For Day Two of the World Environment Day conference, I went to the afternoon session on urban environments, "Partners Planning for Sustainable Cities" (I was tempted by the sustainable business event with Gil Friend and Joel Makower, but decided that they'd do a far better job telling us what they said themselves...). The green cities session included an interesting mix of theory and practice, along with quite the global perspective.
Presenters included two UN officials (one from UN-Habitat, one from UNEP), a representative from the World Bank Institute, the mayors of cities in Peru, South Korea, Sri Lanka and Spain, and an Oakland-based urban designer with a strong environmental focus.
Although the experiences of the various mayors varied widely, all of the presenters ended up striking similar themes. The big ideas:
Read on for more detail on these themes, as well as a discussion of urban transitions to sustainability.
Mentioned by several of the speakers -- but never given a great deal of discussion -- was the notion that, in many ways, sustainable planning now is largely making up for a lack of past planning.. Ricardo Sanchez, from UNEP, noted that the pace of urbanization in the developing world varies considerably, and that 76% of the Latin American and Caribbean population now lives in cities -- something that past planners had never considered. Moreover, added Jorge Gavidia of UN-Habitat, of the approximately 16,000 municipalities in Latin America, just 80 are home to 40% of the region's urban population. One big result from the lack of good planning is that these massive urban populations are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters.
All of the speakers agreed that the key determinant of success is coordination among stakeholders. Cooperation among government, NGOs, businesses and especially the public was absolutely mandatory. The mayor of Lurin, Peru, Jose Luis Ayllon, observed that this proved difficult to achieve when local businesses were violating existing environmental laws, but could not be confronted when they were the primary regional employers. The mayor of Seogwipo, Korea, Kang Sang-Joo, added that another issue was insufficient citizen expertise in planning and urban issues, necessitating a major educational campaign. Mohamed Hilmy, mayor of Matale, Sri Lanka, built on that idea, talking about opening multiple "environment centers" to educate citizens about sustainable cities, with a particular focus on children. Once all the stakeholders understood the scale of the issue, coordination was possible -- but only, noted mayor Alfonso Alonso of Vitoria, Spain, if the local leadership made an effort to build the coalition.
Cooperation isn't just necessary within municipalities, it's extremely helpful to have between cities. Knowledge transfer is critical, both transfer from best practices used elsewhere, and transfer to cities just now starting to think about sustainable design. Curitiba, Brazil, was cited by several speakers as an excellent example of sustainable urbanism, but Gordon Feller, a consultant working for the World Bank Institute (the "knowledge bank" part of the World Bank) spoke at length about "horizontal discussions" between urban leaders, allowing cities to learn from each other. Both Alfonso Alonso and Mohamed Hilmy backed up that idea, with Alonso discussing the practice of sharing strategies and sustainable designs with other cities elsewhere in Spain and beyond, and with Hilmy talking about both learning from Nuremberg, Germany, and passing along its expertise within Sri Lanka to assist the tsunami recovery process in the affected region.
At the same time, some of the speakers called out the need for greater local control. Increasingly, decentralization/devolution of control to local authorities is seen by planners as crucial. Alonso argued that a movement to build sustainable cities would need to make certain that decisions that affect local communities are made by local citizens. Sanchez, in turn, argued that decentralization was necessary for sustainable development, saying that "at the local level, statistics have faces."
One presenter, Richard Register of Ecocity Builders, spoke less about implementation issues and more about bigger, longer-term ideas of urban sustainability. Register talked in detail about the need to move away from an automobile-based urban design, arguing that even high-efficiency vehicles, whether hybrid or hydrogen, are more problem than solution: "energy-efficient cars create an energy-inefficient city," as they make sprawl more survivable in a high-energy-cost environment. Instead, cities need to become denser, more walkable, with a focus on what he calls "access by proximity" -- making services available to the urban population by making sure they're nearby.
