Making sustainable cities a thing of the present
Imagine an urban environment where buildings and civil infrastructure completely blend with nature. Where green spaces and streams of water are weaved into the fabric of the cityscape, and where citizens’ well-being go hand in hand with increased biodiversity. A place where green walls and roofs insulate our homes and collect water to use for our bathing and laundry. Is this the city of our future? In my opinion, it should be our ambition to make this the city of our present.
‘Urban sustainability’ is generally understood as urban infrastructure that does not increase the existing pressures on the natural (or previously existing) environment, while providing high living standards to its inhabitants. The concept has gained a lot of momentum and focus given its potential for building resilience to climate change threats (extreme rainfall events, high heat and drought, and loss of biodiversity) and a rapidly growing urban population. Quantifying measures of urban sustainability is not a straightforward task, however, and the scientific community is still looking for a common and reliable method that evaluates the level of sustainability in our cities and provides a set of unambiguous metrics.
One way of approaching this intellectual challenge is by starting from urban planning design, a complex discipline that includes the interaction of several systems, including social, built, and natural systems. To manage this complexity, CAMELLIA researchers are currently developing an Urban Planning Sustainability Framework (UPSUF) based on systems engineering - a novel approach that integrates and manages all the sectors of the urban system. Our framework combines sustainability evaluation, design solutions, and the UK planning system process. This work is being tested in Thamesmead and Enfield, London, two of the CAMELLIA case study areas, where large (re)development masterplan projects are taking place.
Current bird’s-eye view of London’s city from the Shard (Pepe Puchol-Salort, 2020) vs. a rendered image of a blue and green city project (Binhai Eco City in Tianjin, ArchDaily). The challenge in London is how to retrofit blue and green elements into existing infrastructure.
To understand how this framework works in practice, let’s look at some high-level stages a developer would go through to create a new urban area. Firstly, designing new sustainable housing means the building will likely feature green roofs and façades, and its surroundings will predominantly be parks, wetlands, bioswales or urban gardens, design elements collectively known as Blue Green Infrastructure (BGI). When this new design is ready, it undergoes a sustainability performance assessment prior to being approved and developed. One of the key metrics of the UPSUF’s evaluation toolkit is the Natural Capital (NC) and Urban Ecosystem Services (UES) assessment, which estimate all the benefits provided to citizens from natural spaces within the city boundaries. If UES indicators reveal that the design has a high sustainability score and, consequently, provides benefits such as increased access to amenities and increased health and wellbeing, then it is granted planning permission. If the sustainability score is low, however, the developer goes back to the initial design stage to improve this.
Following this simple process, several urban designs are currently being tested using UPSUF and our ambition is for our framework to facilitate partnerships and guide stakeholders (both public and private) towards urban sustainability. To create a more sustainable and resilient London we need to invest in innovative design solutions and integrate every sector of the urban planning process. The time is ripe for a more sustainable London to be a city of the present.
Written by Pepe Puchol-Salort
PhD Candidate at ICL, ARB Architect, MSc