From net-zero neighbourhoods to eco-topias, here’s what you need to know to stay ahead
The fourth part of our end-of-year series focuses on the trends and innovations affecting cities and the built environment.
By 2050, more than 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities. Worldwide, more than 55 per cent already do. And as the global community becomes increasingly urban, cities will need be designed with sustainability in mind.
Why? While there’s an accelerated demand for affordable housing, well-connected transport systems, and other infrastructure, the built environment is currently responsible for a huge 39 per cent of all global carbon emission – far higher than any other individual sector. Finding a way to meet demand and avoid climate disaster is a priority.
From a business perspective, there needs to be a better understanding of these built environment issues at board level. Not just for CSR reputations, but for making smart investment decisions in the future. No longer just a ‘nice to do’, forward-looking businesses can cut emissions throughout the lifecycle of the buildings they own and operate, supporting an overall net-zero transition of buildings and infrastructure.
“Planning for a world which is rapidly changing as people flood to cities and current energy supplies dry up, should be as crucial to a companies’ short-term financial viability as adapting products and services to meet changing mores of consumers,” says Tim Broyd, Professor of Built Environment Foresight at University College London.
To help businesses plan, innovators are developing solutions to tackle the key issues around cities and the built environment.
Trend #1: Net-zero neighbourhoods
Net-zero buildings are great, but to reduce emissions and regenerate communities, city planners will need to start driving action at a neighbourhood level. Applying the concept of a net-zero home to a neighbourhood enables scalable solutions to make real climate change impact.
India’s Cochin International Airport now produces more energy than it uses. Thanks to the installation of two additional solar plants, the airport complex produces 40 megawatts per day. Completely run by sustainable energy, the airport complex includes a golf course and exhibition centre. The golf course contains 12 lakes and uses treated sewage from the airport for irrigation water. Two of the lakes are now home to 1300 photovoltaic panels that cover an area equivalent to one acre. The installation of the floating solar farms adds a further 452 kilowatt-hours to the airport’s energy production capacity. Both sets of floating panels are connected to the Kerala State Electricity Board power grid.
In Dubai, a multi-storey car park in Al Garhoud is designed to be the first environmentally friendly parking building in the Emirate and is based on the principle of zero energy. Built by Dubai Municipality, it has 1,530 panels connected to the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority’s grid. Covering an area of 2,494 square metres, the panels have the capacity to generate 500 kilowatts of power. According to the municipality, the panels reduce the equivalent of 143.7 tonnes of carbon annually.
In the USA, a housing developer is using prefab 3D-printed house-building kits to construct net-zero smart houses. Mighty Buildings is working with developer Palari to construct 15 homes on a five-acre site in California. The homes are made from pre-printed panels, that are fitted to steel frames and finished onsite – saving around 99 per cent of waste, and 95 per cent of labour hours compared with traditional construction methods. All power for the development will be provided by solar panels, which can be combined with Tesla Powerwall batteries and EV charging ports.
Trend #2: Handlebarchitecture
Cycling experienced a renaissance during the pandemic lockdowns. In the USA, one in 10 American adults reported having ridden a bike for the first time in a year (or longer) since the onset of COVID-19.
And the trend shows no sign of abating. In a survey spanning 21 European cities, 21 per cent of respondents said they planned to cycle more after lockdown. The environmental incentive is strong: 64 per cent said they did not want to return to pre-COVID air pollution levels, while three-quarters were willing to reallocate public space from cars to active travel to achieve this.
The growing popularity of cycling means we are seeing more innovations that reimagine the built environment as a bike-first one.
In the Netherlands, an underwater parking garage for bikes helps wildlife and pedestrians, while solving the issue of cycle parking being at a premium in Amsterdam. Designed by architecture firm VenhoevenCS architecture+urbanism, the parking garage benefits the aquatic life of the area with porous concrete that helps plants and mussels stick to the walls, while coconut mats help purify the water and mesh baskets shelter the fish. The space has also been designed to keep energy consumption low while generous daylight, good visibility and a central operator provide a feeling of security.
In Germany, a solar-panelled bike path generates light and electricity. The Solar Veloroute, designed by architect Peter Kuczia, features photovoltaic panels that could generate up to 2,000 megawatt-hours of electricity per kilometre of bike path. With a single kilometre of the pathway capable of generating enough electricity to run 750 homes, there is significant potential for routes of varying lengths to provide enough surplus energy to sell back to the grid or other individuals and organisations.
In Norway, Oslo’s Akersbakken Housing Association has built an environmentally friendly ‘bike hotel’ that blends into the landscape. Built into a hillside, the cycle garage lends an unobtrusive visual footprint and reduces the use of materials by using the hillside to form one of the walls. The structure is held up by 20 timber beams, arranged to let in natural light while at the same time limiting ambient light escaping from the structure at night. This reduces light pollution in the neighbourhood.
