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City Roots

News & Features | October 21, 2013

By the end of year, Central Park One, the world’s tallest vertical garden, will be completed. It will be the first of 11 buildings of the most ambitious urban development projects in history in downtown Sydney, Australia. Peter Nouvel’s revolutionary design calls for over half of the 1,800-unit apartment building to be covered with vines and plants. All of the rooftops are designed to capture rainwater, which can be converted into safe drinking water. Sewage output will also be sanitized and recycled into usable water on site. Energy needs will be handled via a “precinct” approach: the development will have the capacity to focus energy supply to particular regions of the complex during times of high demand in order to increase energy efficiency. The complex will also utilize a generator that heats and cools at the same site, decreasing waste and allowing the site to disperse excess energy to surrounding neighborhoods. Although an urban structure covered in bushy foliage, seemingly devoid of any human maintenance, may appear post-apocalyptic, the fusion of natural and industrial materials carried out by botanist Patrick Blanc’s design is an indication of much needed progress in the 21st century challenge of environmental preservation.

In 1800, barely three percent of the world’s population lived in cities, and only three cities in the world boasted one million residents. Today, however, the human population has exploded to seven billion in about 200 years, and over half of the world’s population has settled in urban areas. The UN estimates that the global urban population will continue to grow by 1.5 percent annually, or at a rate of 60 million new urban residents per year. More than 439 cities have already joined London, Beijing, and Tokyo at the once rare mark of one million inhabitants. By 2050, the share of people living in urban areas worldwide is expected to reach an astonishing 75 percent, which means 6.75 billion people will be living on less than 5 percent of the earth’s surface.

As people continue to migrate to cities, urban areas will become the most crucial battleground in the fight against environmental destruction, climate change, and depletion of the ecosystem. The demand for resources such as food, clean water, energy, healthcare, employment, transportation, and housing will inevitably skyrocket as the population grows. Yet cities may be the solution to many of these pressures, with the ability to mitigate potentially harmful effects on the environment. Cities provide opportunities and potential environmental benefits that are not possible outside of urban centers.

In fact, cities are arguably the “greenest” invention in the history of mankind. Their very nature enables and promotes the widespread use of public transportation, which decreases emission outputs. The close proximity of residents and businesses in urban areas decreases the energy needed to conduct commercial movement of goods and services, thus reducing both the environmental impact and monetary cost of products. The prevalence of apartment buildings and skyscrapers found in cities minimizes both the overall human footprint and use of energy . As more people move into cities in search of employment, acts of financial desperation commonly found in developing countriesmore rural areas (poaching of threatened and endangered animals, illegal logging, and forest clearing for charcoal production) will become less prevalent.

Now, city planners are consciously building with environmental intentions. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification originated as an American barometer of a building’s green cred, but is growing more popular across the world. The famed Taipei 101 skyscraper and the Seoul Finance Center in South Korea were recently granted LEED certification. China, United Arab Emirates, Brazil, Canada, India, Mexico, and Germany are the leading countries outside the US in terms of LEED certifications and registrations. Analogous certifications have been created worldwide with the BRE Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) in England, which now covers over 50 countries worldwide, the DGNB in Germany, and the CASBEE in Japan, which focuses specifically on earthquake resistance.

However, the The most important factor in creating a green city is money. Many cities cannot afford the initial payments to make green changes. Cities in Asia are facing difficulties living up to green standards due to a lack of funds. New York started saving $6 million a year after switching to energy-efficient traffic lights and pedestrian signals in 2005, but the city had to put down $28 million up front to create the changes. For the cities that can afford it, there is incredible potential for the implementation of large-scale green initiatives, such as Sydney’s Central Park development. The execution of these projects is only possible in cities with technologies that are reliant on the degree of proximity that a city like Sydney provides. Suburban and rural regions are simply not capable of supporting programs of such magnitude and inclusion. Around the world, cities are beginning to capitalize on their ability to promote efficiency by serving large numbers of people and drastically reducing the environmental impact of urban residents.

In 2007, the government of Abu Dhabi announced its plans to build “the most sustainable city in the world.” Masdar City, built entirely from scratch, functions only

on renewable energy and emits nearly zero waste. The city draws its power from a photovoltaic solar farm and the vast majority of residents use a Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) car that runs on a zero-emission electric motor. The buildings of Masdar City are organized so that a constant, cooling breeze is channeled into the city. The same organization pattern allows enough natural light to illuminate the streets, but not so much that the city overheats. All of these measures that aim to decrease the environmental impact of Masdar City can only be implemented in a large-scale setting.

Other planned cities such as the Sino-Singapore collaborative venture in China, Tianjin City, are also attempting to use organization as a means of minimizing environmental impact. Tianjin aims to be the most efficient of China’s eco-cities. The streets are lit with solar photovoltaic lights and wind turbines line the city. The government asserts that by 2020, 90 percent of Tianjin’s residents will exclusively travel by public transportation, foot, or bicycle. However, there has been criticism that the city is not as environmentally- friendly as Chinese officials claim it is. Currently the streets are paved with thin bike lanes, the wind turbines do not supply power to the city, and critics cite the recycling system—with five different categories—as too complicated. It seems Tianjin faces the same problem that many Asian cities are facing in becoming green—a lack of money.

In the 21st century, as the proportion of people residing in cities increases exponentially, harnessing the potential of urban centers will become crucial. Cities are built to implement large-scale solutions, and key projects such as Masdar City will serve as innovative role models for ambitious problem-solvers across the world. Projects that can fulfill these strict environmental standards and fit under cities’ tight budgets will soon be the true eco-cities.