Considering Impacts of Scale: Reflections on Guangzhou, China

December 9, 2014

Ecocity Insights

by Jennie Moore, Director, Sustainable Development and Environmental Stewardship, British Colombia Institute of Technology

The Chinese national government has embraced the ecocity as a model for urban development. China is the third largest country by area and one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with a national population of 1.3 billion. China is also the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions due to the manufacture of consumable goods for export. China has instituted a one-child policy to keep its population growth in check. It has also adopted a circular economy policy that aims to reuse resources to reduce pollution and improve energy and materials efficiency. Nevertheless, many cities in China are plagued by pollution and traffic congestion problems.

For example, Guangzhou is a bustling and prosperous Chinese metropolis with a population over 14 million people. It is situated in Guangdon Province, an open economic development zone that is home to several manufacturing industries supplying global export markets. The area has seen annual increases of greenhouse gas emissions at a rate of 10% per year for the last decade (Liu et al. 2014). Buildings in Guangzhou reach 100 stories. Everyone lives in some form of multi-unit residential dwelling, ranging from four-story walk-ups to large high-rise towers. Despite achieving super-high density, complete with a rapid transportation subway system, the urban development pattern in Guangzhou is dominated by automobile traffic with six-lane streets and triple stacked roadways. This is an example of three dimensionality designed around automobile dependence. The city is often blanketed by smog, sourced from motor vehicle emissions.

Guangzhou road layering

Guangzhou road layering

Guangzhou pedestrian overpass

Guangzhou pedestrian overpass

I had the good fortune to visit Guangzhou last week. The purpose of my visit was to learn more about the environmental pollution challenges this and other cities in Guangdong province face. High density, walkable villages surrounded by green abound at the outskirts of the city. For example, just north of the Guangzhou airport are the villages of: Shiputang, Guagancun, Shangzhou, Caibian, Leping Village, Yumin New Village, Chigantu, Liantancun, Gangzai, Gangwei and many more. Yet, even in the heart of this bustling, prosperous Chinese city, hints of ecocities emerging can be found. I took a walk through part of the Guangzhou central city and found several examples of narrow pedestrian streets with shopping on the main floor and residences above, reaching an average height of six stories. Trees and greenery at corner pocket parks added to the charm of these interstitial spaces. Most people travelled by foot, bicycle or some combination thereof. Curiously, the newer high rise developments on the main thoroughfares also follow a pattern of commercial at grade (and subsequent three to four stories) with residential (up to 85 stories) above. The pattern is the same, but the scale is much bigger. Most people in the newer development areas travel by bus or private automobile; nevertheless, elevated pedestrian walkways also enable people to move around freely by foot.

Guangzhou intersection on pedestrian commercial street

Guangzhou intersection on pedestrian commercial street

Guangzhou pedestrian street

Guangzhou pedestrian street

Comparing these similar patterns of development at different scales provides a wonderful opportunity for reflection. In both the old and new development of Guangzhou, the same patterns of mixing commercial and residential uses within buildings exist. However, the streetscape in the new development is expansive. Ecocity development must work at a scale designed for mobility of the human body, not the car body. This is what enables access by proximity. I found one exciting example of this approach at the Guangzhou Pearl Market. Can high rise development be designed such that the street scape remains pedestrian-oriented, at a small and intimate scale? Could different approaches to massing of buildings enable a more pedestrian-oriented environment without sacrificing density? Much research exploring these questions is currently underway and warrants further reflection and experimentation.

Guangzhou Pearl Market

Guangzhou Pearl Market

References:

Chunrong Liu, Yaoqiu Kuang, Ningsheng Huang, Xiuming Liu. 2014. An Empirical Research on Evaluation of Low-Carbon Economy in Guangdong Province, China: Based on “Production, Life and Environment” in Low Carbon Economy, 5: 139-52.

