Tag Archives: sustainable cities

Is This the Future of City Design?

Now THIS is something interesting… an online platform that is allowing the community to help plan the future of New York City, through a combination of online gaming, social media and research. Whilst this system is in Beta mode, it shows some extraordinary potential in how city planners might better engage with their communities, generating some usable outputs in the process.

 nyc manahatta

The M2409 (Mannahatta 2409) project is an online platform a little like ‘Sim City’ [don’t pretend you don’t know what that is] that allows us to create an account then start designing our own future section of New York City using a palette of materials and attributes.

M2409 allows you to create your own vision for a piece of the city, making it private or ‘public’ meaning anyone in the world can log in and see your idea. One key element of this system is that it provides us with a number of future climate change scenarios to work with, e.g. ‘future climate in 2050’ or ‘severe storm in 2080’, so the very premise of this scheme is that we’re designing for future city resilience. If we choose to we can also recognise the original pre-European condition of Mannahatta (if we choose to).

nature of cities snippet

Eric Sanderson’s scheme for 14th St.

The more I consider this one the more potential I can see… a new avenue for improving city resilience by ‘design from the people’? A new channel to see what voters and rate payers want for their neighbourhood? Might ‘big data’ eventually connect with a platform like this to give us real-time data to design from?

I came across this via the Nature of Cities web site – great write-up on this by Eric Sanderson. Check it out here.

Want one of these for your own city? Personally I’m thinking ‘no’ for mine… I can see myself becoming completely absorbed in this at the expense of all else: it’s got city resilience, design, urban planning, place making, maps… far too many distractions!


A City Resilience (Liveability) Survey

We regularly hear about some city that has just been awarded the ‘world’s most livable city’ award, of some description. Even my home town of Adelaide got into a No.1 spot last year [Lonely Planet ‘best in travel’… must be the wine?]… and I’ve always wondered how these conclusions are reached (and I’ll leave Adelaide alone… they have enough to contend with ; )

After a bit of digging it’s apparent that these ‘surveys’ are of course biased towards the audience of whoever has sponsored the survey, e.g. an automobile association might survey its members and conclude that a car-centric city is superior to one that has a focus on walkability.

city economist

one of the many surveys

Even when searching for a globally fair ‘livability’ index it’s apparent that it will never be completely objective or fair, unless the survey takes into account how the people of that city or community actually feel about where they live.

My search led me to a really handy ‘city resilience’ survey. The principle here is that ‘livability’ is so nebulous that it’s difficult to even brief for and design to – it means different things to different people, however when we place more focus on the living community it becomes more of a discussion about community and city resilience.

resilience survey

image from ‘City Resilient’ by Partners for Livable Communities

This city resilience survey – or ‘Community Scorecard’, by Partners for Livable Communities provides a well written plain-language survey that is tailored specifically for community engagement. The survey assesses 5 qualities that comprise ‘resilience’;

  1. Economy – jobs, innovation, talent attraction, economic base
  2. Environment – resource efficiency, consumption, air and water quality, access to the outdoors
  3. Education – high quality public education access, learning programs
  4. Health & Safety – physical and mental health
  5. Quality of Life – community care, interaction, open-ness to ideas

If you’re in a role where ‘livability’ is part of the challenge, or if you simply want to gain a better understanding of what makes a strong and resilient community, the web site and the survey are a good read and easy to digest.

And here’s the challenge – you need to get a total score of at least 110 in order for your community to be considered ‘resilient’… see how you go.

Resilience Through Placemaking

A common thread found in Resilience theory is that of community strength. A community’s ability to survive and even thrive during tough times is largely decided both in the way that community builds itself around its physical places and also in the way people work and band together to create those spaces.

The art of place-making is arguably the best demonstration of community resilience at work. By definition placemaking involves the residents of a community – it’s not the product of an architect’s pen but rather the result of a community-designer-builder collaboration over time.


image from the Quicker, Lighter, Cheaper post

The Project for Public Spaces is a great placemaking blog with a recent post titled The 7 Psychological Functions of the Art of Placemaking. An interesting take on one of Alain de Botton’s latest works and worth a read. You’ll need to hit the link to get the discussion behind each of the functions.

