unlike tarmac, the soil in which plants sit will usually be permeable, allowing water to soak into the ground.

2.     Building Energy Usage Reductions

Trees can provide shade in summer, whilst blocking cold winds in winter, so their careful placement can reduce energy consumption for nearby buildings. Meanwhile, green roofs and green walls can act as a kind of makeshift insulation, reducing the energy required for internal temperature regulation.

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3.     Reduced Urban Heat Island Effect

As mentioned, vegetation can help cool in situ by providing shade, but it can also help cool whole urban areas by removing heat through the process of evapotranspiration. The albedo of vegetation is also lower than dark surfaces such as tarmac, meaning more energy from the Sun is reflected rather than absorbed.

4.     Improved Air Quality

Via photosynthesis, plants can be used to take up some of the carbon dioxide produced by our cars and factories. They can also absorb other gaseous pollutants and some solid pollutants, as well as acting as retention sites for impermeable particles. The extent of air quality benefits from urban vegetation is still debated, and depends a lot on a number of variables including building structure, vegetation structure, vegetation type, pollutant type, and pollutant levels.

5.     Wellbeing Benefits

Research exists that suggests that access to nature can help improve concentration, alleviate stress, and generally improve the psychological condition of those exposed. Even just having plants in and around the workplace seems to be sufficient to carry at least some psychological benefit.

[clickToTweet tweet=”Even just having plants in the workplace seems to be sufficient to carry at least some psychological benefit.” quote=”Even just having plants in and around the workplace seems to be sufficient to carry at least some psychological benefit.”]

6.     Aesthetics

Maybe it’s just me, but I think plants look pretty. The green wall on the side of the Rubens at the Palace Hotel in London is definitely worth a look, being both innovative in design and spectacular to look at.

Perhaps even more telling than the long list of benefits, is the seemingly short list of downsides to incorporating vegetation into urban spaces.

So what are the downsides?

The key issue for most places will be to do with space, which is a finite and valuable resource in modern cities. However, from rooftop gardens to green walls, people are finding new and innovative ways to integrate vegetation into even the densest urban areas, and I believe that all cities have measures available to them for improving their utilisation of available space if local governments, planners, building owners, and tenants are willing to innovate.

Other issues include the cost associated with the maintenance of vegetation, and the minor risk of damage from falling trees. However, personally I view these as minor prices to pay compared to the potential benefits that are on offer.

In conclusion, for any problem we create in our modern urban environments, nature usually has a solution. We only have to be willing to find ways to integrate it, then we can just let it help us out.