Excellent dumb cities

Wednesday 26 August 2020

The key to net zero for the built environment may be to keep it simple


To be sustainable, the cities of 2030 need to be dumb. Smart too, but mainly dumb. Take my fantasy apartment building: it soars skyward but takes its inspiration from the horizontal hutongs of Beijing – the old shaded backstreets, teeming with community.

Everything I need is accessible within walking distance, or via well-maintained cycle paths. Along with most of my neighbours I’ve worked remotely since the pandemic proved we could. Our windows are angled away from direct sunlight and aligned with wind patterns.

Why this story?

Cities are a big part of the problem when it comes to climate change, and potentially a bigger part of the solution. Built wrong, they become urban heat islands with high emissions and low liveability. Built thoughtfully, they can drastically reduce each human’s carbon footprint

Abbey Wong analyses the lessons of smart cities in Asia and the arguments for “dumb” ones in the West. Giles Whittell, editor

At night, lighting in communal areas is dimmed, brightening when motion is sensed (an idea borrowed from Punggol Ecotown in Singapore). As we walk along corridors, stored data predicts which direction we’ll turn, and it’s the same in the streets: street-lighting saves energy and protects nocturnal wildlife.

Roofs undulate to encourage airflow, and they’re painted white to reduce albedo and the effect of the urban heat island. Plants, specially chosen to suit local insects, scale the walls. These biodiversity corridors provide safe passage across urbanised spaces. Local wildlife pollinates our communal vegetable gardens. Trees along the streets improve particulate carbon interception and air quality through photosynthesis.

There is plenty of smart tech embedded in my urban environment. It controls the lighting for our 25th-floor vegetable garden as well as for my walk home after dark. It connects our building to a smart grid that forecasts power demand surges to the second and meets them with energy stored remotely as hydrogen or in the batteries of a vast fleet of electric cars.

An architectural complex designed by Studio Boeri, the “Bosco Verticale” (Vertical Forest) in the Porta Nuova area in Milan

But smart tech was never going to be enough. Back in the real world, buildings accounted for 42 per cent of the UK’s carbon footprint in 2020. By the end of this decade, 92.2 per cent of the UK’s population is expected to be living in cities. These cities need to be high density and liveable, and that means more than being plugged in to the internet of things. It means incorporating millennia of accumulated, international wisdom in their design, not just a few decades of western thought and Silicon Valley design. It means turning to low-TEK (traditional ecological knowledge) as well as high. It means building what the Canadian engineer Shoshanna Saxe has called “excellent, dumb cities”.


A tale of two cities

“For many of our challenges,” she wrote in the New York Times last year, “we don’t need new technology or new ideas. We need the will, foresight and courage to use the best of the old ideas.”

The UK needs all this especially urgently. Until 2015, it had a Zero Carbon Homes policy, which was then withdrawn. By 2019, national building regulations only required the construction industry to have halved operational and regulated emissions by 2050. Then there’s Brexit, which in principle will mean the UK doesn’t have to comply with the EU’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive. As a result, the Carbon Co-op deemed the goal of nationwide net-zero homes unachievable by 2030.

Across the world, cities are racing to be smart; to emulate not just Punggol but Songdo in South Korea, where the land is reclaimed from the sea and “no one needs a car”; and The Edge in Amsterdam, which Bloomberg has called the greenest and most intelligent building in the world (even if its emphasis on hot-desking already feels a little passé).

The Edge in Amsterdam, Netherlands, the world’s most sustainable office building, awarded the highest score ever recorded by the Building Research Establishment (BRE), the global assessor of sustainable buildings

But smart cities aren’t necessarily net zero cities; nor do smart attributes seem to fit naturally in western cities. In fact some of the most ambitious attempts to reinvent urban life – at New York’s Hudson Yards, for example, and Google’s Sidewalk Labs in Toronto – failed before getting a chance to establish themselves. Both promised total connectivity. Both struggled from the start to persuade people they were taking data privacy seriously enough.

Cities need to become human-centric first, says Raj Pannu, co-founder of the Smart Cities NYC annual conference. Dr Faith Chan of Nottingham-Ningbo University says rather than being smart they need to be fit for purpose. Smart solutions might enable behavioural changes, suggests Peter Hogg, UK cities director at Arcadis, a design consultancy, but “green-based dumb solutions will be required to decarbonise physical assets”.

So what might these green-based dumb solutions be? Some are hidden. Examples compiled by the designer Julia Watson in her book Lo-Tek: Design by Radical Indigenism include the chemical-free sewerage system in Kolkata that has served the local fishing industry for the last four generations. And some are in plain view: high-density housing for efficient land use; walkable spaces to minimise transport-related emissions; tree-planting to reduce overheating; undulating timber roof structures for passive cooling.

Undulating roof surface clad with bamboo panels. Milan Expo 2015, China Pavilion, Milan, Italy. Architect: Studio Link-Arc with Tsinghua University, 2015

All are scalable, but they work best on the scale of the neighbourhood. They’re limited only by a lack of imagination, says the architect Andrew Heid, a New York-based champion of the concept of vertical hutongs. “We’ve built history on expansionism, industrialisation and consumerism and have developed systems that are incompatible with sustainable living.”

It’s time for that to change. High tech solutions alone can’t get our cities to net zero by 2030. Municipal governments need to be investing in longer-term solutions that rely on low-TEK knowledge too. It shouldn’t be a fantasy. It’s not rocket science. We know what to do.

Photographs Getty Images. Graphic by Chris Newell. Illustration by Lizzie Lomax

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