The 7 Functions are;

  1. Remembering
  2. Hope
  3. Sorrow
  4. Re-Balancing
  5. Self-Understanding
  6. Growth
  7. Appreciation

While the place is important, the “making” builds connections, creates civic engagement, and empowers citizens—in short, it builds social capital. As architect Mark Lakeman of Portland’s City Repair organization puts it, “the physical projects are just an excuse for people to meet their neighbors.” … The relationships that grow out of the “making” are equal to, if not more important than, the places that result. (MIT’s recently-released white paper Places in the Making)

Grass roots resilience – no need for funding or white papers or green papers or drawn out consultancies. It’s just people like you and I getting on with realising great ideas in the spirit of placemaking start-ups.

Is Workshifting The Greenest Thing We Can Do?

I received a short e-book yesterday from Greensense where they’d calculated that typical office buildings sit unoccupied for 72% of their time, based purely on typical work days and hours per year. Yet during this time these buildings consume 55% of their energy.

It goes without saying that we need to get a grip on this wasted energy and either stop using it or put it to use… but to date we’re still focussing on ‘energy efficiency’ (i.e. eating less) and tinkering around the edges of Activity Based Working, ‘hotelling’ of facilities and ‘work shifting’.

I read around a year ago about this concept of ‘workshifting’ and even in the past 12 months it seems that the original origin of the word has morphed – it’s now taking over the language of ‘remote working’ and so forth [some good background here]. But I recall the original idea of work-shifting was to literally shift entire working hours into non-standard hours. night-shift for offices.

night shift

flickr share by Mario Gutierrez, London UK.

Whilst the energy efficiency drive is good and has value and is easy, perhaps the real payoff is in doing away with our traditions of the 9am-5pm work life, and using our buildings 24/7. I’m not saying make people work longer hours – it’s nothing more complicated than making more work hours available. One work day becomes 3 x 8 hour shifts, and people can choose which shifts they want to work.

Employers are paying the same rent, and yes most likely some extra energy, but they’re getting more than four times the productivity out of their tenancy (one week would have 21 shifts instead of 5). We’re also then getting 4 times the value out of materials and all of the embodied energy.

Seems to me like the cheapest way to grow a work force without growing in real estate. Think of how much of that 72% could be expanded into! It’s only a matter of time before this becomes our warmed-climate reality.

Front Yard Blitz #1 – Undergrounding the Cables

I’ve had enough of these crazy backyard-renovation-blitz shows. Never do they pay attention to streetscape, neighbourhood, place making or community. They don’t create any legacy. So I’m running my own series right here – the Front Yard Blitz series.

The goal is to see how we might refurbish our suburban streets to become more resilient, more engaging, environmentally restorative and maybe even healthy for us.

This first instalment looks at the dog’s breakfast of overhead power cables lining most existing neighbourhood streets.

In 1838 Samuel Morse kicked off the telegraph revolution and still today we’re adding more junk to the very same infrastructure that was built for the telegraph. The reason we’re not witnessing a nation-wide project to put it all underground is mostly due to up-front cost.


For reasons that will become clear, getting the cables underground is perhaps the key enabler for this green street project. Besides the reduction in storm damage, reduced road deaths and bushfires, if we can get the cables underground it lets us proceed with a whole range of value-adds which we’ll explore as we go.

So the question is, ‘how much?’.

I’ve found a range of figures online for Australia, and the average cost per-household seems to be around $12,000. Of course this is based on a range of assumptions and conditions, and for the sake of argument let’s say $15,000 per household for a typical suburban neighbourhood with detached or semi-detached homes.

This might go up or down depending on what other works are being undertaken at the time, e.g. footpath or road resurfacing. Some utilities require you to pay the entire bill (e.g. Ausgrid) whilst others (e.g. Western Power in south-west Western Australia) might pay 25%. Local Councils will also usually chip in, sometimes up to 50%, and some State Governments also contribute up to 25%. Naturally I’m too time-pressed to research all of this across all of Australia, but the punchline seems to be that you’d be unlucky to have to pay the entire cost yourself.

In Perth the cost for the resident is down to around $4,500 thanks to the multi-agency contributions. I haven’t been able to determine whether or not this includes the cables from the street to the homes, so there may be some additional cost.

So would you pay $15,000 (assuming no funding support) just to get the cables underground? And what chance do you have of getting the majority of residents in your street to do the same (which is required before the project can proceed)?

