I was at the Green Cities Conference this week and it, along with my attendance of Total Facilities Live expo, has firmed up my belief that green issues and sustainability are gradually fading from the headlines.
I don’t think it is intentional on the most part, but there may be an aggregation of events that is pushing it down the political agenda and public consciousness. There are probably a number of reasons for this, but to a real extent I think it is due to the 24 hour news cycle and our current penchant for getting our news digitally or in tabloid format.
The tabloid, and to a degree the tablet, have barely enough space for any detail. So when we get news that the ice in the Antarctic, for example, is growing not shrinking, we absorb that headline and a few other facts before moving on to the next story e.g. Russia annexing the Crimea.
What we are failing to pick up are the nuances and the detail which on further reading leads one, once again, to the conclusion that global warming is indeed a fact. The old days of the broadsheets would have headlines and analysis. It seems our busy lives (which presumably technology was meant to make easier and more relaxing) afford us little time beyond headline grabbing as we head off to work. Hands up whose eating breakfast at work!
Coupled with a harsh cold winter in North America, it is no wonder that the population starved of proper news is jumping, in a number of cases, to the wrong conclusions. Global warming is real and we need to act now to ensure it is not irreversible.
With specific reference to Green Cities 2014, it would appear that the low hanging fruit has been plucked. We have built the 6 Green Star buildings to much fanfare and now all that is left is retrofitting existing building stock; not nearly so glamorous.
The built environment is responsible for such a large percentage of greenhouse gas emissions; it is incumbent on those who work in this space to start providing some redress.
At CTC we have been doing our bit through our carbon offsets (and yes I offset my airfares to Melbourne and back) for the office and even our website is carbon neutral. CTC runs the precinct from a carbon negative office. That said the whole complex is some way off carbon neutrality, to a large degree because of the low level of public transportation used by those who attend each day.
So it was to the experts that I was looking for inspiration to get my green sensibilities juiced up and inspired again.
The biggest impact for me was the keynote by Kent Larson from MIT. He advocates looking beyond the buildings themselves and adopting a grander scale – that of the city. While cities are not likely to go backwards in terms of size, Larson draws inspiration from the medieval settlements that were the precursors to our current great cities before they became the unwieldy metropolises that they are today.
The rule of thumb then, and what he calls for now, is linked communities all within a 20 minute walk. He points to Paris as a shining example of this and also Melbourne to some degree. In other words a series of linked villages which, when combined, make a city.
He points to three big challenges.
The first is transportation and he and his team are designing an electric car scheme that works like the current bike system in many major cities including the under-used Brisbane City Bicycle system.
The beauty of his car is that it is able to fold to a third of its size, meaning that five can fit into the space of one conventional US motor vehicle. At a cost of $30k per underground car park in New York this is a big saving on space and money, freeing up much needed real estate for affordable housing. In Brisbane an overground multi-story car park is around $15k per car park to build, let alone the opportunity cost of having that sitting idle much of the time.
The second aspect concerning Larson and his team is the need for affordable housing on a much smaller footprint. They are busy designing base-plate apartments based on the New York loft model and then by using mechanisation the space is transformed for different purposes at different times.
This is collaborative consumption brought right home to one’s domestic life. Once you are finished with the evening meal you don’t need the dining room so it gets changed into some other function. The bedroom, for example, is only the bedroom when one needs to sleep. This has meant a liveable footprint that is only 17% the size of a traditional small New York apartment. Already Ikea is exploring how they might make a range of furniture units available to make this a reality.
The other challenge that his team are confronting is the need for food security within the city itself. Those Medieval villages that grew to become our great cities had food production close to them which improved their chances of survival. Larson suggests that we need to become food self-sufficient within the Cities ourselves e.g. within each 20 minute arrondissement, as it were, for those who have wandered the streets of Paris.
Large scale hydroponics is the key, according to Larson and he envisages the facades of buildings being covered in plants in the not too distant future. By this calculation the heat signature of our major cities will reduce by around four degrees Centigrade and our carbon footprint much reduced as a result.
The challenge now resides in converting this vision into a reality.
It has taken less effort than many thought it might for developers to embrace Green Star for both bottom-line and environmental benefit. Lend Lease for example has developed over 122,000m² of green star space accounting for 44 new certified green buildings across the globe.
One hopes that similar vigour is brought to bear in up-scaling this thinking to a city level.
At CTC we are trying to do our bit. Once again the Hot Leasing concept at CTC fares well with its underlying principle of sweating assets to reduce unwanted idling time. Let’s hope for the sake of the environment that it gets well utilised and drives similar initiatives elsewhere.
Now if we only get all those tradies to ride a bike to work…..