Toward more sustainable cities, part two

Published Tuesday, November 26, 2014 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

Well designed urban communities will play a crucial role if global fossil fuel consumption is to be reduced enough to stave off runaway climate change.  The sustainable, efficient and very liveable city of the future will be transit friendly, and will have fewer vacant lots and underused spaces.  But it will also have much more.

Integrated neighbourhoods

The advent of the car enabled the sprawl that characterizes most North American communities.  Suddenly, distance was no longer the daunting factor it was before, so homes were built further and further from workplaces, and we ended up with expansive suburbs and multi-line highways.

The sustainable city of the future will feature high-density neighbourhoods where homes, services, workplaces and green spaces are smoothly integrated.  Imagine – you’d hardly need a car if your home, place of work, shopping center, school, church and park were all within a kilometer of each other – or, in other words, within your “walkshed”.

Brasilia, the modern capital of Brazil, is one of the planet’s best examples of integrated design.  It was built from the ground up in the 1950s.  It features ‘superquadrats’, self-contained neighbourhoods where virtually every shop and service is within walking distance.  Very liveable and very sustainable.

Pedestrian and bike-friendly

While visiting friends in the suburbs of a major Canadian city a few years ago, I was disappointed to discover major boulevards that had no sidewalks.  Unfortunately, communities designed around cars are often not very hospitable to walkers or cyclists. 

The sustainable city of the future will reverse that priority: wide, welcoming sidewalks will encourage people to walk, meet and mingle.  Bike sharing networks (like Montreal’s Bixi) will make bicycles available to anyone, anytime.  Cyclists will have dedicated lanes.  Traffic lights will give priority first to pedestrians, then cyclists, then transit vehicles.  Cars, on the other hand, will be squeezed into fewer, slower lanes that will offer drivers more time to reflect on whether it might have been wiser to walk, bike or take transit.

WalkScore, an organization that rates the pedestrian-friendliness of cities, rates Vancouver and Toronto as Canada’s best.  Unfortunately, no Atlantic Canadian cities figure in the top ten.  With 400 KM of dedicated bike lanes, Copenhagen is one of the world’s best cities for cyclists.  It’s also ranked as one of the world’s most liveable cities – coincidence?

Efficient buildings

Buildings are a perfect example of assets with two price tags: the first is the construction cost, and the second is the operating cost.  It’s often tempting to opt for a cheap first price tag and ignore the second, but that’s short term gain for long term pain.  Buildings, whether homes, shops or factories, consume a large share of the energy used in cities.  Given their long operating life, it makes sense to invest up front in efficiency in return for a lifetime of operating cost savings.  

In the sustainable city of the future, all new buildings will, by law, be ultra-efficient.  Several Canadian provinces have already made energy efficiency standards part of their building codes; New Brunswick is in the process of doing so and it’s anticipated that our energy efficiency standard will be in place by 2015.  

There’s more

In the sustainable city of the future, energy will be generated by rooftop solar panels and perhaps wind micro-turbines.  Food will be produced on rooftop gardens, in backyard coops and in places where lawns used to grow.  

Waste minimization will become deeply embedded in the urban culture.  Recycling, rather than trash, will be the priority.  Pure water will be better appreciated and responsibly used.  As is the case in Oslo, Norway today, sewage will generate the natural gas that fuels the transit fleet. 

And effective public education programs and an engaged citizenry will ensure that sustainability becomes a continuing journey, not a destination.

It’s all part of an urban development philosophy called Smart Growth.  Well conceived and well implemented, it can achieve the twin goals of maximum liveability and long term sustainability.