Talking Point: City design key to future way of life

IT MAY seem obvious that most people live in cities, but it has only been true for less than a decade. Humanity has previously been a rural species.

In 1800 just 3 per cent of people lived in cities, and it was still only 14 per cent in 1900. Cities remain a novelty in the scheme of things, and we are still learning. For all its magic, city life is full of mistakes, mishaps and misery.

When I was a boy living in the country, we thought that technology could bring the urban utopia everyone dreamed of, with all the blessings of living en masse and none of the pitfalls.

It did bring benefits, but Dickens’s 19th-century London lives on in cities everywhere, in the form of isolation, polarisation and inequity. Such human factors are the focus of a big international meeting in October, along with some very 21st-century issues, disaster and climate resilience.

There have been just two previous Habitat conferences, at 20-year intervals. This year in Quito, Ecuador, some 25,000 politicians, mayors, academics, planners, activists, community advocates and business people will put together a new UN urban agenda for coming decades.

How cities look — the grand vistas, monuments and planning schemes so beloved of developers and politicians — is unlikely to figure on the Quito agenda. The focus will be on how cities can better serve the needs of inhabitants, rich and poor.

Its starting point will be 17 landmark sustainable development goals, a 15-year plan signed a year ago by Australia and other UN member nations. Number 11 of these goals aims to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.

Urban ethics are a big talking point, centred on social inequity. In poorer countries, vast and rising gaps between poor and rich have resulted in one in three people living in a slum, while the rich, with government support, turn once-public land into gated communities.

Inequity, exacerbated by harsh treatment of intruders caught in gated suburbs and the touting of slum clearances as developments, threatens a city’s social fabric and economic viability. How cities confront another threat to sustainability, climate change, is also an equity issue. Rich people have resources to fall back on when extreme weather or rising seas threaten a community, but the less well-off are entitled to believe that authorities will look after their interests too.

The cynical view is that all strategic plans, from local government all the way up to the sustainable development goals, Habitat III and the 2015 Paris climate summit, are just devices to help leaders feel good while avoiding solid commitments.

According to this view, while ordinary people may feel they are being represented in the processes, and while governments invite comment on their plans, public thinking that runs counter to a chosen direction is quietly ignored.

But government should not be about self-interest, and the rest of us, armed with high-minded global declarations, are not without power. If ethical urbanisation, ethical anything, is to get its day in the sun, we need to ensure people we elect feel that power.

Peter Boyer began journalism at the Mercury in the 1960s. He has written about climate science for many years. In 2014 he was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for services to science communication.

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Understanding Urban Microclimates Key to Good Urban Planning

urban heat climateGlobal temperatures have officially reached the highest on record and Australia has felt the brunt of this with record breaking temperatures for the end of summer and early autumn.

Sydney and its suburbs were particularly affected with reports that February had a record 31 straight days above 26 degrees Celsius, shattering its previous record of 19 days in 2014. What is noticeably lacking on Australian weather news are the differences in urban temperatures according to suburb, due to distance from the coast, buildings, green space and ultimately urban planning – basically the urban microclimate.

As new urban developments are on many city council planners’ and developers’ desks or currently being built – the Sydney skyline is dotted with cranes – research into fully understanding our urban microclimates where buildings, street layouts and greenery affect temperature could not be more important. Our urban environments need to be adapted and new urban design must cater for this rising heat, lest we fry.

Going ahead with developments that do not take urban microclimates into account so the best urban design and building materials are used to cope with increasing temperatures could cause future problems for residents and councils. This is because costly adaptive changes to the urban layout and green space may be required later on down the track.

In addition, the CSIRO recently reported that for the first time we have reached a major milestone of 400 parts per million of CO2 recorded in the Southern Hemisphere. With increasing carbon levels climate change will continue to take a grip, so it looks like rising temperature trend will continue, for a while at least.

Of course with the commitment of 195 countries to the recent COP21 agreement, we all hope global temperatures will be brought under control and ultimately reduced, though this will not happen overnight. Doing the research to provide architects, developers and city planners with the tools and information on how to adjust design for urban microclimates, select the best materials and utilise green infrastructure is imperative.

Research led by the CRC for Low Carbon Living (CRCLCL) is taking place around Australia – particularly in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne – with a focus on the links between urban microclimates, outdoor thermal discomfort and public life. This is so we can also understand the Urban Heat Island effect, where a city is hotter than its surrounding rural areas due to buildings, cars, urban design high population and subsequent human activity.

Recent research from the University of South Australia used three different case studies to report on  the correlations between heat sensitive outdoor activities and urban greenery and revealed that necessary and optional activities start to decline once temperatures reached 28 to 32 degrees Celsius, while activities in public spaces with more urban greenery showed higher resilience to heat stress. To read more click here.

How Urban Design Needs to Adapt to Rising Temperatures

urban design climate-changeRising temperatures from climate change pose numerous challenges to cities, including coastal flooding, rising sea levels, and droughts. But a new report by the Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee (DfRR) of the American Institute of Architects New York addresses an often overlooked, but seemingly obvious issue head-on: the danger of higher and higher temperatures.

