Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Towards sustainable cities

Urbanization is a big and growing mega trend on a global scale. By 2025, the majority of world's population will be living in big cities. The growth of mega cities is triggered by many factors and has many consequences. One of the most significant aspect is the environmental impact and sustainability of urban living, which is also a complex topic that can be addressed from many different angles.

It is estimated that cities produce almost 80% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions and account for 75% of energy consumption. Therefore, they play a crucial role in global attempts to slow down the climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Megapolis 2025 conference that was recently held at Helsinki provided many interesting insights on this topic. One of the key messages from the conference was positive: urbanisation is a also hopeful process, as cities are places of innovation.

Shibuya, Tokyo

Big cities have traditionally worked as platforms for new ideas and innovations. The diversity of people, capabilities and expertise combined with the amount of possibilities available have created numerous breakthrough ideas during the history of urban living. In the world where growth is the key word describing the future of megacities, we can also see the positive potential of this growth: the growth and increase of possibilities, ideas, and solutions for a greener urban lifestyle.

An interesting project related to this topic was recently conducted by Institute for the Future: The Future of Cities, Information, and Inclusion. The project provides a ten-year forecast map which charts the important intersections between urbanization and digitalization that will shape this global urban experiment, and the key tensions that will arise.

Food production is one issue that has recently being discussed a lot in the context of urbanization. There are urban farming experiments going on in many big cities, e.g. in London and also in Helsinki. Urban agriculture is a sustainable practice as the food is produced locally and made easily available for urban consumers. The roof-tops, window boxes, balconies and allotments provide lots of opportunities for urban farming experiments, especially in a cities with optimal climate conditions. There are lots of business opportunities to provide solutions for urban cultivation projects: Zengrow tabletop garden, a Finnish innovation, is a good example of responding to this growing consumer demand.

Viikki, Helsinki, Finland

The demographic structure of the population living in big cities is one important topic that needs to be taken into account in discussions about making urban life more sustainable. In many urban cities there has been a tendency that families with small kids move to suburban areas, away from the city centers. However, during the past years a modest counter trend for this has been recognized. Geographer Johanna Lilius has researched urban living from the viewpoint of families with small children. In her Master's thesis she looked at the recent development in Stockholm and Helsinki and found out that more and more families are now choosing to live in the city center with small children instead of moving to suburbs. Main drivers for this decision are practical:  access to public transportation and closeness of services. However, also the social aspect plays a very critical role. The social life of the neighbourhood, tolerant atmosphere, diversity and also the safety and aesthetics aspects are often mentioned. However, parents are often concerned about traffic safety.

One of the most interesting presentations at Megapolis was held by researcher Marketta Kyttä from Aalto University. She has studied child-friendly environments and found that in the 1950s, children had more possibilities and freedom to explore the city life. Today, the fears of adults tend to limit childrens' independent mobility in the urban environment. Kyttä has created a model for evaluating the child-friendliness of different living environments. According to that model, the best possible environment has both high degree of independent mobility as well as high degree of affordances. Another key message from the presentation was that families have different preferences regarding their living environments. According to recent research by Kyttä and other researchers from the Aalto University School of Science and Technologypeople living in urban environment also are more satisfied to their living conditions than previous studies have shown.

 Copenhagen, Denmark

There is an increasing amount of people - also families with small children - who see the benefits and opportunities of urban living and prefer urban environment to the traditional family living areas such as suburbs and small towns. This growing trend provides a lot of opportunities for urban planning to make cities greener.

The more people will be living in cities, the more small space living solutions are required. LifeEdited is
a crowdsourcing design contest that aims to design an actual apartment that the TreeHugger founder Graham Hill will inhabit. Hill is trying to live happily with less space, less stuff and less waste on less money, but with more design. He claimed that 80% of the average footprint is related to the buildings we live in.While the goal is to reduce the footprint in every possible way, a greener, more efficient apartment can help cut down in significant ways.

In Finland, there is a similar project going on as well. Minimikoti is a joint project between Tampere University of Technology's School of Architecture and the Finnish Housing Fair. The main objective of the project was to explore and develop new small-space forms of housing, and the end-result is eight interesting minimum house concepts created by architecture students.

There is no doubt that when moving towards sustainable cities and greener urban living, the current living standards regarding housing need to be re-evaluated. More and more consumers are already choosing voluntary simplicity and small space living options, and the societal structures and urban planning should support there choices by making urban environments affordable, comfortable and appealing places to live for people in different life stages and needs. The same applies to the public transport and bicycle infrastructure - a sustainable long-term plan is to invest in creating an infrastructure that supports low-carbon ways of transport.

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