MAGAZINE SPECIAL REPORT: Mastering the urban realm

What can a 20-something urbanist and blogger from Dubai tell us about Europe's place in the sustainable planning world? Karishma Asarpota gives her views and recounts her experiences gained from numerous study trips and workshops across the globe.

'While good examples of urban development abound in Europe and globally, the world is not yet ready for the renewable energy transition. A survey in the Netherlands a few years ago asked people how much of total energy consumption they think comes from renewables. The average person guessed about 35-40% while in reality it is only about 5%. The information gap shows there is a long way to go in terms of what is happening on the ground and what people think.

For me, Europe is one of the better examples in the world for sustainable urban development, though I would not single out any one city as having got everything right.  By good things, I think the notable aspect is how much pedestrian life exists in almost all European city centres. The concept of ‘Living Streets’ emerged in the UK and refers to a highly-pedestrianised zone where people have a higher priority over cars. This is not something you see everywhere. For example, in Dubai there are so many low-rise and low-density areas with no footpaths and almost all residential boundaries have three metre-high concrete walls leading to a dull and lifeless public realm. There is no proper infrastructure to support active travel and to encourage people to get out of their houses.

A lot of the time it is not just about how a place looks, but also about how decisions are made. There are thousands of examples world-wide where one always finds a big consultant or the government formulating an urban plan, but it doesn’t always work because it is not what the people want. For my thesis I compared the energy policies of four different cities: Oslo, Vancouver, Oakland and Hong Kong (see box). Their environmental and energy strategies have ambitious goals to cut carbon emissions and increase the shift to renewables. And all these cities have different approaches to addressing the energy question. But the way in which they engage with residents and stakeholders is a different story in every place because of the way in which the government is set up and how the law works.

For example, Oakland in California focuses on a community-led approach to implement new proposals. The voice of the local community must be heard to make any intervention successful. In Vancouver, the planning department has developed policy-based design guidelines to encourage architects and urban designers to experiment with energy-efficient design solutions. On the other hand, Hong Kong has taken a strict regulatory approach where all buildings must meet a mandatory standard of energy efficiency.

In Oslo, the government partnered with FutureBuilt in 2014 with a vision to complete 50 pilot projects in the western part of the Oslo region with the lowest possible greenhouse emissions. FutureBullt created a platform for architects, designers, developers and contractors to showcase their climate-friendly projects and has set an example for others to learn from. It has become a place for stakeholders to connect with each other.

Bridging the gap between stakeholders
This sort of thing happens at many levels, but a lot of the discussion about urban planning is how to bridge the gap between stakeholders and make the communication more transparent. This approach worked in the context of Oslo and today it is the home to some great examples of projects that are climate-friendly.

The examples of Vancouver, Oakland and Hong Kong are very different from Oslo mainly because of the national position of the energy market in Norway. In Norway a huge percentage of revenue comes from gas, but 99% of its energy grid is powered by renewables, making it a unique example. Copenhagen in neighbouring Denmark is also an interesting case study. Every second year, the municipality publishes a new Bicycle Account summarising key statistics. The 2017 report says 41% of the daily commute to work or study is by bike. This is something that has been steadily growing in the past decade and is an outcome of the city’s efforts to overcome other infrastructural and economic issues related to energy use in cars. Instead of expanding roads to accommodate cars, Copenhagen introduced a car-free Sunday and started building more infrastructure for biking. The minute they started putting proper biking infrastructure, people were inclined to switch.

But as a life-long city dweller, born and raised in Dubai and as someone who has lived in the Netherlands, I do not always feel optimistic. The way our cities are planned have a significant impact on energy use. For example, a compact urban core designed to encourage pedestrians and cyclists reduces the necessity of cars and its related energy use and emissions. Similarly, solar passive design strategies can reduce energy demand for heating and/or cooling in buildings. Movements like ‘New Urbanism’ and ‘Smart Growth’ advocate ways in which we can shift to a less energy demanding and resource-efficient future and there are an increasing number of such design guidelines and benchmarking standards. Designing new areas or adapting existing ones to adhere to sustainable design principles is now becoming the globally accepted norm to help promote a more energy-efficient urban development.

