Sustainable living in an urban environment

Prominent architects who are promoting sustainable solutions for buildings and towns around the world are meeting in Athens until Monday to exchange views on how to make a zero impact on the environment. As next year’s deadline approaches for Greece to comply with European Union Directive 2002/91 on the energy efficiency of buildings, an increasing number of local professionals in the field are focusing on sustainable living in the urban environment. «It’s about choices,» one of the speakers, landscape architect Julie Bargmann, told a press conference yesterday, «and we have to look at who is affected by these choices, who benefits and who suffers. As designers we have to present these choices to our clients, to tell them of the consequences of their choices and that means educating them.» These clients are all too frequently major corporations and state authorities as well as homeowners, and where there is little realization or concern for repercussions on the environment, the process requires what Bargmann called the «hard hat» approach. «It’s useful to define ecology in contemporary terms. I would argue that ecology does not necessarily equal nature only. Ecologists used to exclusively work on ecosystems that were purely natural, now a lot of them are realizing that they need to talk about urban ecology and I also use the term industrial ecology because that’s what we are dealing with in this world today.» Bargmann worked on the Ford Rouge project in the US. «It was a large industrial site where coke ovens were slated to be dumped but instead we worked with scientists to make a plan for regenerative gardens in juxtaposition with coke ovens that were visible to the public.» In another project, in Texas, where large areas of concrete had to be broken up, no rubble left the site, but pieces of concrete were used effectively as paving around the new structure. Instead of carting soil off to a landfill, Bargmann used what she calls the «dirt dance,» the choreography of all the different types of soil that could enable healthy soil to be used again on the site. Athens Airport Architect Elias Messinas, director of Ecoweek 2008 which is organizing the conference, pointed out that this type of approach would be extremely relevant to the old Athens airport at Hellenikon, a very polluted site destined to become a metropolitan park but which first has to be regenerated. «What do you do with the construction debris, even just from the old runways, for example? This is a very good thing to think about when decisions are being made,» said Messinas. «The airport site is being chopped up between different interest groups, with four or five different municipalities involved. A lot of groups are involved in the decision-making process and we don’t really have a serious ministry of the environment.» BedZED project An example of an entire community designed to make a minimum footprint on the environment is BedZED, in South London, designed by the BioRegional Development Group, an independent environmental organization that is trying to bring local sustainable solutions into the mainstream. «The whole idea is looking at how we can reduce our environmental impact,» said the group’s director Ben Gill. «The way is to use ecological footprinting, translating our environmental impact into a land area. In doing so we can see how much land we require to live on, and how much is actually available.» «If everyone in the world lived like we do in the European Union, we would need three planets to provide us with all of the services we need… Instead of living on the interest the Earth can produce, we are living off our savings, but unfortunately the Earth doesn’t have an overdraft facility,» he said. «The challenge is to have a high-quality lifestyle without having a high impact on the environment.» According to Gill, we need to look at a breakdown of the environmental impact of all aspects of our way of life. «Food accounts for 20 percent of our carbon footprint, transport at least 20 percent. We need to think about living sustainably. We are not just talking about sustainable buildings but sustainable communities,» he said. «Our first experiment is BedZED which is designed to be zero carbon development in South London. We hoped that people in BedZED would be living a one-planet lifestyle but what we actually found was they are living more like a two-planet lifestyle, because most of them need to step out of BedZED to go into the three-planet world to work or to the shops. So what we are looking at is trying to build larger communities, both existing and new, where it is possible to live all the time.» «The initiative we are working on now is the One Planet Living initiative based on 10 principles related to sustainability, some of them hard principles – zero carbon emissions – but also the need to create a community that is socially sustainable as well, otherwise people aren’t going to want to live there.» The idea is to create a global network of flagship new communities, large-scale new developments that demonstrate that one-planet living is achievable wherever you live in the world. In Portugal, where a community of 6,000 new homes is being built, the sustainable approach was taken on board from the start. «They changed a plan for scattered villages to build one town in the center instead, in order to create a big enough town for people to live and work there and reduce the impact of transport. They have already reforested over 4,000 hectares of what was quarry area and have started building homes that will have 80 percent less energy consumption, with energy produced on site from solar and PV systems. What we are trying to do is show that one-planet living (reducing consumption by two-thirds) is very challenging but it is achievable. We have demonstrated that and we need this to be taken on board by political decision-makers, actually being prioritized rather than being seen as a side issue.» «With the BedZED community, the London Assembly has taken a very strong stand on climate change and it’s actually being driven by them. Elsewhere it’s private developers – with the project in Portugal the developers there want to position themselves as the green developer in Europe. They see that as the way the market is going and they want to get themselves recognized as that now. In Portugal there is much less of a political agenda to tackle climate change, so it depends on the organizations involved and the country situation.» The film «Last Call for Planet Earth,» which premiered within the framework of the conference last night, was inspired by the realization – after the release of Al Gore’s 2006 film «An Inconvenient Truth» – that architects were waiting for an opportunity to talk about solutions, said director Jacques Allard. Planet Earth architects In the film, 12 architects from around the world talk about their approach to sustainable building. «There are architects with very big budgets who come up with very sophisticated systems, but also others with very small budgets and interesting solutions,» explained Allard. «Some of their views are contradictory – there is no one right answer to sustainable building. You have to look at the local resources; it is important that you don’t use materials that have to be shipped 5,000 kilometers.» The film is being sent to 1,020 schools of architecture to generate debate, not only about energy and primary resources but also about attitudes. «I have seen people’s priorities change after seeing this movie. People building a home with a budget for the most expensive kitchen reduce that budget in order to get better insulation and good ventilation. It’s about changing lifestyles,» said Allard. «A lot of architects are working on individual projects but what we need now are architects with a visionary concept about cities.»

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