Urban sustainability: a study in green

Countries all over the world are committing to transforming their cities into models of intelligent sustainability. Vision looks at how global urban development is taking a quantum leap into a more ecologically conscious future

The need for a more environmentally responsible approach to urban development has never been more immediate or dire, particularly in developing nations, where swelling cities are struggling to provide affordable housing, good education, medical facilities and green space and recreational areas while also aiming to reduce pollution and energy consumption. These issues prompted the organisers of the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai to choose as their theme ‘Better City, Better Life’ and invite participating nations to demonstrate, through the architecture and content of their pavilions, how they are confronting these problems in unique and innovative ways.

Shanghai’s World Expo offered China the opportunity to present the city as a model example of its endeavours to develop world-leading urban policies and practices

The expanding global market for clean energy is expected to be worth US$2.2tn in 2020, and the market share of developing nations including China and India is predicted to increase dramatically as these countries implement policies to further their ecological credentials and commit funding to support the development of green projects and products. Green building and renewable energy technologies are the nexus of this low-carbon industrial revolution and developing nations, with rapidly expanding metropolises and access to raw materials, are well placed to lead the way.

Setting targets

In India, a major push to reduce carbon emissions has seen the number of construction firms implementing green building practices rise to levels similar to those of the United States, with the Indian Green Building Council setting a target for India to become the world leader in sustainable construction in the next two to three years. Investment in renewable energy by the Indian government and private investors has been increasing steadily and a recent study by the World Resources Institute estimated that the country’s renewable energy market could already be worth as much as US$2bn a year.

During the 2010 World Expo, new technologies in sustainable construction, energy provision, transportation and information and communication were presented in formats designed to engage, entertain and educate. Foremost were the buildings themselves, many of which were only made to last for the term of the fair, so the organisers insisted they be easy to disassemble and, where possible, reused elsewhere.

From the outset, the organisers of the Expo were focused on how the ideas and technologies showcased could be translated into something of lasting value and significance for the international community. To this end, they put together the Shanghai Manual: A Guide for Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century, to be used as a blueprint for tackling poverty and inadequate housing in major urban centres.

Warren Karlenzig, the founder and president of the sustainable development consultancy Common Current, helped to write the Shanghai Manual and subsequently worked with the UN on a series of training and capacity-building exercises that showed mayors and Asian leaders how to implement the report’s criteria. He says that similar events continuing across other parts of the world are a key part of the legacy of Expo 2010 and are having “untold impacts on urban sustainability policy, economic and technology development, education and societal behavioural evolution”.

Sustainability and heritage

One of the most celebrated and ecologically innovative pavilions at the Expo was that of the UAE, designed by British architects Foster + Partners. Gerard Evenden, a senior partner at the firm, explains that the pavilion’s design was informed by a “focus on sustainability and heritage”, with a ridged form covered in shimmering gold tiles evoking the sand dunes prevalent throughout the Emirates, while the solid south-facing surfaces helped to reduce solar gain – high internal temperatures caused by radiation from the sun – and north-facing vertical strips of glazing allowed light to enter the interior. “Most importantly,” says Evenden, “the pavilion was designed to be recycled, so it’s inherently sustainable – the structure has since been taken apart and rebuilt in Abu Dhabi.”

The UAE has shown its commitment to ecological innovation with the completion of the Masdar Institute, a leading centre for research and education in the areas of sustainable energy and business development. Designed by Foster + Partners, the campus itself addresses issues of sustainable urbanisation specific to the Emirates. “The main challenges are the heat and the dust, as well as conserving water,” explains Gerard Evenden. “We work to create comfortable environments in the intense heat, which don’t rely on mechanical ventilation or consume vast amounts of energy.”

Urban masterplan

The buildings are part of a larger urban masterplan for a prototypical sustainable city and contain accommodation, laboratories and public facilities. They are intelligently arranged to provide shade and reduce the need for artificial cooling. Sunshine harvested by photovoltaic panels produces more energy than is consumed by the institute. The architects also chose to revive a traditional technique to help control the climate: wind towers that channel breezes down through the buildings. “The wind towers are proving to be effective,” says Evenden. “It shows that heritage solutions still have a great deal of relevance today.”

While creative initiatives such as the Masdar masterplan demonstrate that sustainable principles can be successfully applied on a metropolitan scale, the key to implementing these ideas on a global level lies in educating and incentivising the people who make the decisions – policy makers and planners – helping them to envision these strategies working in their own cities. This is where Expos play a crucial role, providing an opportunity to present ideas, share skills and knowledge and begin the conversations that can inspire change.