 

British Columbia Institute of Technology School of Construction and the Environment is Lead Sponsor of the International Ecocity Framework and Standards Initiative

 

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Swarms and Smart Hives, Part 2

June 28, 2014

In his last post, Warren Karlenzig discussed how cities enabled by data and modeled after beehives can improve our urban experience. Here is part 2 of his discussion, including a mention of Ecocity Builder’s Ecocitizen World Map Project.

swarm

Recently I explained how cities benefit from open data-enabled “swarms” of sustainability apps for energy, the built environment, mobility, food and more, transforming them into “Smart Hives.” The focus was on the rise of citizen-business user sharing apps and crowd-sourced capabilities emerging in the Silicon Valley as the Next Big investment wave. Let’s look at how global cities can plan capacities to attract and facilitate these emergent Sharing Economy swarms. Read the rest of this entry »


Swarms of Apps Will Turn Cities into Sustainable ‘Smart Hives’

May 27, 2014

By Warren Karlenzig. Originally posted on Sustainable Cities Collective.

The amazing growth of sharing apps promises to mark the spring of 2014 as the beginning of a new era demonstrating the power of the swarm. Just as the summer of 1998 marked the beginning of the mainstream Dot Com era and the spring of 2008 saw the advent of global social media, the April IPO of Opower marks a new digital-physical era, the collaborative economy.

The collaborative economy will make cities more convenient, less costly and more sustainable. To provide a mental model of this new world, think of cities as “Smart Hives” for “swarms” of physical activities optimized by, or made possible through open urban data schemes. Earlier this month, I presented this concept in Vienna (ranked as one of Europe’s top smart cities) at IconVienna, a Central European investment forum on smart cities and innovation.

Cities are similar to beehives as they provide the physical locations for the activities of the swarms they host. Of course, both cities and hives need to be in the right place to attract and maintain the largest, healthiest swarms. For beehives, it doesn’t hurt to have access to sunlight, water and flowers. (Admission: I’m an urban beekeeper) Swarms of bees, if they are wild, decide on locating in a hive according to consensus (15 bees must approve of the location) and then they develop optimal social structures according to simple rules and communications.

Cities or metros set laws, regulations and policies at the level of the hive. But emerging swarms, based on digital maps of locations and characteristics of “flowers,” optimize according to physical needs, desires and energy. When bees find flowers, they go back to their hive and dance to show the location of pollen-laden flowers.

Imagine if bees could compare with other nearby swarms how much energy they were using (as Opower enables its users to do), how much other swarms were gathering and the quality of their haul. Or if Airbnb offered swarms an easy way to find convenient unused hives, saving much energy and reducing greenhouse gases in the process.

More and more we humans are using rich digital maps and pricing information for sharing rental rooms, office space, cars, bikes, food, and energy use. Our pollen dance will be our testimonials, use patterns, geo-location, and referrals.

Some swarms will get smaller or even die off, while other swarms will grow until they divide and form new swarms based on emerging needs and changing conditions. Open data will reduce urban traffic congestion: no longer must cars circle downtown blocks as real-time parking rates and open spaces become transparent. Even more sustainable are those who are deciding to telecommute or use public transit on days when they know that parking costs are spiking or when spaces are unavailable.

Likewise mobility and housing availability will be based on shared uses through sharing and peer-to-peer platforms such as ZipCar, LyftUber, and Airbnb. Walkability data through Walkscore already allows people to analyze and select the most walking-friendly housing, jobs and vacations, so they don’t even have to depend (or spend!) on cars or transit. At a TEDx Mission a while back, I showed how hacktavists use open data from the Paris Velib bikeshare program to map bicycle availability in real time.

 

Gathering local food has been juiced by fruit and berry locator maps like the Urbana-Champaign Fruit Map (above), including the University of Illinois campus, being one example on the Urban Foraging site. Wouldn’t it be great if the fruit could start to pulsate on the map when nearing ripeness! An illustrative example of smart hives as a bottom-up opportunity, I doubt whether the cities or university would provide or condone this.

For energy use, besides Opower, companies such as C3 Energy and Stem provide Big Data energy analytics for businesses and industries, so they can reduce energy consumption through more intelligent use of utilities. These applications differ from sharing platforms, but still rely on bottom-up use strategies based at the level of digitized electrons—with energy being the last realm of digitization in our society, after communications, entertainment, and financial or healthcare services.

In Vienna, the hive and swarm concept I presented was met with excitement. European Union contingents of investors are planning trips to explore San Francisco Bay Area sharing economy start-ups as a result. The European Union is spending $92 million Euros on an ambitious smart city funding and strategy effort as part of its Horizon 2020 program, yet I was told that swarm-type user-centric applications have been largely overlooked so far. That omission is not surprising, as even in the US, cities such as Los Angeles are only now preparing to open up their data.

