Future-Proof: The Sustainable City

A hotel in Singapore Credit: Biotechin.asia

Cities are rising and sprawling all across the world, drawing ever more people to them. By 2050, about 70 percent of the world’s population will live in them, making efforts to improve their livability and sustainability critical.

At the recent Commonwealth Science Conference 2017 held in Singapore and organised by Singapore’s National Research Foundation (NRF) and Britain’s Royal Society, scientists who have been studying cities’ climate change resilience and development shared their insights on how to adapt them for the future.

The climate-ready city

With climate change, cities and their inhabitants could experience more heatwaves, extreme rainfall, intense cyclones and more severe storm surges due to sea level rises. The key is to prepare cities for such threats ahead of time.

Professor Barbara Norman, Foundation Chair of Urban and Regional Planning in the University of Canberra and director of the Canberra Urban and Regional Futures (CURF) initiative. Photo Credit NRF

Professor Barbara Norman, who is the Foundation Chair of Urban and Regional Planning in the University of Canberra and director of the Canberra Urban and Regional Futures (CURF) initiative, said that preparing succinct policy briefs for public officials helps.

The “climate ready cities” brief she wrote for policymakers was just six pages long, for example. She said: “That’s about how much time decision makers have in the real world to digest the key points to make the decisions that they need to make today.”

The document notes that climate sensitive urban design includes providing landscape plans to increase shade, water and energy systems to reduce the impact of the temperature rises. Growth corridors should also be directed to areas with minimal climate-related risks.

Smart infrastructure to adapt to environmental changes needs to be implemented at both the national and local level. The Melbourne government, for example, helps building owners to obtain finance for retrofitting works that cut energy and water use and carbon emissions.

“Financial arrangements can be developed so that local urban communities can undertake more preventative actions, for example coastal adaptation measures such as restoring mangroves and dunes to reduce coastal erosion and inundation,” Professor Norman said.

For the policy brief, “we asked the local governments what they wanted, and made sure that the paper was academically credible and went through a rigorous peer review too,” she said. Such support is essential to realising the recommendations.

The city as a classroom

Professor Peter Edwards, Director of the Singapore-ETH Centre Photo Credit: NRF

Cities can also learn from one another’s experiences, said Professor Peter Edwards, director of the Singapore-ETH Centre, a research centre in Singapore established by ETH Zurich and the NRF and focussed on cities, environmental sustainability and infrastructure systems’ resilience.

“It’s not true that every city is different. They follow the same physical, economical and social laws, so it is possible to come up with patterns and rules that might inform how other cities might develop,” he said.

For example, the centre’s researchers found that there is a linear relationship between cities’ populations and the urban heat island effect, where urban areas become significantly hotter than their rural environs due to human activities.

“As very large cities grow around the world, it is predictable and foreseeable that this will have an impact on their temperature, with cities in tropical regions, in particular, facing significant problems,” said Prof Edwards.

He added: “We understand the phenomenon in physical terms quite well. As buildings get taller, more radiation gets trapped in the canyons between them. These massive buildings constructed of concrete hold onto heat during the day and gradually radiate it at night.

“We’ve cut down vegetation that exerts a cooling effect and generated a lot of heat through electricity and vehicles. The urban heat island effect must be addressed.”

Solving mobility challenges is another priority for cities. The Singapore-ETH Centre created an agent-based model that incorporates census, transport, and other data to simulate the movements of more than 5 million people in Singapore.

“It started off as a research tool, but the government agencies in Singapore were so impressed that we are now working together to turn it into a transport planning tool,” Prof Edwards said. “We also have other research that shows regularities in how people move. They will make a journey of 20km half as often as they make one of 10km, and so forth.”

He added: “Cities are key to sustainability for all kinds of reasons, including the assembling of creativity, opportunities for solving problems at appropriate scale, and synergy, but all of that is only possible with much better knowledge about cities, and that is why the new urban sciences are important.”

The third plank of sustainability

In the quest for sustainability, city planners should also be mindful of social sustainability, and not just environmental and economic sustainability, said Professor Amita Bhide, who is dean of the School of Habitat Studies in Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences. She has led ground-breaking initiatives to improve the lives of slum dwellers in India.

Professor Amita Bhide, Dean of the School of Habitat Studies in Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences Credit: NRF

“Social sustainability has multiple dimensions, including not just physical aspects such as decent housing and workplaces, walkability and accessibility and attractive public spaces, but also intangible ones such as social cohesion, social order, and active traditions,” she said.

She acknowledged that the concept of social sustainability could encompass conflicting goals: “It is not always neat. Social order is necessary, for example, but the possibility of change is also always there when you have the possibility of dissent, which is equally important.”

Still, city development and adaptation plans should strive to be sustainable for all of their inhabitants. A planned metro project in Mumbai, for example, seemed to check all of the boxes: it would create links in the city, thereby generating economic value and growth, help curb private car transport and benefit the public.

However, it also involved resettlements of residents and the destruction of hundreds of tree and water bodies. “We should ask if the burdens of common goods are shared equally, or do some city dwellers shoulder more of the burdens but benefit less from the goods,” said Prof Bhide.

“The environment is not an abstract preserve of experts or governments, but an active part of people’s lives,” she noted. “Sustainability needs to begin with those people who are the poorest and more vulnerable, and infrastructure and economic growth should be reframed to be for all rather the few.”

Credit: National Research Foundation