‘Low-carbon growth’ seems to be mentioned all the time with regards to environment and development policy. As a theory this is great, but how can the theory be made more concrete? What might the practice of low-carbon growth look like when applied to urban environments?
This guest post was written by Phillip Bruner. Phillip is a PhD candidate in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh.
The UN Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs noted in their 2007 report on prospects for world urbanisation, ‘between 2007 and 2025, the urban areas of the world are expected to gain 1.3 billion people, including 261 million in China and 197 million in India, which account together for 35 per cent of the total increase’ – that's quite an increase.
More people generally means more CO2 but are cities therefore carbon pariahs or could they be examples of low carbon living?
The IIED, alongside Green New Deal economists from the New Economics Foundation, has acknowledged that not only can we not blame cities for climate change, but one of the keys to successfully addressing global economic, energy and environmental challenges lies in urban planning. Cities may be concentrated sources of CO2 emissions but their density allows ‘efficiencies of scale’ for both energy use and carbon emissions that just aren’t possible in rural areas.
Smart policymakers in Finland know this and have put together a project designed to attract global talent to figure out how we can live better, emit less and solve global problems simultaneously.
Sustainable design competition
The Low2No Sustainable Development Design Competition is a joint partnership between Sitra, (the Finnish Innovation Fund) and the city of Helsinki. Leading experts from around the world are brought together in teams. Their task is to come up with fresh and innovative ideas for making cities liveable and sustainable on the basis of four key objectives:
1) low- and one day no-carbon emissions
2) energy efficiency
3) high architectural, spatial and social value
4) sustainable materials and methods
Using a reclaimed harbour on the west end of Helsinki's central business district as a test lab, contestants are asked to put together proposals for the strategic redesign of a large building complex. In addition to top-notch and sustainable architectural models, a wide range of other socio-economic and climate-sensitive issues are considered.
Low2No stresses the need for designs that either emit little or not at all and can foster the growth of sustainable economic systems to account for enhanced mobility, environmentally conscious planning/energy policies and 'resilient' social capacity in terms of equity and access to resources.
A final selection of five teams will be invited to a two-day workshop in Helsinki. After four weeks to develop their proposals, the winner will be chosen by a local and international jury.
Ideas without borders
Knowledge and idea sharing across borders is at the heart of Low2No's [www.low2no.org] vision to produce models that could be adapted anywhere on the planet. The Finnish government, which established and now oversees Sitra, has taken bold steps towards creating a multinational forum in which practitioner experts from both the North and South can come together to discuss making real bottom-up changes in preparation for an urbanised future.
Similar projects, such as Architecture for Humanity and the Urban Age Institute are also keen to address many of the challenges related to sustainable urban development in overcrowded and crisis-ridden cities. But I'm not aware of any (though please do comment if you are) that can claim to facilitate the same type of integrated, co-operative approach to problem-solving that Low2No embodies at its core.
From Helsinki to...?
Ground-level networks need to be established in order to keep this conversation on sustainability honest and ongoing between Northern and Southern partners. The concept of growth and healthy living has different meanings across the globe. Although more than half of the world’s population can be found in cities, every city, like every individual has its quirks and area-specific characteristics.
To be exportable, design models may require as much input from policy-architects as from architects themselves. Low2No, is still lacking in this respect. But as they point out, ‘it is clear that no single organization, profession or nation can achieve the goals of sustainable global development.’ And the idea of Low2No alone is enough to inspire us to keep thinking outside the box for ways to solve humanity's greatest challenges.