February 7, 2011 - From the Dec/Jan, 2011 issue

VERDEXCHANGE Global Eco Cities Panel Explores Innovations in City Building

The following excerpts are from a global eco-cities panel at VX2011, the VERDEXCHANGE Green Marketmakers Conference, held in L.A. in January. The panelists (including former L.A. City Planning Director Gail Goldberg, Dean of the USC School of Architecture Qingyun Ma, and AECOM Principal of Building Engineering Alastair MacGregor) imagined global eco cities of the near future. With a discussion that ranged from abstract and lofty to practical and inspired, never before has the possibility of a truly "eco" city seemed so attainable.

Alastair MacGregor

Gail Goldberg, former Planning Director of L.A. and San Diego: Let's begin with USC School of Architecture's Dean Ma giving us an overview of the eco-cities of the world.

Dean Qingyun Ma, University of Southern California School of Architecture: In my travels/trajectories, throughout the world, I detect a fundamental confusion actually, with eco-global urbanism. I say confusion because what exactly do we address how cities have evolved and how they will develop....Maybe, what we need to do is return to some very abstract modeling of the field and then start from there and expand into other fields. A new city is fundamentally two efforts: one is creating density and the other is providing mobility. Density and mobility are the fundamental dimensions of the "eco" performance of the city. For density, we need knowledge, energy professions, and political investment. For mobility, the other side of density is to provide freedom for people to move around-to have choices in where they work and where they live, along with enjoyment and education. These two things together lie at the foundation.

This is the mechanical side to how cities are being formed, but there are other systems that relate to the qualities of the humanity and humanistic dimensions of the city. The effort, in the second category, as to how they can both be looped into one system that creates balance between them, lies in the higher level of our education and practices

Even with those two systems integrated, the city is not an independent entity. The city is never alone without agricultural activities and systems. The other side becomes how a city manages its waste because it is something returned to the landscape. You have on the front end the original agricultural activities and the land, all related, and on the other end, the waste and what the city has generated going back to the land. In the middle is where the mechanical system and the humanistic structure of the city works. That crosses a spectrum where we all put our efforts.

Related to programs at USC, I'd like to acknowledge that the confusion surrounding any discussion of eco-cites and globalism impacts how we create the programs and curricula that address these systematic issues, without losing the identity of creating better city forms. Certainly, urban debate, architecture, landscape, and historical preservation must also address the life spans of the city and its buildings in terms of energy and consumption.

It's interesting to begin with the foundation of eco cities being the form of the city, the infrastructure, transit, mobility, and the land uses that permit density and a high quality of life. We rarely have the opportunity to do that kind of basic form-making in the United States. To build on Dean Ma's remarks let me turn to Alastair MacGregor, who has had an opportunity, through AECOM, to master-plan cities throughout the world. It might be interesting to hear from Alastair about one of those projects to give us a sense of how you plan an eco- city from the ground up.

Alastair MacGregor, AECOM: I'll talk about a project that we're doing in Singapore. Jurong Lake is an existing community that is very industrial-focused, and the urban redevelopment agency in Singapore wanted to change it up and take this 260-hectare area and make it into more of an urban area. Singapore, from a sustainability perspective, signed up to the Copenhagen Accord and as part of that committed as a country to a 60 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020. Our clients wanted to be a leader in eco-cities, not only in Singapore, but also worldwide. They saw themselves as a very unique opportunity to really see what you could do in an urban solution. A lot of eco-cities that we've seen out in the world are big greenfield sites-or a desert site like Masdar-with lots of space where you could do what you wanted to do. Jurong is very dense; Singapore is a very small island. Density, just as Dean Ma was talking about, is a big thing.

GreenMark is Singapore's equivalent of LEED. They wanted to go beyond that. They wanted to be seen as a leader, so they challenge us and said, "How far can you take this while maintaining a cost-effective solution?" Most times when cities are being developed, people focus on three things: transportation, water, and energy. That's it. As Dean Ma was saying, the spectrum of sustainability is a long-term sustainable solution that is much broader than that.

