Street Science: New Approaches to the Old Problem of Sustainability

Jeanne Haffner looks at a new European initiative to encourage local governments to pursue sustainability initiatives, and one city that’s taking its carbon-neutral plan very seriously.

Newcastle, England, is pursuing an aggressive sustainability agenda. Draco2008 via Flickr

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Since the 1970s and 1980s, ideas about how to make cities more “sustainable” — loosely defined as reducing a city’s impact on the environment — have permeated urban planning, architecture and related fields. The Gulf Coast oil crisis of 2010 has made this project even more pressing. As the illusion of oil as a safe and expansive resource continues to fade, reducing our energy consumption is more urgent than ever before.

Nevertheless, despite best intentions, strategies to make cities more sustainable have been notoriously difficult to implement in practice. The problem is not only technological. It is also social, economic, and political: How do you make people change, or at least modify, their everyday behaviors?

A new initiative at the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, offers a novel approach to this daunting task. Called the Covenant of Mayors (COM), the program aims to reduce gas emissions in European cities by at least 20 percent by 2020 by taking a localized approach. That is, instead of dictating new rules and regulations from above, new strategies are developed and implemented from below.

This “bottom-up” approach is assumed to be much more effective at bringing about real change. Local authorities sign themselves up to meet fairly strict carbon reduction targets. While top-down approaches might be able to identify broad carbon reduction measures, this alternative method of implementation relies upon the specific contexts of individual cities.

“Local authorities have a key role in mitigating climate change,” the COM website states. “Being the closest administration to the citizens, [local authorities] are ideally positioned to understand their concerns. Moreover, they can address the challenges in a comprehensive way, facilitating the conciliation between the public and private interest and the integration of sustainable energy into overall local development goals, be it development of alternative energy, more efficient energy use, or changes in behavior.”

One of the cities that recently joined this initiative is Newcastle, located in northeast England. During the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this city was a leader in a number of key industries, including coal mining, ship building and other types of manufacturing. For much of the twentieth century, it had one of the worst pollution rates in all of England.

On top of these environmental troubles, the city also suffered a major political scandal that has made the term “Newcastle” almost a synonym for that of “corruption.” In the early 1960s, Housing Committee Chairman T. Dan Smith — a major figure in the Labour Party who held the nickname “Mr. Newcastle” — took bribes from the architect John Poulson. Smith led the process of urban renewal in Newcastle from 1960-1965, and the city has never fully recovered from his fraudulent acts.

But the twenty-first century promises a new beginning for Newcastle. City officials recently unveiled a plan to become the first “carbon free” city in the world by 2025. The path to this ambitious goal includes updating the city’s infrastructure, increasing forest cover and reducing energy consumption. There’s even a game to educate city residents on how to become more eco-friendly in their everyday lives. Called the “Carbon Challenge,” the game’s aim is to prevent the melting of an ice cap by choosing “carbon goodies,” like recycling, bicycles and insulation, and avoiding “carbon baddies,” such as coal piles, airplanes and packaged products.

The COM project will help Newcastle approach their goal by having local universities, city officials, and the public alike involved in this ambitious endeavor, which they have titled the “Carbon Routemap: A Routemap to a Low Carbon Economy in Newcastle.” It is not only scientists or city officials that will be involved, notes Carlos Calderon of the Department of Architecture at Newcastle University. The idea, rather, is to provide a hybrid approach.

“The project,” Calderon explains, “attempts to bridge the gap between top-down methods and needed bottom-up approaches (i.e. the use of localized data sets) which can provide disaggregated figures for taking action.” Using GIS and national statistics, the team involved will attempt to estimate hourly energy consumption in individual buildings. These hourly energy profiles can then be used to inform the public and hopefully inspire people to reduce their consumption. “The aim of the carbon routemap project,” he says, “is to provide Newcastle City Council with a transferable approach that has an adequate spatial and temporal resolution for evaluating mitigation measures at city scale.”

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Tags: built environmentsustainable citiescomplete streets

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