An Australian National University study concluded that putting the powerlines underground can increase a home’s value by 3%, which is for example a $15,000 rise on a $500,000 property. ‘Money for jam’ as they say. Street presentation is one of the first selling points in real estate, so a street without all that junk in the air always stands a better chance.

In the next posts we’ll start to explore what is possible if we can remove the encumbrance of the overhead cables.

Information sources;

Green Streets for a Cleaner Harbour

Do you know which is the cleanest part of Sydney Harbour? I’m fortunate enough to get out onto the Harbour in a sea kayak on a regular basis. I know the clean parts and the dirty ones. I know where I can see the fish through the water, and where I can’t.

The correlation between the catchment area and the water quality is obvious and well documented – the more ‘nature’ there is in the catchment, the more the runoff is filtered before it reaches the Harbour.

I regularly post on ‘green streets’, and here’s another terrific source of case studies from the US, via the Montreal Urban Ecology Centre’s site. The main case study is Seattle’s Street Edge Alternatives project (SEA) where one neighbourhood street has been refurbished with bioswales, soil engineering and extensive landscaping. The aim of the project was to test ways in which runoff water quality could be improved so that local Salmon stocks could be protected.

seattle green street

photo: City of Seattle photo archives

The results speak for themselves. The streetscape is beautiful, full of vegetation and shade [reduced heat island effect], and 99% of the stormwater runoff now stays on site – pretty much as would have been the case pre-development. The water that does leave the site is clean.

The Urban Ecology site also provides a Google street map interactive so you can take a walk down the street and check out the detail. Apparently well loved by the residents and locals.

The price tag for this pilot project was some $850k US, which seems to be approximately $40k per dwelling. Assuming that this cost could be halved through improvements in the process and building from lessons learned, I’d be fascinated to understand what the payback for this might be. I’ve posted thoughts around this before so I won’t repeat here. Might make a good Masters for someone ; )

And the cleanest part of Sydney Harbour? The upper half of Middle Harbour wins hands down, and most of it is surrounded by State parks.

Weekend Warrior #19 – Making the Jevons Paradox Work For Us

How often have you caught yourself buying 2 of something when they’re on special? Or more of something simply because it’s in season and cheaper? No doubt we all have because to us it’s good micro-economics. And this is the Jevons Paradox at work.

William Jevons was an economist who in 1865 suggested that when we make a process or resource more efficient we’ll simply use more of it, rather than less. For example, when coal becomes cheaper due to improved mining efficiencies we’ll just use more, or when energy becomes cheaper we won’t be as vigilant in managing our consumption.

Jevons Paradox is often used to argue against the drive for more efficient buildings and cleaner energy, i.e. ‘why bother when we’re just going to consume more as a result’. I wan to turn this around.

Having spent my career in the sustainable development game it’s obvious that the Paradox isn’t always true. The owner of a newly energy-efficient building is not going ignore good energy management just because the building is leaner – that owner is going to pocket the returns instead.


Depends how far you drive them. Good article on Jevons Paradox via the image [Joseph Tainter, Our Energy Futures]

And the Paradox can work for us rather than against us; data has shown that as the cost of rooftop solar systems has dropped around the world, home owners buy more, i.e. they’re spending the same on a system that they always were, but getting more for their buck.

So in effect we can help amplify the benefits of Jevons Paradox towards our cleaner future;

  1. Continue to drive efficiencies in energy performance in cities – the pure economics are making this a relatively easy path to travel; and
  2. Support the resources and materials that we want to become cheaper – sustainable timber, clean tech, healthy materials, clean transport and so forth.

It’s the second one that’s the challenge. It’s a question of us helping the desirable industries reach commercial scale, as we are witnessing right now with solar. So we need to continue to ask for the products, order them and invest in them, even if at times it means some short-term pain for a long-term gain. And many of these industries are keen, lean and green – they are hungry for success. The natural economic process of demand and supply will take care of the rest.

So this weekend’s challenge, should you choose to accept it, is [on the assumption that you buy anything at all] to purchase one clean, organic, ethical or renewable product [hopefully all of the above!] that you wouldn’t normally because of the price.

Give it a go – the way we spend our money shapes our world.

[good Wiki background on Jevons Paradox here]