Bottom-up approach to address the challenges of low-carbon eco-cites
by Cary Buchanan and Ffion Batcup – BRE Global
As we learn more about good urban design practices, we can use this knowledge to uncouple economic growth in cities with the negative ecological and social impacts often associated with urbanisation. The challenges associated with urbanisation at the city scale are substantial. Experience worldwide has shown, cities can be both resilient to change, as well as extremely fragile. It is critical that we learn from both international best practise and market failures to ensure that there is a drive towards more sustainable communities that are vibrant, economically successful and healthy places to live. Nowhere is this likely to be as relevant as in China, a country that is predicted to have the largest urban population in the world by 2050, some 1 billion people (UN DESA, 2012). China already has some of the largest cities in the world including Shanghai and Beijing.
This article considers some of the components that can help to create sustainable communities and their applicability at the city scale, through tracing the evolution of the Low Carbon Eco-Cities initiative, its current drivers and some of the challenges that need to be addressed in order to facilitate the progression of this initiative. The BREEAM Communities framework will be discussed, along with its potential to fulfil the aspirations of Eco-Cities.
 The changing landscape of cites
The challenges associated with urbanisation including; environmental degradation, insufficient infrastructure, overcrowding, social inequalities and urban sprawl are of increasing concern. However we can learn from historical periods of urbanisation, particularly in Europe which offer examples of good planning and innovative housing design. Letchworth, England is a good example as it was already demonstrating a positive vision of urban development back in 1903; providing enhanced employment opportunities, links with the natural ecology in the surrounding countryside, whilst integrating principles of sustainable urban design.
However, today there are many additional challenges due to the increased rate and scale of urbanisation. Not only are more people than ever living in cities, but the United Nations has predicted that this global trend will continue, with urban areas globally “expected to absorb all the population growth expected over the next four decades” (UN DESA). This trend has led to the emergence of “Megacities” (cities with over 10 million inhabitants), the number of which is increasing and it is predicted that the number of people residing in them will double by 2025 (UN DESA, 2012).
Shanghai provides a good example of the challenges associated with megacities, such as smog, congestion and issues surrounding water quality. These challenges are well recognised, with the Municipality of Shanghai embarking on the Shanghai environment project in the nineties. Progress is being made and the city is now recognised for the provision of high-quality park space, improving the urban environment.
A handful of countries are driving this trend, including China and India, who together account for approximately one third of the increase in urban population. The Chinese National Bureau of Statistics confirmed in 2011, that for the first time in China's history, more of the population resided in urban rather than rural locations (UNDP, 2013). As a result of this growth, environmental degradation has been a mounting issue over the past two decades. Thus, more effort has been directed at enhancing environmental awareness through publicity, education and greater commitments to international environmental treaties. These efforts aim to ensure that natural resources are used more efficiently using more environmentally friendly technologies (Mol and Carter, 2007: 2).
One of these commitments is the 12th Five-year plan for National and Social Development that was released in 2011, calling for a 16% reduction in energy intensity and 17% reduction in CO2 emission per unit of GDP by 2015 (Baeumler et al., 2013). Given that it is estimated cities currently account for 75% of the world's energy consumption and 80% of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions (Nan Zhou, 2012), the trend of population growth in Chinese cities undoubtedly poses a major challenge.
 The evolution of low-carbon eco-city concepts
With challenge comes opportunity. The growth of urban areas has provided a platform to demonstrate how cities can support a less resource-intensive and more ecologically-friendly way of functioning. Over the last century, advocates of urban planning have demonstrated that urbanisation does not inevitably result in negative outcomes for the ecological and the wider environmental health of a city. Urban growth can also lead to making use of redundant and potentially contaminated land through remediation. There are additional positive socio-economic benefits including; enhanced employment opportunities, provision of services such as education and healthcare, less need to travel long distances for everyday needs and better quality and number of community resources for recreational uses. However, it is important that cities are planned and designed in a sustainable way that allows such benefits to be realised.
These opportunities have been encapsulated in the eco-city initiative, which was first coined in 1987 by urban ecologist Richard Register, who described an eco-city as an “ecologically healthy city”. More recently the World Bank has defined eco-cities as “places that strive to function harmoniously with natural systems and value their ecological assets, as well as the regional and global ecosystems on which we depend”. The result is that they “drastically reduce the net damage to the local and global environment, while improving the overall well-being of their citizens and the local economy” (Suzuki et al., 2010: xvii).
