The idea of a city without exhaust pipes might seem like a pipe dream. But many architects and developers are working with governments to go even further, creating cities that run entirely on renewable energy, with the goal of having zero carbon emissions.
In future, cities could be held up as shiny green examples of sustainable and environmentally friendly living, rather than maligned as gas-guzzling concrete jungles.
Urban areas make up just two per cent of the world’s land and consume around three-quarters of the world’s resources. With several projects underway to create eco-cities that stand as green beacons of sustainability, they could instead become a positive force for environmental change.
Not easy being green
On the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, Masdar City aimed to become the world’s first zero-carbon metropolis, though the planned completion date was pushed back from 2016 to 2030. Even then, design manager Chris Wan admitted in an interview with the Guardian, “it’s not a net zero future. It’s about 50 per cent.”
The city, designed by UK architects Foster + Partners, has a solar plant and panels, streets positioned to maximise shade and harness cooling breezes, and an irrigation system to water plants with recycled wastewater. The firm also devised a driverless, electric transport network to shuttle people between buildings. Since plans began in 2006, however, electric vehicles have exploded in popularity, making the Masdar system an unnecessary expense. The 2008 recession also halted investment in the new city.
While the project hasn’t been abandoned, its lofty ambitions have been stripped back and it now describes itself as a “low-carbon development”. According to Wan, Masdar is “part of an evolutionary process”, hinting at lessons to be learned going forward in this and other zero-carbon city projects.
Masdar also launched the Future Build, an umbrella company that vets and supplies green building materials for architects and planners looking towards a more environmentally friendly future—a sign of increasing demand for sustainable development.
Changing the landscape
Masdar has competition, with several other towns and cities aiming to erase their carbon footprint.
Greensburg, Kansas was all but destroyed by a tornado in 2007. The response was to start from scratch and rebuild the town in a manner befitting its name. The wind that tore down buildings now powers them via turbines. Kansas City architectural firm BNIM designed new buildings to optimise natural light and minimise overheating during summer. Greensburg achieved 100 per cent renewable energy status in 2013.
While not a metropolis like London, the tiny town is an example of what can be achieved. Greensburg’s investment has not quite paid off, however, as it’s yet to attract as many new residents and businesses as hoped—though the mayor is optimistic this is just a matter of time.
Others painting the town green include Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, whose public buildings already run on 100 per cent renewable energy. The town plans to be carbon neutral by 2050.
How to achieve carbon neutrality is a fluid debate. The Solutions Project believes it’s about switching to electricity generated via renewable sources like wind and solar—following the Greensburg model. Others argue that, to become fully carbon neutral, nuclear and fossil fuel power will be needed alongside CCS technology (designed to capture CO2 emissions and prevent them from entering the atmosphere).
Adapting for the future
Big cities are also upping their game. London is already firmly focused on becoming a more sustainable city, with incentives for owners of electric vehicles and a commitment to providing more charging points. Zipcar is rolling out a fleet of Volkswagen e-Golfs in the capital, so members will have access to 325 of the fully electric cars by the end of 2018.
Can the capital take the next step to become a fully-fledged, zero-emissions urban centre? It certainly aims to be, having pledged to become a zero-carbon city by 2050. Strategies include encouraging people to walk or take public transport, switching taxis, hire cars, ride-sharing vehicles and buses to zero-emission alternatives, and building the biodiesel industry to fuel government-owned vehicles and provide jobs.
For some, the current targets are too far in the future. They argue that zero-carbon cities can—and must—become a reality in the next few years. German architect and engineer Werner Sobek told the RIBA Journal that the technology needed to create emission-free cities does exist. By 2020, he suggested, governments should enforce a “total ban on emitting gaseous waste into the environment”, converting all buildings and vehicles to renewable energy sources.
Sobek designed Aktivhaus B10, a home that can generate twice as much renewable power as it consumes. He said: “I’m totally dissatisfied with politicians’ postponing of emissions targets. Through combined action it is possible to elevate most of our cities to the status of electric cities. The money needed is not great, it just requires a common interest and will to make it happen.”