Innovation & Design

Rise of the Carbon-Neutral City


Several ambitious plans around the world envision green cities, but such projects raise as many questions as they promise to answer

In the windswept deserts of Abu Dhabi, construction is under way on a green oasis planners say represents one of the most ambitious urban building projects ever. On Feb. 7, the United Arab Emirates-funded consortium behind Masdar City, a zero-carbon, zero-waste, self-contained community meant to house 50,000 people, finally broke ground, launching the first of seven building phases to be completed over the next eight years. All told, the $22 billion megaproject will include cutting-edge solar power and water treatment systems, nonpolluting underground light rail, and a small research university operated in conjunction with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Foster & Partners-designed Masdar project (BusinessWeek.com, 12/13/07) is no doubt a bid to diversify the UAE's petroleum-rich economy as well as green the country's image. But more important, it is the latest in a growing list of high-profile, high-promise, environmentally friendly city design projects around the world. With mounting concerns over global warming and exploding urban populations, the race to design and build the model "green city of the future" is on. The sites proposed are of such scale and complexity that they represent a major new front in green innovation.

Equally ambitious projects to build entirely new, sustainabilitly-focused cities are cropping up on nearly every continent. Well-known architectural firms such as Charlottesville, Va.'s William McDonough & Partners and London's Arup have signed on to create massive green projects in China, which will effectively test the ability of engineers and urban planners to manage that country's staggering and often environmentally ravaging growth.

Avalanche of Innovation

In a similar vein, the governments of Costa Rica, Norway, and even Libya have announced grand, state-sponsored development plans that promise some version of carbon neutrality—offsetting greenhouse gas emissions, often by producing clean, renewable energy. Smaller private and public developments throughout Europe and North America abound, powered by everything from solar energy and hydrogen fuel cells to even human waste.

"These sites—even the more experimental projects—matter because they set 'stretch' goals," says Ann Rappaport, a lecturer in the urban and environmental policy department at Tufts University. Rappaport says the most ambitious plans are likely to quicken the pace of technological and architectural development in much the same way corporations that set stringent green goals for themselves in the 1980s and 1990s learned the most, even if they did not always meet initial goals.

"Frankly, we need an avalanche of innovation," adds Alex Steffen, the co-founder and executive editor of Worldchanging.com, a leading environmental blog and nonprofit. [See also Cities: A Smart Alternative to Cars, (BusinessWeek.com, 2/11/08). "Such projects serve to push the boundaries of green practice and expand our sense of what's possible," he adds, suggesting the practice of urban design stands to gain from the trend.

Innovation Doesn't Have to Be Expensive

Developments such as Masdar and Arup's $1.3 billion Dongtan project on Chongming Island, off the eastern shore of China, certainly have advantages over so-called in-fill projects, or plans that attempt to retrofit existing buildings and cities along green principles. According to Khaled Awad, director of property development at Abu Dhabi Future Energy Co., which is overseeing Masdar, starting from scratch allowed the city's designers to position the development's layout such that its wind turbines can generate as much clean power as possible. [Hear Awad speak in Putting Masdar on the Map, (BusinessWeek.com, 2/11/08)]. That's not a luxury afforded to an existing city whose plan may have been laid out hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago.

And as a reminder that innovation does not have to be expensive or high-tech, energy-savvy buildings that use things as simple as better insulation form one of the core components of many of the major city projects now planned, says Gary Lawrence, who heads up Arup's urban strategies. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, energy inefficiencies in buildings account for some 33% of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions. "Much of the glass used in buildings is so inefficient at containing heat," asserts Lawrence, "most people might as well have their windows wide open year-round."

But even the glitziest, most intelligently designed projects have raised significant questions from environmentalists about how much of an impact new developments can have on the global environmental crisis. "You have to wonder what that money could have done to make existing cities more sustainable," says Daniel Lerch, program manager of the Portland (Ore.) Post-Carbon Cities Institute, which helps local governments plan green development projects.

More Questions Than Answers

According to the United Nations Population Fund, the number of urban dwellers will rise to 5 billion by 2030. That's some 60% of the world's population, most of them flooding into existing urban centers. "We simply cannot build our way out this problem," acknowledges Arup's Lawrence of the global environmental crisis. Like most large firms, Arup is working on retrofit projects as well as new city developments. "We absolutely must also look at greening existing structures," he adds.

And, of course, there are concerns about so-called greenwashing, or misleading sustainability claims. "One can beat the drum, but does it really make a difference?" asks Michael Kinsley, a senior consultant for cities with the Rocky Mountain Institute (BusinessWeek.com, 10/29/07), a sustainability research firm in Snowmass, Colo. Though generally positive about the prospects of even the biggest new projects, Kinsley says it remains to be seen how transferable the planning expertise and technology of new development projects like Masdar will be to existing cities such as London or Los Angeles.

Kinsley says monitoring how these projects account for energy consumption once they are complete is likely the best indicator of how seriously their managers take the sustainability issue. After all, some much-vaunted planned green communities never made it off the paper they were printed on, while others have progressed at a much slower clip than originally hoped. The experimental green village of Arcosanti outside Phoenix, which was begun in 1970, is still under construction, for example.

Credibility on the Line

And some of the best existing green urban planning may not have been billed as such until recently. Since at least the 1970s, Canada's third-largest city, Vancouver, has earned accolades from urban planners around the world for a development strategy that has managed the city's population growth while minimizing its impact on the environment, partly by maximizing the efficiency of public transportation. The program was effectively developed before today's green building movement took root. "In some ways, it isn't rocket science," says Worldchanging.com's Steffen, pointing to Vancouver's achievements. "A lot of the time, we simply don't choose to plan smartly," he adds.

Still, the engineers, planners, and architects behind Masdar, Dongtan, and other new cities say there are enormous technological and practical advances to be made via new projects that can be applied to retrofit projects—and other industries. They say the extensive international partnerships required to complete such projects have a generally positive impact on the global sustainability community, encouraging more information sharing, including which design strategies work most effectively and—more crucially—which do not. After all, what may ultimately be on the line in the deserts of the Middle East and on foggy Chinese coastal islands is the credibility of the green-city building movement itself. "If this project fails," says Masdar's Awad, "it will be a major, permanent blow to the idea of sustainability."

View the BusinessWeek.com slide show.


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