It was the well-known report of the Bruntland Commission (Our Common Future), in 1987 and the subsequent Agenda 21 that stemmed from the 1992 United Nations Conference on Economic and Environment and Development, which resulted in the prominence of sustainability in the political arena. The report and conference aimed to address climate change, ensure the longevity of our ecosystems and embed sustainable approaches in all aspects of human living, at both the local, national and global level. This is encapsulated in the term 'sustainable development' which has since been widely accepted and used.
The concept of the eco-city began gaining momentum in the aftermath of Agenda 21, and emphasised the ecological aspects of sustainability. In its infancy the concept was largely conceptual, described by Roseland as 'a collection of…ideas about urban planning, transportation, health, housing, economic development, natural habitats, public participation and social justice…' (1997: 197). It was not until the 90's that some of these largely aspirational concepts began to be realised and applied in urban areas.
In recent years the eco-cites concept has been combined with that of low-carbon cities, highlighting the need to address the issues of increasing carbon emissions alongside resource efficiency and environmentally-friendly practices and considering these in a way that does not hinder economic growth:
“Cities that embark on a low-carbon transformation will also become more liveable, efficient, competitive and ultimately sustainable. Low carbon growth only adds another imperative to solve the immediate development concerns of Chinese cities." (Baeumler et al., 212: xxxix)
This evolution increases the challenge but represents; a more collective approach to integrating sustainably at the city scale in China, a need to address globalisation and modernise urban planning concepts, all of which are being driven by the mainstreaming of both policy uptake and its practical implementation. There have been many high-profile organisations and academic institutions engaged in low-carbon eco-cities reasearch and initiatives in recent years such as; the European Commission's Eco-City Project, the International Ecocity Framework and Standards Initiative, The International Eco-Cities Initiative and The Clinton Climate Cities Programme. Furthermore, in light of China's population growth in conjunction with rising carbon emissions, the country has become the hosting ground for pilot eco-city projects. This includes that of the; World Wildlife Fund, who are engaged in piloting a low-carbon city development programme and the Switzerland-China Low Carbon Cities Project which is using nine cities in China to pilot criteria relating to city management, low-carbon economy, transportation, and green building (Nan Zhou, 2012).
 The low-carbon eco-city challenge: a green economy?
One of the major reasons for China's growing interest in low-carbon eco-cities is as a result of the legacy left from an intensive industrial past and a remaining “urban-industrial driven economic base supported by a highly successful export-led manufacturing industry” (Wong and Yuen, 2011: 134). These industries are continuing to expand, and as a result there is a growing need to address pollution in the major cities. It was reported that “less than 1% of the 500 largest cities in China meet the air quality standards recommended by the World Health Organization, and 7 of its cities are ranked among the 10 most polluted cities in the world” (Hongling Liua, 2014).
Additionally, 40% of China's carbon emissions are from power generation, with a further 40% attributed to industrial activities. In light of these figures, how are we to create the 'compassionate relationship between society and nature' that Richard Register (2006: 214) sought to achieve back in 1987? And how can the urban environment function in an economically profitable way? Given China's lack of practical experience dealing with pollution linked to these industries, the low-carbon eco-city initiative has been adopted, encouraging ecological industrial metabolism, whereby environmental protection and resource conservation are essential through measures such as material re-use, efficient transportation, renewable energy sources and the entire life-cycle production (Ecocity Builders, 2014).
These principles are encapsulated in the term 'green capitalism' as “a set of responses to environmental change and environmentalism that relies on harnessing capital investment, individual choices, and entrepreneurial innovation to the green cause” (Prudham, 2009: 1595). The green economy is a paradigm of ecological modernisation, which rests on a belief that environmental protection is a precondition of long-term economic development and that its protection is not a brake to economic growth (Mol, 2001).
The City of Dongtan is an example of the Chinese government's approach to ecological modernisation, whose goals were to “found natural capital- and knowledge-based industrial clusters [and] to establish a research and education centre for ecological sciences” (Chang, 2013: 65). Both goals aimed to work with the island's fishery and farming based economies through these new “environmental industries” (ibid.). Such activities are pertinent in China in light of the high CO2 emissions from power generation and industry, as the concept not only promotes greener forms of industry, but also encourages renewable forms of generation to power economic activities within a city.
The notion of green capitalism and ecological modernisation, in the words of Prytherch, “constructs nature only to promote its destruction” (2002: 787). This is representative of some of the arguments against ecological modernisation and shows how contested this area of research remains. Put simply, the movement to a green economy will fall short if it is assumed that the economy and environment are seamlessly compatible. And secondly, if the focus is solely on the economy and environment, the social dimension of sustainability is largely ignored.