Trend #3: Eco-topias
“Cities, more than any other ecosystems, are designed by people. Why not be more thoughtful about how we design the places where most of us spend our time?” asks Anne Guerry, Chief Strategy Officer and Lead Scientist at Stanford University’s Natural Capital Project.
The question of what a city might look like if it was built with the environment and its people at its heart is one that businesses and developers are urgently exploring. And innovators are already paving the way with their thinking.
Singapore is developing its first smart and sustainable ‘forest town’. Built on a 700-hectare site in Singapore’s Western region, the development will include an abundance of green space, including areas for community farming, and a 100-metre wide forest corridor running through the town centre. Residents of the 42,000 homes will enjoy Singapore’s first car-free town centre, as well as smart infrastructure, including a centralised cooling station and an automated waste collection system.
Architecture students in Scotland have designed a sustainable urban village. The village would tap into geothermal power beneath the city to create a shared community power and heating system. This would be combined with solar power, small-scale wind power and piezoelectric generators to capture energy from moving vehicles on roads. Each housing block would be built to overlook each other, to encourage a social living space and enhance security.
In Indonesia, the village of Sriharjo has been turned into a model of sustainability based on three pillars: the economy, society and the environment. The project saw the establishment of an agri-environmental park in the village, the introduction of irrigation systems for organic farming, and safe water gardens to improve sanitation, in addition to other measures.
Trend #4: The new concrete
Concrete is the most widely used building product in the world, playing a major role in rebuilding in Europe after 1945, and enjoying an architectural renaissance in the 1990s. It continues to be used worldwide today, for everything from multi-storey buildings to infrastructure projects.
The problem is that concrete manufacture is a major source of pollution. The production of Portland cement, a main ingredient in concrete, is estimated to contribute as much as seven per cent of global anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions – a huge amount. That said, it may be about to get a reputation overhaul, with a number of innovations aimed at lessening its environmental impact – and even putting its ubiquity to good use.
Engineers have developed a way to make concrete stronger and more environmentally friendly by adding extracts from root waste vegetables. In the UK, Lancaster University and Cellucomp Ltd have been adding ‘nano platelets’ extracted from the fibres of sugar beet and carrots to the concrete to increase the amount of calcium silicate hydrate – the substance responsible for the strength of concrete. Adding the nano platelets resulted in a saving of 40 kilogrammes of Portland cement per cubic metre of concrete.
In the UK, paint made from concrete can sequester carbon from the air. Celour paint was developed by a Royal College of Art and Imperial College London graduate, who created it by filtering, pulverising and mixing calcium oxide powder with a polyvinyl alcohol binder. Once applied to a wall, the paint is capable of sequestering 27 grammes of CO2 for every 135 grammes of paint used.
A German-US partnership will test magnetisable concrete to create roads that could charge vehicles as they drive. Indiana’s Department of Transport (INDOT) is collaborating with Purdue University and German wireless charging company Magment, which embeds recycled ferrite particles into road concrete. Not only are the particles conductive and capable of generating a magnetic field – they are also significantly more economical than installing miles of copper under the road.
Trend #5: Welcome to the agrihood
The global agricultural system: we can’t live without it, but can we live with it in its present form? Rapidly improving food security for a growing population has also made the sector responsible for one fifth of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than all of the world’s cars, planes, and trains combined. Energy production is the only sector that has a higher share of emissions (37 per cent).
Clearly, developing a global food system that assures food security and reduces the environmental impact of agriculture is of utmost importance. And innovators are on the case…
Germany’s second-largest supermarket brand is promoting locavore shopping by growing and farming food on-site. An aquaponic farm is housed inside the building and a modular greenhouse is located on the roof. By growing food on-site, the store aims to reduce the carbon emissions produced in the growing, transportation, storage and distribution of food.
In the USA, a new housing project offers an on-site farm that produces low-cost food for residents. A development in the suburban Silicon Valley town of Santa Clara features a 1.5-acre farm that will be capable of growing up to 20,000 pounds of produce per year. The project’s urban location means that the farm will be using organic and regenerative methods and will avoid the use of pesticides by planting native hedgerows and using composting and vermicomposting.
In Finland, an AI growing platform makes use of empty office spaces with commercially scaled vertical farming. Growtune, developed by Finnish ag-tech company iFarm, helps urban farmers manage every aspect of their work, from choosing which crops to grow to planning harvest schedules across multiple sites.
Words: Hannah Hudson
Read the other parts in our series here:
Next-generation trends 2022: Regeneration and biodiversity
Next-generation trends 2022: Post-COVID-19 acceleration
Next-generation trends 2022: Ocean sustainability
Next-generation trends 2022: Eco-consumption
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26th November 2021