Tuesday, May 15, 2012: 08:53:22 PM



Sheila Sri Prakash shares her views on the need for building sustainable green cities, and the standards and designs that will make them a bankable reality

Renewable energy, also called ‘alternative energy’ or ‘energy from non-conventional sources’ is the energy that comes from natural resources such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides, and geothermal heat, which are renewable (naturally replenished) and unlike energy from crude sources do not take millions of years to be created. When we harness these sources of energy, we save on various green house gas emissions, which in turn adds to the energy efficiency of the overall project.

Global societies are facing increasing pressures from forces that are threatening the very foundations of socio-economic sustainability. Political and business leaders are confronted with the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis and the gravitational shift from developed economies to Asia has given the crisis another dimension. The world must now focus on what nations and businesses can do to make the ‘great transformation’ and stay relevant in the rapidly changing world order.

The rise of modern cities in the late 19th century, and the innovations of the 1930’s and 1940’s which focused on building infrastructure, powered world economies out of depressions. It is argued that investments to enhance food production or infrastructure will not pull the world based on knowledge driven economies out of the current crisis. By 2030, India will have about 570 million people living in cities alone. We need to create better living environments in cities. Innovations in the efficient use of the built environment and facilities that transport people and ideas faster and smarter are expected to provide the answer.

It is clear that sustainable cities of the future need to account for parameters that not only preserve our natural resources by minimising our carbon footprint, but also account for socioeconomic sustainability.

As a part of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council (GAC) on Design Innovation, council members of internationallyrenowned design-thinkers are called upon to develop solutions for some of the world’s biggest problems. The GAC Annual Summit in Abu Dhabi in October 2011 saw a design submission which is now being formulated as a Reciprocal Design Approach to ensure Holistic Sustainability for Urban Design. This approach offers a blueprint for a collaborative design process embracing social, economic, cultural, ecological, and environmental issues, to achieve holistic sustainability in Indian cities, and around the world.

Architecture and Urban Design become usercentric by adopting this approach which is inclusive of a spectrum of stakeholders. Collaborative design effort ensures that most, if not all, parameters are addressed during all the stages of the design process, from conception through execution and enforcement post construction.

Yale and Columbia Universities summarise their Environmental Performance Index, 2012 findings with the comment, “Twenty years after the landmark Rio Earth Summit, governments still struggle to demonstrate improved environmental performance through quantitative metrics across a range of pollution control and natural resource management challenges. With budgetary constraints an issue around the world, governments face increasing pressure to show tangible results from their environmental investments.’’

Performance information is critical to the ability to assess progress and make any needed adjustments. It is difficult to assess the progress of many goals due to lack of verifiable indicators and quantifiable targets, especially regarding biodiversity, chemicals and hazardous wastes and a number of goals that govern land use and terrestrial conservation. Without such clear metrics for measuring progress in the holistic context, the goal of sustainability remains elusive. Also, reliable baseline data and robust monitoring systems that can collect data at regular intervals are missing. The task of assessing progress is further complicated by the fact that most goals should not be considered in isolation. Due to tensions and synergies between them, progress towards one goal must be viewed in light of implications for other goals.

It was recognised that for dealing with environmental issues, special efforts will be required, and global and local environmental issues are interrelated. Although combating the causes for environmental change and the socioeconomic disparities demand a global response, there is no single solution to the multitude of global problems. Flexible and adaptive governance approaches to tackle the problems are more likely to attain effective, efficient, and equitable outcomes.

In spite of the shortfalls in establishing benchmarks and measuring performances, Governments should facilitate the development of internationally agreed metrics to measure progress in achieving internally agreed goals. These metrics should take into consideration the role of science and scientific knowledge. In addition, impact indicators and metrics to measure outcomes related to sustainable development could also be developed. The data collected and utilised via the monitoring of indicators could be maintained and shared through collaborative databases for stakeholders to easily access.

There are more buildings being registered with the rating agencies for evaluation and certification to ‘green’ norms. In tacit understanding of this, The Design Innovation Council Network, of the WEF at Abu Dhabi, 2011 initiated that Urban Design of Cities should be similarly rated for holistic sustainability by a ‘Reciprocal Design Index,’ (RDI) that strives for a balanced approach to establish, document and incentivise sustainable design and also, define an objective accreditation system of reciprocity indices that are monitored, compared and recognised.

We need to develop attributes for Holistic Urban Design of cities, establish benchmarks for the attributes, identify a Reciprocal Design Index (RDI) Metric by which cities can be measured for holistic sustainability, and compute the RDI of any city and rank the RDI of a city globally.

While there are some internationally recognised indicators such as the Gross National Income (GNI), Environmental Performance Index (EPI), Human Development Index (HDI) and other social indicators, significant parameters for Urban Design are not available, and my recommendation will include the enforcement of development rules, density and land use, open space use, transportation and connectivity (including roads, pedestrian, bicycles, intermodal transport and communication), permeability of road and public transit networks, infrastructure resources, waste disposal and pollution handling, security and safety, and risk mitigation.

RDI would be a synthesis of the social indicators and the urban design indicator. RDI prescribes parameters and metrics surrounding sustainable design to factor the environment, sociology and economics. Cities of the world in a segment of the countries categorised by their gross national income (GNI) per capita become comparable. The social and urban design indicators of a city (RDI – City), can be compared with the country’s social and urban design indicators (RDI – Country) and that of the segment of countries (RDI – Global Category) to which a city belongs.

The Green Movement has driven the efficiency of building designs with technology and materials to reduce capital and life cycle costs. Cities of the world—including Melbourne and Vancouver among others— were once virgin lands with unique ecosystems, and have contributed enormously to culture and socioeconomic growth. Some are models worthy of study and emulation. RDI indentifies the impact of Urban Design on the socio economic conditions of a city, and vice versa. If socio-economically sensitive Urban Design can be called the Blue Movement, then RDI would address the blend of nature with the impact of the built environment on our societies; the harmony of the Green and Blue Movements. The world’s future is in TEAL CITIES!

Sheila Sri Prakash is an architect and founder of Shilpa Architects, as well as member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Design Innovation.

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