It has been reported that between 230 and 300 Chinese cities are aiming to be recognised as eco-cities (Nan Zhou, 2012) (The UK-China Eco-cities and Green Building Group, 2012). However these targets, pilots, high-level definitions and concepts do little in the way of providing guidance as to how we may classify a city as a low-carbon eco-city, this has been reiterated by numerous authors in this field (see Hongling Liua, 2014 and Nan Zhou, 2012). The way China responds to the complex challenges outlined in this article will characterise the form of the country's urban landscape for future generations. Given the enormity of the challenge in operating at the city scale and embedding these largely aspirational concepts there has been a significant performance gap between the aims and the actual outcome for the city.
The key question is whether cities can be planned and built to; thrive economically and drive social cohesion, whilst promoting low-carbon lifestyles, and ecological protection?
 A framework supporting large-scale sustainability
A sustainability framework could perhaps be the answer. The majority of work being undertaken in China relating to low-carbon eco-cites is focused on specific initiatives or the formulation of indicators, spanning categories such as energy, water and transport (Nan Zhou, 2012). In this section BREEAM Communities will be presented as a sustainability framework that could offer an alternative approach to collectively address the issues highlighted above. BREEAM Communities covers the masterplanning phase of large scale development and it sits as part of the wider BREEAM family (see image below). BREEAM emerged in 1990 as the world's first environmental assessment method for buildings.
Following its success at the building level – driving sustainable building and design with over 425,000 certified developments internationally, the robust scientific principles sitting behind the building level schemes have since been applied to the neighbourhood scale – BREEAM Communities. This framework supports equal and holistic integration of social, economic and environmental sustainability into the design and planning of large-scale developments. Furthermore, it can facilitate the integration of low-carbon design and technologies, as well as addressing pollution issues and ensuring that the ecology of an area is recognised, enhanced and not jeopardised by industrial activity.
The fundamental difference between indicators and frameworks is that indicators quantify, in this case, urban sustainability, with the aim of defining specific elements and thus are particularly difficult to apply to different social contexts. Indicators offer detailed information, however, are they really driving progression? Frameworks on the other hand, combine targets and indicators under a common process, promoting an integrated approach (Joss, 2012). As such, indicators support a somewhat top-down approach whilst frameworks support a bottom-up approach.
This paper has not set out to critique indicators, nor does it propose that BREEAM Communities will act as a means of classifying an eco-city. As is evident from the discussion so far, there is no agreement on one single model that produces the “perfect” eco-city. However, BREEAM Communities is a framework focused on process; effectively imbedding numerous indicators into sustainable masterplanning. This approach suits the variable nature of the three pillars of sustainability, particularly in relation to social issues, which are notoriously hard to measure. But by integrating social considerations and capturing the needs and priorities of society, in this process-driven framework, we can build the foundations which balance social cohesion against economic progression and environmental protection.
The UK-China Eco-cities and Green Building Group (2012) identifies three goals which should be reflected in eco-city planning and design covering; housing provision, economic prosperity, addressing climate change and resource conservation. It goes on to identify that “energy efficiency and effectiveness in buildings is still a key issue in China” and that the barriers to eco-city initiatives include; poor stakeholder engagement and poor socio-economic consideration. This is confirmed by numerous other authors including; Hongling Liua (2014), who state that “more holistic approaches are needed for integrated urban planning” and Wong and Yuen (2011: 140) who comment that in order to address these challenges, a city should promote “green energy based public transit and other environmentally friendly buildings and infrastructure”.
The BREEAM Communities framework not only addresses the goals identified above but as a result of the larger scale at which the framework is implemented and its affinity with the BREEAM building level schemes, it can act to facilitate the realisation of greater sustainability gains at the building level. It has been reported that the BREEAM building-level schemes are gaining momentum in China as the benefits are being realised. Recently, leading Chinese developer Franshion was awarded the country's first BREEAM outstanding design stage certification for The Living Lattice in Changsha, Hunan Province. Such a project will act as an exemplar for thousands of future buildings in China and world-wide (Building4change, 2013).
