Cities setting standards in eco-innovation

Cities setting standards in eco-innovation

Curitiba is Brazil’s seventh largest city and ‘green capital’. One of the best examples of green urban planning, it shows a city can minimise its environmental impact and be attractive.

Eco-innovation is usually applied to products, not cities. Yet the planning achievements of Curitiba and other cities can indeed be considered eco- innovations. Most people today live in urban areas, and this migration is set to continue. Local authorities are confronted with the harsh realities of environmental problems as the environmental footprints of cities rise. Also inhabitants are concerned about air pollution, congestion, dirty water and waste, so authorities are pressed to innovate to deliver greener, cleaner, more pleasant places to live. Quality of the environment is also becoming an important element of the attractiveness of cities as locations for new business and investments.

Getting it right from the start

Some, such as Curitiba and the Dongtan district planned for outside Shanghai, China, are getting it right from the start. In the 1970s, when Brazil was welcoming industry with open arms, Curitiba only allowed non- polluters to settle within its limits and built an industrial district with big green spaces. Some sniggered, until its growth outstripped that of its more polluted neighbours.

Today, the city provides about 52 m2 of green space for every inhabitant, up from 1 m2 in 1970. Environmental legislation protects the local vegetation of mixed subtropical forest, which has been threatened by urban development. Some 70% of all waste is recycled.

Public transport is organised in the form of concentric circles of local bus lines that connect up to five big bus lines radiating out from the city centre in a spider web pattern. Commercial development is encouraged along these main arteries, reducing pressure on the city centre, which has been part pedestrianised. Moreover, the closer a building is to a transport route, the more offices or people it must house for maximum transport efficiency. Buses stop at elevated transparent plastic tube stations with entry at one end and exit at the other, and passengers pay a fixed fare before boarding to further speed things up. This highly efficient system has inspired others, from Bogota in Colombia to Los Angeles in the USA to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

Two additional things Curitiba has done right, according to green innovation experts is thinking about looks as well as efficiency. It is a comfortable, well thought-out city, not just an efficient one. Too often eco-innovations are still promoted largely on their environmental rather than wider merits.

Making the most of local resources

Another city with a master plan is Helsinki. This is the world’s first city with a comprehensive plan for under the ground. The city’s geology of hard bedrock located shallowly enough to be usable makes this possible. So, the city can expand while avoiding urban sprawl.

There are thousands of structures underground, including some 60 km of underground pipelines that together constitute a comprehensive district heating and cooling network. Even an underground data centre feeds its excess heat into this.

An alternative example of innovative planning and use of local resources is the Lieberose solar energy project in former eastern Germany. One of the world’s largest photovoltaic solar parks has been built on a former military training ground. By leasing the land to the project, the regional government of Brandenburg could pay for its decontamination.

Today, 750 000 thin film solar panels provide 15 000 households with clean electricity. In 2029, when the park is due to be dismantled and its panels recycled, the area will revert to a natural meadow.

Getting the infrastructure right

Adaptation to climate change is triggering a rethink of city planning policies in many cases, whether because the natural surroundings are expected to change – such as rising seawater levels for coastal cities – or because renewable energies need to be built and connected to the grid as is the case with unsightly wind turbines. Obtaining planning permission remains one of the key obstacles to renewables development across Europe.

A related issue is transport. With congestion on the streets, oil prices rising and transport’s carbon emissions continuing to increase, even as other sectors’ drop, there are plans for a new infrastructure from more public transport to car sharing to electric cars.

The City of Burgos in Spain for one has overhauled its transport infrastructure. Its approach has centred on improving public transport, turning the city centre into a pedestrian zone and promoting bikes and car sharing.

Three-quarters of its buses now run on biodiesel, routes have been changed for greater efficiency, and bus use has increased by 8%. A 4-km2 area in the city centre has been turned into a car-free zone and a new traffic control centre provides real-time advice to drivers about where to park and how to avoid traffic. A free bicycle rental scheme with 16 hire points acquired 5 000 users after three years.

Cities are mapping out a sustainable future. Not all had the luck of having a master architect as Curitiba did to get them off to a flying start. But they are drawing inspiration from one another through countless knowledge- sharing networks and, more importantly, necessity is driving innovation. City planners are turning environmental problems into opportunities.

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