COP24 summit in Katowice
I attended the global climate negotiations (COP24) in Katowice last December to understand the difficulty and urgency of the problem we are facing. As I sat in the room listening to the negotiations between different countries, I was torn between feeling hopeful and disheartened at the future of my generation. I feel hopeful because of the raised ambitions by so many countries to expand the use of renewable energy use so that we burn fewer fossil fuels and have a good chance at limiting global warming. But I can’t help feeling disheartened because the barriers we face to make the shift to a cleaner and efficient energy system are indeed massive.

Increasing energy supply using solar, wind, geothermal or biomass will help to diversify fuel sources and move away from carbon-based fuels which are high emitters of greenhouse gases. Nevertheless, implementing wind mills or solar panels on a large scale is not always a straight-forward process. In Denmark alone, there are 275 protest groups against wind turbines. Decision-makers are now trying to address this issue by creating schemes for community ownership of windmills, so that economic benefits are shared within the community leading to higher social acceptance. Many urban designers are also trying to integrate elements like windmills and solar panels to provide a more aesthetically pleasing landscape. 

In cities like Hong Kong and Dubai, solar energy has a very high potential to meet a big proportion of energy needs. But only about 1% of Hong Kong and 2% of Dubai’s total energy needs are met through renewable sources. Around six months ago Hong Kong initiated a FIT (feed-in-tariff) scheme for its residents who receive a payment for all the electricity they produce, even if you use it yourself. In FIT schemes generally, there are additional bonus payments for electricity you export into the grid and a reduction on your standard electricity bill.

It is undeniable that community interest and acceptance play a big role in determining success. TOD (transport-oriented-development) is a concept that emerged in planning theory in the 1980s and refers to a mixed-use community that is walking distance of a transit stop and commercial uses. It involves the integration of land use and transport planning to concentrate development around transit stops. Promoting TOD areas results in an efficient use of land and can potentially reduce car-based travel as jobs are brought closer to homes.
One of the first experimental projects was carried out in the suburban landscape of Laguna West in Sacramento, California. But it wasn’t as successful as intended because the consumer taste for pre-existing suburban houses was not taken into consideration. It led to inadequate employment opportunities and not enough provision of consumer needs. On the other hand, TOD areas are much more successful in European countries like the Netherlands where they are helped by higher pedestrian activity and the widespread use of public transport.

The above examples illustrate that bringing about changes within the urban landscape is dependent on socio-economic factors, forward policy-making and community acceptance. If we want to be successful in bringing about changes to reduce energy consumption and climate impact, we need to be able to engage the local community to implement more analytical based and technological oriented plans.'

A good example to follow
Powerhouse Kjørbo in Oslo, constructed by Skanska in 2014, is reputed to be the world's first rehabilitated office building that produces more energy than it uses. Energy produced here is supplied to the technical plants in the buildings, other buildings in the Kjørbo park and a Uno-X hydrogen station nearby. Tenants of the building report better indoor climate, acoustic conditions and lighting, and a more comfortable temperature than prior to the renovation.

Four case studies

Oslo’s 2016 Climate and Energy Strategy covers urban development, mobility, climate governance, resource utilization and building design. Oslo aims to cut GHG emissions in half by 2020 and by 90% in 2050. Forty organisations from the City of Oslo, the business community and state-owned enterprises participated in developing the strategy.

The Renewable Energy Strategy for Vancouver puts forward two main goals. First, reduce greenhouse gas emission by 80% by 2050 (taking 2007 as a baseline), and, second meet energy needs using only renewable sources of energy by 2050. The policy put forward design strategies such as the ‘passive house’ or ‘complete streets’ to promote solar design in buildings and safe streets in neighbourhoods.

Hong Kong
There are two main goals in Hong Kong’s Climate Action Plan. The first one is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020. The second one is to reduce energy intensity by 50-60% by 2020. The plan is heavily influenced by the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The emphasis on collaboration between sectors is a core part of Oakland’s Energy and Climate Action Plan. The main goal of the plan is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 36% by 2020. Local and community action as well as regional and federal collaboration is clearly outlined and heavily emphasized.

About Karishma Asarpota
Karishma Asarpota is a passionate 20-something global citizen, urbanist, academic writer and blogger who holds a Master of Science in Urbanism from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. At a time when developers, architects, local councils, governments, pressure groups, think tanks and activists are all trying to bring urban space in harmony with the environment, here Asarpota shares what she has learned about sustainable design from her master thesis, live projects in the UAE and numerous study trips and workshops across the globe.



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