Smart Hives (cities) must offer not only the best amenities, such as high quality of life, transit on demand and walkability, but they also must reduce restrictive policies favoring business as usual in order to enable massive, easy and open access to city data.

The swarms are coming: if you’re a city leader, you can block them or anger them. Or you can accommodate the swarms and share in the eco-efficiency and abundant ‘honey’ they produce as they prosper.


 

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current (www.commoncurrent.com), a global consultancy for urban sustainability planning, policy and development. He has led urban sustainability strategy with clients including the The White House Office of Science and Technology; the United Nations; the nations of South Korea and Japan; Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; US Department of State; nation of China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MoHURD); and the private sector. He is co-author of the United Nations publication the “Shanghai Manual: Guide for Sustainable Development in the 21st Century.” Warren wrote the original language for one of the nation’s first municipal green building ordinances (San Francisco).


All eyes on Medellín

April 7, 2014

Medellín, the host of the World Urban Forum next week, is well worthy of the recent attention. From city blighted by crime and urban decay, Medellín has embraced innovative urban policy that has drastically improved public safety while focusing on sustainability and public transportation. Learn more about the trail blazing work that is earning this Colombian city international recognition.

Streetfilms Medellín: Colombia’s Sustainable Transport Capital

Medellín was awarded the 2012 Sustainable Transport Award. Streetfilms partnered with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy to document some of the changes taking place in Medellín.

 

Further reading:

How transit and architecture have stopped crime and transformed the city

http://sustainablecitiescollective.com/global-site-plans-grid/185276/medellin-how-transportation-innovation-have-given-failing-city-chance

 

Medellín’s revolutionary public transportation infastructure

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/03/13/443330/medellin-metro-system-colombia-public-transport/

 

Medellín is crowned the “Most Innovative City of the Year” by the Urban Land Instute, the Wall Street Journal, and Citi in 2013

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/02/medellin-named-innovative-city-of-the-year_n_2794425.html


Ecocities to balance the new and the old in Bhutan

May 21, 2013

Richard is on the road again, leaving this week for Bhutan where he will meet with government officials about building ecocities in Panbang, a province of Zhemgang.

Bhutan is a small Buddhist county nestled in the Eastern crags of the Himalayas, commonly overshadowed in the news by its neighbors Tibet, Burma, China and India. Bhutan is most commonly known for its policy of Gross National Happiness (GHN), a metric introduced by King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuckn and used to measure the well-being of its citizens and guide the development of government policy. The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.

The GNH measures reflect Bhutan’s Buddhist foundations which emphasize the need for spiritual and moral development to coincide with material development. Bhutan is cautious about modernization, and justly so. Most countries have embraced the luxuries of modernity while degrading precious traditional values and our connection to nature.

Slogan on a wall in Thimphu’s School of Traditional Arts. Court. of Wikimedia Commons.

King Wangchuck broke with his father’s legacy and has opened Bhutan to modern changes little by little (Television appeared for the first time in 1999), hoping to adopt the benefits of new technology while avoiding the evils. The results are mixed – crime, materialism and dissatisfaction are rising, but not to the rates of most other countries. Some educated Bhutanese returning from educations in the West seek to lead the country in a unique blend of Buddhist values and Western practices. Read the rest of this entry »


Floating cities becoming a reality

April 16, 2013

Building on water eliminates flood risk and enables expansion

For thousands of years, human settlements have clustered around flood planes, from the banks of the Amazon River to lake Tonle Sap in Cambodia, to the marshes of the Netherlands. These settlements are designed to account for the seasonal ebb and flow of sea and fresh water, often by constructing buildings on raised platforms and/or building dykes, dams and canals. Yet as global climate change leads to increasing sea levels, almost every coastal city will face the challenge of encroaching waters.

Presenters at the Global Town Hall for infrastructure solutions held last week in Germany introduced innovative solutions for cities on the brink. “13 out of the world’s 21 megacities are harbor cities, of which Shanghai is most vulnerable to flood and related hazards,” said Professor Markus Quante at the town hall.

