From biophilic ‘forest cities’ to carbon-negative buildings that merge technology with vernacular architecture, the critical question of how to tackle the climate crisis is sparking ever more creative solutions
At the opening ceremony of the 10th World Urban Forum (WUF), 15-year-old Leah Namugerwa addressed delegates with the stark closing remark: “There is no time left … Please take serious climate action now.”
Inspired by fellow teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, Namugerwa has become a cause célèbre for the climate crisis’ youth movement and a household name in her native Uganda. Her impassioned request was one of the more affecting calls to action at the United Nations Habitat Group conference last February in Abu Dhabi.
Cities have always been these centres of culture and innovation and through people’s interaction a hotbed of invention and ultimately problem solving
For six days, thought leaders, politicians, designers and administrators gathered en masse to deliberate the uncertain future facing the world’s rapidly developing urban areas and to spark ideas on potential solutions. The overarching theme of this year’s WUF—traditionally focused on the Triple Bottom Line framework of people, planet and profit—factored in a fourth pillar, culture, under the banner “Cities of Opportunities: Connecting Culture and Innovation”.
It may sound like a conveniently sprawling topic under which to tackle such pressing matters but, as Jason Pomeroy, co-author and editor of the conference’s eponymous companion publication, puts it, the concept is inextricably linked with the future of sustainable urban development.
“When we think about culture and innovation in singular terms it feels like culture has to do with the past, time-tested rituals and traditions, and when we think about innovation we tend to think about technology and the future,” he says. “But cities have always been these centres of culture and innovation and through people’s interaction a hotbed of invention and ultimately problem solving.”
The world, meanwhile, is currently undergoing the largest wave of urban growth in history. More than half of the global population is already concentrated in urban areas and by 2060 two thirds of the expected population of 10 billion will live in cities, according to the latest United Nations’ Environment Global Status Report. To accommodate this unprecedented growth, global building stock is expected to double to 230 billion square metres — the equivalent of adding an entire New York City every month for the next 40 years.
With the building, construction and renovation sectors accounting for almost 40 perccent of global greenhouse gas emissions, it is imperative that this new stock meets zero-net carbon emissions targets. The question is, how?
Shifting investor sentiment already plays a significant role. Steffen Hörter, global head of ESG (environmental, social and governance) at Allianz Global Investors, reports that green residential and office buildings tend to command a respective sales return of approximately 17 and 26 percent more than non-green counterparts in the market.
A new generation of sustainably minded homeowners is also expected to encourage developers to work towards net-zero emissions, with Morgan Stanley research from 2019 revealing that 95 percent of millennials are “interested in sustainable investment.” Moreover, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of The World Bank Group, estimates that by 2030, residential and commercial green buildings will represent a USD17.8-trillion investment opportunity in Asia alone.
“The great thing about sustainable development is that you can always find a reason for doing it,” says Joelle Chen, programme director at sustainable advisory, design and engineering consultancy Beca.
While such signs are positive for the region’s green building movement, they largely rely on an overhaul in both policy and best practice from both public and private sectors, and the primary drivers of change depend on a market’s level of development.
“In emerging markets, sustainable development enables the urban situation to develop in a way that benefits people by prioritising local resources, including energy,” says Chen. In more mature markets where “energy and water supply are often stable, it’s the investor agenda. Real estate funds and investors are increasingly interested in environmental, social and corporate governance performance, the ranking, and how it’s reported.”
Yet market maturity doesn’t always align with the adoption of green building practices. In Thailand, for instance, developers are often deterred by the high costs of building materials and energy-reducing equipment required to meet green certification standards. At the other end of the scale, Southeast Asia’s highest utility rates incentivise developers in the Philippines to increasingly rely on low-energy technology to minimise bottom lines. The Building and Construction Authority in Singapore, meanwhile, has spent the last 15 years offering a series of incentive schemes to offset green development, design and retrofitting costs, allowing the economics to balance out supply and demand. The self-titled Garden City, which aims to have 80 percent of its buildings certified under its Green Mark scheme by 2030, is already home to some of the region’s most innovative low-energy and zero-carbon emissions buildings. Completed in 2019, the National University of Singapore’s six-storey School of Design and Environment building, dubbed SDE4, is the city’s first new-build net-zero energy building.
