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Can green urbanism save our cities?

Dr. Steffen Lehmann: “ Each city needs to maintain its unique identity, cultural value, memory, diversity and authentic character. The most sustainable building is the one that already exists.”

There is no turning back and the number of people that share the world’s limited resources continues to rise. According to the United Nations Population Division, the share of the Asian population living in urban areas has grown from 32 percent in 1990 to 42 percent in 2010. By 2026, the United Nations forecasts that half of Asians will be city dwellers. Understandably, this has enormous implications for the cities’ infrastructure needs. There are also corresponding environmental impacts. To mitigate the negative effects of a growing urban population, planners are encouraged to design cities with the precepts of “green urbanism” in mind.

In a nutshell, this was the keynote message of Dr. Steffen Lehmann, UNESCO chair in sustainable urban development for Asia and the Pacific. Dr. Lehmann is a highly respected architect, book author, professor of sustainable design, and director of the Research Centre for Sustainable Design and Behavior at the University of South Australia. He has also been named one of the 25 most influential experts in promoting green cities in Asia.

At the conference on Green Urbanism held in Manila recently, Dr. Lehmann said, “By creating regenerative cities, we create an urbanization model that will make our cities more resilient.”

He explains, “We can’t go on when 20 percent of population uses up 80 percent of the resources. As planners we have to remember that consumption is a consequence of demand, and demand is a consequence of design.” He continues, “Much of green urbanism is common sense urbanism. It is easy to reduce the demand with good design and green urbanism has to become the norm for all urban developments.”

Lehmann’s model for green urbanism is based on three pillars: energy and materials; water and biodiversity; urban planning and transport. The premise is that an efficient interaction between the three will translate to a successful model. “Green urbanism is interdisciplinary,” Dr. Lehmann believes. “It requires the collaboration of landscape architects, engineers, urban planners, ecologists, transport planners, physicists, psychologists, economists and other specialists, in addition to architects and urban planners. Green urbanism makes every effort to minimize the use of energy, water and materials at each stage of the city’s life cycle.”

Conference Partnership: Vice-Dean Yoshitake Doi, Kyushu University Faculty of Design and Dean Candido Cabrido, Jr., University of the Philippines School of Urban & Regional Planning

Simply put, it is a holistic approach that requires a combination of intelligent planning, efficient design and the cooperation of both the urban population and government. Without collaboration of all sectors, the best plans to build a regenerative city will fail. Thus, just as people need to exercise self discipline and make concessions to curb a “wasteful” lifestyle, governments should have the capacity and resolve to enforce environmental laws in the strictest sense.

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That this strategy works is exemplified by Singapore’s feat of being named Asia’s greenest city for 2010. The metropolis which is well-known for a strict government that upholds public discipline bested 21 other metropolises, because of its “ambitious environmental targets” and “efficient approach” to achieving them. Factors that won points for Singapore include efficient use (and recycling) of energy, waste, and water. Other important aspects considered were land use, transportation, sanitation, air quality and environmental governance. The Asian Green City Index was conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit and commissioned by multinational corporation Siemens. Pitiably the report states: “Manila ranks below average overall.”

What are we doing wrong? What kind of urbanization models will make Manila move up the Asian Green City Index? “There is no silver bullet and each place needs to find its own unique solution,” says Dr. Lehmann. Keeping in mind that “social sustainability and a healthy community need to be part of any vision of the future,” he suggests that planners henceforth design cities that “are well-adapted to the local climate and its eco-system.”

“We can use the buildings’ envelope to filter temperature, humidity, light, wind and noise.” Solar panels can be incorporated into structures so that they can be self- sufficient. “The city can be transformed into a power station,” says Dr. Lehmann who adds, “Glass boxes in a tropical city are a disaster.”

Designs to make city districts sources of water supply and catchment areas; as well a dependable source of food supply should likewise be examined. In addition, integrating existing buildings and maintaining the authentic identity of a place is important. “With globalization, the different city typologies are becoming increasingly confused and similar everywhere.” Because of this, counteracting the “blurring” of identity requires a reevaluation of development principles. “Every developer thinks that each building has to be ‘iconic.’ But this cannot be so and there is a need to understand the importance of contextual buildings.”

“Each city needs to maintain its unique identity, cultural value, memory, diversity and authentic character. The most sustainable building is the one that already exists,” concludes Dr. Lehmann For him, the significance of a conference on green urbanism is that, “ We are talking to find a better pathway for urbanization. Growth for the sake of growth is not acceptable.”

In light of the frenzied pace of real estate development in Metro Manila and other Philippine cities, perhaps all of us should listen and reevaluate priorities before the developers tear down ‘old’ structures and replace these with towering, energy-hungry glass boxes.

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