Extreme Heat suggests that cities, and the way we build and design them, needs to adapt and evolve to deal with the coming temperature changes associated with climate shifts. While urban density can be a boon for some environmental issues, since density reduces transport costs, it can multiply the effects of extreme heat, as the 1995 Chicago Heat Wave demonstrated. Cities need to adopt multifaceted solutions to provide heat relief and make sure that poorer, underserved communities don’t bear the brunt of negative effects. That, in turn, means architects and urban planners need to be just as aware and active.

As the report states: Expanded awareness of acute heat stroke and heat- exacerbated chronic disorders is no longer the exclusive province of medical personnel, but a matter for design, engineering, and planning professionals to consider in their creation of healthy, sustainable communities.

Drawn from the result of a summit held in New York City last fall, the Extreme Heat examines how the heat island effect and other issues may impact the abilities of cities and their citizens to adapt to rising temperatures, and resulting health issues.

A number of existing solutions can help combat these steadily rising temperatures, including greening and urban reforestation, transit-oriented development policies that encourage densification without adding cars, and covering heat-absorbing infrastructure with photovoltaics to generate renewable power while reducing heat concentration.  The report recommends designers, as well as those writing building codes, promote heat mitigation technology, and even invest in waste heat recovery systems that can turn excess heat into an asset. While there isn’t one solution to the issue, climate challenges suggests urban heat management needs to become part of the great conservation conversation. To read more click here.

The 9th International Urban Design Conference will be held in Melbourne in November.  To express your interest in the 2016 Conference CLICK HERE.

The Carbon Landscape – Using the Free Market to Fight Climate Change

Urban Design Australia Conference Craig PocockWhile the global community is redirecting its attention to the financial markets the rate of global warming is not slowing down. Can marketplace economics be redirected to deliver a reduction in the rate of global warming and what role does urban design play in this? The research of “The Carbon Landscape-Managing the Carbon Impact in Landscape Design,”  suggests that the most significant carbon cost of design work is not in travel or running an office but in the materials specified for projects.

The planting implemented within a project is unlikely to offset the embodied energy of the materials, resulting in 99% of urban design contributing to climate change. What would happen if the urban design community and associated institutes used their collective voice to send a message to the manufacturing industry that they wanted lower embodied energy products? What would be the flow on effect to climate change, energy consumption, raw material consumption, water consumption and pollution?

If urban designers want to make a significant positive impact on climate change then they have to be willing to use unconventional tools and design institutions need to reconsider their role within the economic environment. Is it time to re-examine the role of design institutes and government organisations within climate change management? Can we have a meaningful dialogue with the material industry? How might organizations empower members with information to make decisions on design to reduce their impact on climate change. These questions and other ideas will be illustrated with examples from New Zealand Institute of Landscape Architects and the potential management of its members’ economic buying power.

Mr Craig Pocock, Director, Pocock Design Environment Limited, NZ, New Zealand will present at the 5th International Urban Design Conference – The Hilton on the Park, Melbourne, Australia from the 10th to the 12th of September – 2012

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Rebuilding Urban Places After Disaster – Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

“No elected official or planning professional should miss this book. Birch and Wachter have collected essays spanning every dimension of rebuilding. From historical lessons to cutting-edge practices, there is so much to learn.”—Brent Warr, Mayor, City of Gulfport, Mississippi
“A remarkable collection of essays.”—Journal of the American Planning Association

“Disasters—natural ones, such as hurricanes, floods, or earthquakes, and unnatural ones such as terrorist attacks—are part of the American experience in the twenty-first century. The challenges of preparing for these events, withstanding their impact, and rebuilding communities afterward require strategic responses from different levels of government in partnership with the private sector and in accordance with the public will.

Disasters have a disproportionate effect on urban places. Dense by definition, cities and their environs suffer great damage to their complex, interdependent social, environmental, and economic systems. Social and medical services collapse. Long-standing problems in educational access and quality become especially acute. Local economies cease to function. Cultural resources disappear. The plight of New Orleans and several smaller Gulf Coast cities exemplifies this phenomenon.

This volume examines the rebuilding of cities and their environs after a disaster and focuses on four major issues: making cities less vulnerable to disaster, re-establishing economic viability, responding to the permanent needs of the displaced, and recreating a sense of place.

Success in these areas requires that priorities be set cooperatively, and this goal poses significant challenges for rebuilding efforts in a democratic, market-based society. Who sets priorities and how? Can participatory decision-making be organized under conditions requiring focused, strategic choices? How do issues of race and class intersect with these priorities? Should the purpose of rebuilding be restoration or reformation?

Contributors address these and other questions related to environmental conditions, economic imperatives, social welfare concerns, and issues of planning and design in light of the lessons to be drawn from Hurricane Katrina.

Eugenie L. Birch is Professor and Chair of the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. Susan Wachter is Richard B. Worley Professor of Financial Management and Professor of Real Estate and Finance at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Together, they direct the Penn Institute for Urban Research.

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