Instead of holding back the flood, several presenters suggested ways to completely re-imagine a city on the water. Rutger de Graaf from DeltaSync, a design firm that specializes in sustainable flood-proof urban development in delta areas, says cities can float on water and yet stay dry and resilient. Floating structures on water eliminate the threat of flood damage and can be a viable option for city expansion. In addition, city waste such as carbon dioxide and biowaste can be used to farm algae and in turn raise fish in urban areas.

“Urbanization in delta areas has caused increasingly severe flood. It has also added pressure on space, food, energy and other resources,” said de Graaf, adding that by 2025 the world will run short of at least 22 million km2 of land – an area equivalent to the North American continent.

Rijnhaven Pavijlioner. Images from DeltaSync

The city of Rotterdam is already experimenting with floating urbanization, building its first floating pavilion at the Rijnhaven harbor. Designed by DeltaSync, the three domed structures cover the area of four tennis courts and are not only self-sufficient, relocatable structures that purify their own waste water, but also rise automatically according to rising water levels. The city plans to add many more floating buildings, including a park, as part of the Rijnhaven harbor redevelopment master plan.

Another 1,200 floating structures are planned to open in 2040 in Stadhavens – an area designated for sustainable housing development, floating communities, recreation, and research on energy generation such as tidal energy and cooling and heating from river water.

The city of Semarang, the capital of Central Java, and other coastal cities are working with the Dutch to implement their water management expertise in their own districts. Semarang has already lost 98.2 hectares of land between 1991 and 2009 due to land erosion accelerated by climate change.

Find out more about DeltaSync’s project at their website.


Why Nantes? Europe’s Green Capitol 2013

March 12, 2013

To those who say Ecocities are impossible, that a green economy will fail, and that citizens will never support or get involved in Eco-principles on a large scale, I give you Nantes.

Nantes: The Venice of France

Following in the footsteps of Stockholm, Hamburg and Vitoria-Gasteiz, Nantes Métropole is the European Union’s Green Capital for 2013. The European Commission launched the Green Capital project in 2008 to recognize and reward cities’ efforts to increase sustainability and improve quality of life. Addressing these issues is a pressing concern for European cities as three in four European citizens currently live in urban areas and that number is expected to grow to four in five by 2050.

This year will bring many exciting events to Nantes including ten local or national conferences and 11 European or international conferences, not least of which is the International Ecocity World Summit this September 25-27th.

Few outside of France may have ever heard of Nantes–it is well worth paying attention to.

Nante’s story mirrors that of many industrial cities in Europe and the United States. After the closure of the city’s main economic source–the shipyards–in the 1980s, city leaders were faced with a struggling economy, civic stagnation and abandoned, decaying industrial sites. But instead of trying to recreate failed systems and lingering in the industrial past, Nantes took a unique leap of faith and decided to invest in sustainable infrastructure, culture and quality of life. No mean feat for the 1980s.

Planners carefully redeveloped the shipyards into green public space and focused on highlighting the city’s history (dating to Pre-Roman times), fostering culture and community development, and connected the city via high speed rail to Paris. Nantes’ planning framework promotes urban density, solidarity, and equal access to green living amenities for citizens of all income levels. The result: in 2004, Time Magazine named Nantes the most livable place in all Europe.

A few numbers from Nantes:

  • 57m2 of green space per person
  • 15% of residents use public transportation daily
  • Everyone lives within 300m of a green space in the city
  • 80% of the Nantes/Sant-Nazaire metro area is natural and farmland space
  • Only 11% of household waste goes to landfills

Nantes works hard to encourage dense urban development to accommodate its growing population rather than sprawling into surrounding green areas. In addition many riverbanks, wetlands and green spaces have been restored to support a thriving wildlife population.

Nante’s city governance also attempts to break with a long history of top-down city planning that has often been patronizing and alienating. City leaders name civic pride and involvement a top priority for the city, and their policies reflect this. Vigorous public outreach campaigns involve citizens with the planning of their neighborhoods and the government also holds household workshops on carbon footprint reduction and sustainability.

Of course it is all a work in progress; still, Nantes is a consummate example of the Ecocity principles in action and we are so excited to come together for the 2013 World Summit in such a remarkable city!

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