Sustainable Urban Regions

Ton Venhoeven | 2012


The greatest challenges to the transition to a sustainable lifestyle are the explosive growth in prosperity world-wide and the simultaneous rise of urban megaclusters. The focus of the problems in these megaclusters is the demand for water, oil, and other non-renewable resources and the supply of waste; but there are many possible solutions to these problems. VenhoevenCS brings people, businesses and institutes together to develop the interdisciplinary knowledge needed to organise these types of regions more efficiently in the long term, to close their technical and natural cycles, and to make them less dependent on the global market and non-renewable resources.

VenhoevenCS is one of the initiators of the Delhi 2050 project, a future vision for India’s capital region. During his time as a professor of Architectural History and Theory at Eindhoven University of Technology, Ton Venhoeven initiated a study into urban sustainability. As chief government advisor for infrastructural policy (Rijksadviseur voor de Infrastructuur) he was responsible for the design study Duurzame Steden (Sustainable Cities) and he was involved in the development of regional sustainability tools and various regional and national structural visions.

Sustainable urban regions

In recent years, a great deal of attention has been devoted to the issues of climate change, energy supply, depletion of water resources, environmental degradation and the preservation of biodiversity. There is an urgent need for a change in paradigm, especially as the global population continues to rise and standards of living go up worldwide. More than just a negative impact in the ecological, social and economic arenas, these pressures are expected to lead to global shortages and conflicts over resources and basic necessities. Although improving the environmental performance of buildings and communities is important, the real challenge is to make entire urban regions truly sustainable. What we are talking about is metropolitan areas with populations in the several millions to hundreds of millions. The Ruhrgebiet urban agglomeration in Germany is only a smaller example; consider the London-Paris-Berlin triangle, or the National Capital Region of Delhi, India. This is already the size of many daily urban systems today.

"the real challenge is to make entire urban regions truly sustainable"

Zero Carbon Cities
Today, over 500 cities worldwide are working towards the transition to the post-petroleum age. Energy efficiency in construction and smart mobility can save a great deal of energy. Together with conservation in water, food, fuel and other resources, this can be the foundation for many urban sustainability strategies. Utilisation of various waste flows and smart local harvesting of renewable energy, water, food and other resources can substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The remainder of the energy needs can then be covered as efficiently as possible with fossil fuels.

"energy efficiency in construction and smart mobility can save a great deal of energy"

Cities that manage their CO2 in this way are referred to as “Low Carbon Cities.” Taking this one step further brings us to “Zero Carbon Cities,” cities or urban regions using only sustainable energy – solar, geothermal, wind or water power. At present there are no Zero Carbon Cities in the industrialised world, but efforts to develop such Eco-Cities are fully underway in many places.

Full-spectrum approach
The international efforts in developing new Eco-Cities are generating a great deal of knowledge on the subject of dealing with renewable energy sources, but also show that there are many more significant factors beyond the finite nature of easily extractable oil, curtailing harmful CO2 emissions and the resilience of local ecosystems. Many cities and urban regions can only function by the grace of the supply of finite resources and cheap labour elsewhere. This is an economic system that is untenable as standards of living and populations rise worldwide, and if pursued, will lead to more and more major global conflicts.

Clearly, it is important to keep from passing off problems to the less developed areas of the world. But the only way to do so is to make all urban regions a good deal more self-sufficient than they are now. This entails integrating the answers to the issues of water, energy, regional competitiveness, socio-cultural mobility of individuals and the quality of the urban and ecological living environment intelligently, urban region by urban region, into a single, cohesive strategy. The challenges lie in three realms: People, Planet and Profit. Proposals for strategies must work well in all three of these realms.

"the challenges lie in three realms: People, Planet and Profit"

Planning for uncertainty
Considerations of the self-sufficiency of cities are not new. Before the dawn of the internal combustion engine, cities had no option but to get their resources and fuel locally. 17th-century Tokyo already had more than a million inhabitants, but it produced food in the city. This was underpinned by fine-grained social order to ensure that the entire metabolism of the urban organisation continued to function. The tradesmen this required were held in high regard. Likewise, elsewhere in the world, people relied on a high degree of self-sufficiency to save costly transportation or to be able to withstand a long-term siege.

Historically speaking, successful, sustainable cities were cities that had a certain degree of robustness to accommodate the unknown and the unexpected without drastic interventions in the urban fabric. There are many examples of cities and regions that focused too strongly on a single type of industry, population group or type of transport, and collapsed as a result. A monoculture has less resilience and vitality than a multifunctional region with a healthy mix of activities and other ingredients.

Most cities today are a part of a number of different urban networks with an incredible amount of interconnection. Everything, including the traffic and the social life, plays out in these networks, in the cities and villages that are a part of them, in the interconnecting areas. For everyone individually, the quality of life is determined by a combination of the use options different networks provide: knowledge, mobility and recreation, ecological structures and extraction and distribution of resources. Everything from the ability to visit friends, walk the dog, see wild animals, feed the birds, send the kids to school, buy fresh produce in the shops, use mobile internet, drink water and earn money. Here in these networks, you can also get rid of your trash – while for others, that’s only the beginning of the cycle.

"a monoculture has less resilience and vitality than a multifunctional region with a healthy mix of activities"

An interconnected metabolism
According to current perspectives, in the future urban regions will continue to make up an interconnected metabolism in which everything is dependent on everything else. But right now, there are still too many products being made from finite resources by cheap labour elsewhere. The many transportation flows required for the entire process are made possible by the burning of fossil fossil fuels, releasing CO2 in the process. And the products themselves often end up in the dump or go down the drain. In the future, more and more cycles will have to be self-contained. And this makes the creation and maintenance of the networks required to do so essential.

"in the future urban regions will continue to make up an interconnected metabolism in which everything is dependent on everything else"

A sustainable urban plan will ensure that all networks, both human and natural, function optimally and sustainably, including where they intersect or overlap. If they do not, these interfaces become the weak points of the network. Consider intersections like ecological lanes for wildlife, or a salmon river through an industrial area, or pedestrian networks crossing a motorway, or train lines that slice through an urban landscape. Meetings and overlap between different networks happen more often than we tend to think, and so too do weak spots. To make sure that we see them all, cooperation between experts of all disciplines in the design of urban regions will be essential, as will the utilisation of the insights of a broad public.

Societies in general are in a continuous state of development, and this is doubly so for urban regions. Unforeseen technological developments can change societies virtually overnight. Twenty years ago, no one could have foreseen the impact of mobile telephony and the internet on the way people connect in society. Today, people have much faster access to much more knowledge. And that means that there are abundant opportunities to disseminate and implement the changes and new insights we need.

Ton Venhoeven, 2012


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