Recognizing that existing cities can't simply be redesigned from scratch, Register advocates a proximity mapping process, whereby existing centers of activity are identified and mapped, along with their concentric rings of habitation. Once identified, city planners would then reinforce the hubs by zoning them for greater density, allowing new buildings and reconstruction of old buildings to have greater size and mixed use; at the same time, the fringes of the concentric rings would subtract development by not rebuilding when homes are vacated or damaged (e.g., by fire), and by a combination of "depaving" -- removal of paved areas -- and creek restoration. He showed multiple images of his group's proposals for the city of Berkeley; as the discussion and images on this page at Ecocity Builders show, the proposal is both ambitious and appealing.
Register agreed that most city planners and urban leaders would be reluctant to accept such a massive overhaul of city layout and zoning, even if it would take years to effect. Register instead calls for what he terms "urban fractals," small representative pieces of the city made to serve as models of what the city as a whole could be. Seeing the reality of what a sustainable city looks like and feels like to live in tends to generate a great deal of enthusiasm for the design.
Taken as a whole, the speakers left me feeling some hope for the willingness of urban communities around the world to confront the need for sustainable design head-on, but also left me concerned about the scale of the effort required and the time available. As Register noted, we're rapidly approaching an intersecting set of crises: climate change; loss of biodiversity; and the "peak oil" scenario. Shifting to an urban pattern that allows for far greater energy efficiency, restoration of plant and animal life within the city layout, and a move away from automobile-centrism would definitely help stave off the worst of these crises, but doing so at the current pace of urban change would take decades, time we simply do not have.
"Instead, cities need to become denser, more walkable, with a focus on what he calls "access by proximity" -- making services available to the urban population by making sure they're nearby."
Excellent ideas all, in fact, it sounds exactly like new urbanism. Check out, for example, James Kunstlers "Home From Nowhere", written in the previous decade.
"but doing so at the current pace of urban change would take decades, time we simply do not have."
This is simply not true for a couple of reason. Should the oil peak take place, we will accelerate programs that reward getting away from automobiles. Bans on nuclear power plants will be repealed as the need for them reaches the tipping point. While this is not the safest way to produce electricity, it is very clean power. Even the elimination of nuclear waste is merely a matter of putting the waste in subduction zones and allowing the earth's convection cells to do the recycling for us.
As fuel rises in cost to accomodate a decreased supply, car sales will plummet. Manufacturers will revive their electric cars and alternative fuels in an attempt to maintain sales.
In short, we have the time, what we truly need is momentum and the will to make the change.
I think the main reason people resist such dense urban planning and such is because like me they would rather live in a world like mad max then spend one day with the kind of people that wana live in those places. Imagine spending the rest of your life stuck in a dense town filled with peppy upbeat careing people.. a town of richard simmons'.... 100s of richard simmons's per block, block after block after block....
~A model that may play well elsewhere which I am working to implement is that of my non-profit org. Holistic Affordable Housing or H!A!H!
~It is devoted to creating accessible, low-cost, hi-density, eco-condos & apt.s in the city.
~By using collective greenhouses & laundry rooms, generating electricity every time one flushes or drains the tub & harnessing human movement, we will make a major impact on city design.
~By establishing an example of an ecologically designed neighborhood with lawned roofs, sculptural & natural aesthetic design that balance the need for privacy & quiet w/collective spaces & shared resources, inspiration to participate should grow exponentially.
~Co-housing & the re-design of businesses & municipal structures would be more probable because of a beautiful & close-by sample of what is possible with existing techniques & equipment.
~De-car-ification will foster biking, mass transit & vehicle-sharing.
~I'm attempting to get on a new Sustainability Commission being created by the local government. Look for bold things to be happening in Bloomington, Indiana, the thorn in the side of the recalcitrant, recidivist republican state of Indiana.
~If anyone is interested in starting a chapter or sister org. in their area, or those wishing to share anecdotes, info or resources, please contact me.
Mylo Roze, Founder~Holistic Affordable Housing