In terms of the low-carbon aspects of the scheme it clearly addresses energy use in a number of ways including reducing demand through energy efficient measures such as; site layout, use of natural ventilation and wind management and selecting the most appropriate decentralised and or LZC (Low and Zero Carbon) technologies. In this way the scheme acts to facilitate low-carbon lifestyles, appropriate to the area and the needs of the community. Carbon emissions are further considered in terms of embodied carbon of materials and transport. Pushing market best practice is one of the central goals of the BREEAM standard. One of the ways this is achieved is through facilitating innovation of new green technologies to help transition cities into the desired low-carbon era.
Taking the example of Caofeidian eco-city in China; it incorporates many different technologies including a site-wide, underground, pneumatic, solid-waste system, grey/black water treatment system and various renewable technologies. The ambition to integrate numerous technologies is likely to be a common feature in future low-carbon eco-city projects. What is crucial is that this is implemented in an integrated manner, ensuring a dialogue between all stakeholders. BREEAM Communities facilitates this dialogue, ensuring these conversations are initiated in the early stages of the masterplanning process between the community, engineers, architects and the design team, in order to maximise the benefits from these technologies and other sustainability measures.
What is evident in the context of eco-city initiatives, is a lack of consultation throughout the design, planning and implementation phases (Joss and Molella, 2013). This should be fundamental and can be facilitated through a bottom-up approach to the planning and implementation of low-carbon eco-cities, offering a dynamic and inclusive process to maximise the sustainable gains for the city. This is a key principle in BREEAM Communities, as it ensures that the needs of those living in these places are met, and that they play a role in the long-term success of sustainable places.
BREEAM Communities does not only consider the impact and outcomes of a development in isolation as was the case in Caofeidian eco-city. Joss and Molella highlight a potential disconnect between Caofeidian and its hinterland, both of which had differing approaches to sustainable development. Subsequently, the environmental benefits were not fully realised (2013: 123). This was reiterated in the World Bank's analysis of Tianjin eco-city. Here it was highlighted by Axel Baeumler, that there is a “risk of viewing the city's sustainability features in isolation, with limited wider impact unless… treated as part of a larger regional and economic context” (World Bank, 2009). Tianjin has some of China's strictest building energy-efficiency standards. BREEAM Communities can be used in this context, to support the ambitions of even the most forward-thinking eco-city initiatives, while still recognising the need to do this with the surrounding area in mind.
BREEAM Communities has been used on a range of developments around the world including both regeneration and new build developments. The developments have ranged in scale, from small infill projects of 5 hectares to large sites up to 200 hectares. The scheme can also be applied in a phased approach, which supports its application on larger scales. BRE Global is yet to trial the framework at the city scale; however they are in the process of determining its applicability (BREEAM Communities, 2014). However, it would seem that the majority of the aims through which the scheme is applied would hold true at the city scale through the phased approach.
This article has demonstrated how the concept of eco-cities has evolved and how it has since been combined with low-carbon initiatives to represent a more holistic concept – which can be considered to be more comprehensive in terms of sustainable development. The challenge is clear; China will be required to respond quickly to the predicted urbanisation rates in order to ensure that a balance is maintained between environmental protection and social cohesion, while still supporting the economic growth of cities. The Chinese government is very conscious of the challenges and has begun implementing policies and supporting initiatives to ensure China's rapidly evolving economy does not compromise environmental and social integration and integrity in the urban setting. The decisions made now will be fundamental for the future of the urban landscape in China.
Given the potential significance of low-carbon eco-cites in addressing issues associated with urbanisation and climate change, it is not surprising that research has focused on defining these concepts and assigning indicators to establish the success of these initiatives. Despite this, a consensus has yet to be made on how to create or define a low-carbon eco-city, with the reality likely to be largely contextual. However, initiatives such as The Leverhulme Eco-Cities Initiative (Joss, 2012) are engaged in making comparative assessments of the existing frameworks, standards and indicators, including BREEAM Communities. There is a clear opportunity here to test frameworks such as BREEAM Communities, to determine if the benefits that have been proved at the community level elsewhere, can support the eco-city initiative in China – this bottom-up and holistic approach seems key to support the need for improved stakeholder engagement. BREEAM Communities could support a step change towards self-sufficient and fully-functioning places, with comparatively low impacts on the environment and the wider ecosystems in which these cities are located.
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 External references
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- Baeumler, A., Chen, M., Dastur, A., Zhang, Y., Filewood, R., Al-Jamal, K.,. & Pinnoi, N. (2009). Sino-Singapore Tianjin eco-city: A case study of an emerging eco-city in China. Technical Assistance Report, World Bank, Washington DC.
- Building4Change (2013). Available online: http://www.building4change.com/page.jsp?id=2117. Last accessed 28/01/2014.
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