According to Christopher Lee, principal at Serie Architects, one of the firms behind the design, the 8,500-square-metre SDE4 has been conceived to “challenge the notion that a highly energy efficient building has to be very opaque.” Combining the power of more than 1,200 photovoltaic panels with vernacular architecture, including verandas, terraces and balconies that facilitate natural ventilation and naturally forming water management systems, the building is estimated to save about SGD180,000 (USD126,000) in energy costs a year.
Developing on a smaller scale, Pomeroy Studio achieved the arguably more ambitious feat of designing The B House, a carbon-negative property located in upmarket Bukit Timah. One of the few properties of its kind in the region, the standalone residence offsets the energy requirements of its occupants by incorporating the passive design techniques associated with Singapore’s colonial black and white bungalows, including roof overhangs, large verandas and shutters to optimise natural light and ventilation, coupled with green technology.
In China, the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide—although not per capita—acclaimed design firm Stefano Boeri Architetti is creating the world’s first “forest city”. Commissioned by Liuzhou Municipality Urban Planning, the 175-hectare Liuzhou Forest City will be home to an estimated 30,000 people. Citizens will live in an eco-community in which each building is almost entirely covered in nearly a million plants and surrounded by 40,000 trees. Together, the flora is estimated to absorb almost 10,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide and 57 tonnes of pollutants, while producing approximately 900 tonnes of oxygen annually. “The diffusion of plants in parks, gardens, along the streets and over building facades will allow the energy-self-sufficient city to contribute to improving air quality,” says the firm’s principal Stefano Boeri, whose previous work includes the Vertical Forest building in Milan. “We can also decrease the average air temperature, create noise barriers, and improve the biodiversity of living species, generating a habitat for birds, insects, and small animals.”
In contrast to Liuzhou’s lush greenery, Bandung in Indonesia has taken a technology-driven approach to tackling environmental issues and promoting sustainable development on a city-wide level.
Conceived by architect Ridwan Kamil, the city’s former mayor and now governor of West Java, an administrative digital command centre provides each of its almost 2.6 million citizens with a direct digital platform to air grievances, make suggestions, and report instances, for example, of pollution, rising water levels, and flooding. Algorithms then assess trending topics, and resources are dedicated to solving the most pertinent environmental issues and improving government efficiency.
Technology will also inevitably play a much greater role in the efficiency of sustainable design and construction. Traditional building methods, which often begin with designers and engineers developing plans for contractors who inevitably redesign and re-engineer before sharing with developers, will increasingly become a thing of the past, predicts Beca’s Chen. “We see so much unsustainable behaviour as a result of this linear method,” she says. “By being more strategic, front-loading the process and designing in advance, we can work more collaboratively. A lot of these designs can be done in a digital space. And that’s one of the largest pieces of convincing we need to do in the industry.”
The future of green building and sustainable design, however, does not necessarily need to rely wholly on state-of-the-art technology or multi-million-dollar master-planned green cities. A back-to-basics approach can be just as effective. And this is where Pomeroy’s, and indeed the recent World Urban Forum’s, celebration of the relationship between culture and innovation comes into play.
He believes the most sustainable—and cost-effective—method for designing buildings is to first understand the culture and environment in which it is being built. With a knowledge of traditional building orientations, materials and methodologies, construction and technology costs can be considerably reduced. It is only then towards the final stages of a project that Pomeroy begins to apply active green technology to further reduce carbon emissions.
“Every culture has its own form of building design that has almost gone through a Darwinian evolution—leaving us with the best designs,” he says. “Those that worked environmentally and were easily constructed by the local people survived. Those are the ones we learn from.
“All the clues are there. It’s just a question of thinking about modern technologies sensitively and abstracting those lessons from the past.”
It would seem that history, as is often the case, has a way of repeating itself. The hope now is that lessons from the past, combined with ever-advancing technology and respect for local culture and environment can go some way towards creating a more sustainable future for 15-year-olds like Leah Namugerwa and her generation.
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