Through our sustainable systems integrated method of planning cities, we adopted a whole systems approach, which allowed us to take not only those three things into consideration, but also to look at the urban form, the connectivity between components, and to really step back at the master planning level, look at three or four different master plans for the same community, and find out which of them has the greatest inherent sustainability about it. That is very unique because then we're able to go through that process and evaluate, "Am I best spending money in making the transportation system as energy efficient as possible? How about the buildings? Where do I spend my money to get the biggest bang for my buck from a sustainability perspective?" When you add all these other things to the board, it becomes quite a challenge. We looked at high performance buildings, which was slightly easier in this case because Green Mark Gold Plus requires buildings to be at least 25 percent better than code, which is a significant improvement. Singapore code is roughly the same as Title 24. Imagine in L.A. if you required every building to be 25 percent better. That's almost the same level of requiring every building to be at CalGreen. So that's quite the standard they've given themselves.


We were looking at water reduction and reformation. It's a very humid environment, so we couldn't forget to compensate for air conditioning systems and what we can get from the rainy season to collect that water and reuse it. Also, taking a step back and looking at the community level at it as which of the community master plans and urban forms is best when compared against Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Back to real bare bones to try to group the kind of spatial types that can form themselves in the right position to make the most sustainable solution as possible, in the hope that by doing that, people are more likely to embrace the idea of density.

We did look at renewables but with an urban solution. It is difficult to find the space. It's not like in Masdar, where you bring in large arrays. We did look at rooftops. The challenge when you get denser is you have a lot of energy use close together and not enough roof space to offset it. The development does have a 70-hectare lake, so we actually looked to develop a solar panel, which is effectively a structure that comes out of the water and holds solar panels, to try and make use of that space-it is community art. Through this optimization process, seeing the benefits of various strategies, we were really able to see how to make the most cost-effective solution.

In Jurong and old urban settings, the carbon footprint is based on the energy footprint of the buildings. That's different from a lot of cities in California. In California, the carbon footprint is actually significantly based on transportation, which makes a big difference. In Singapore you have to focus on the buildings and increase the performance of the buildings. We were able to reduce the carbon emissions by 25 percent-so significantly above the initial charts that Singapore set out, basically offsetting the equivalent of about 4.1 million trees and reducing the energy by about 30 percent. We were able to reduce water by the equivalent of about 268 Olympic swimming pools, which is about 28 percent of the water use. We were able to reduce their vehicle miles traveled by about 47 million miles a week, which is pretty significant. That's the equivalent of just under four thousand cars not being driven on the roads. Singapore has a trick there: they do have very good public transportation, which is a challenge that we have here in the United States in some areas like California. It's very interesting to look at it from this perspective.

The key lesson learned from this was that optimizing the urban design is critical. Too often people just look at the buildings, just the energy efficient HVAC, or put in PV, recycle water, or put in bike lanes. But really looking at the urban design is a missed opportunity on a lot of occasions. One of the areas we'd been really focused on was an urban heat island effect. And what was very surprising was we looked at the position of the buildings, the massing of the buildings, the wind profile, and the materials used, and we reduced the air temperature by one degree. It doesn't sound like very much but that one degree impacted every single air conditioning system in the city. The cooling energy that was saved is the equivalent of the energy that was generated by roughly a 4.5 megawatt PV array. Now that's just smart urban design. Thinking about the long term of the city and thinking smarter to reduce the need that we are generating ourselves.

We also realized that there's a challenge associated with development. Too often the savings aren't realized by those people making the investment. You've got your developers, developing these high-performance buildings and building infrastructure in the cities, but they're not necessarily getting the energy savings. This was really brought to a head in Singapore, where the cost of electricity is such that we were getting these 25 percent reductions in energy per buildings, with paybacks of less than five years. Now if you were getting paybacks of five years in California we'd all be grabbing it with both hands. But the challenge was the developers were selling off to an owner, and it was the owner and the tenants that were getting the benefits. You need to get that working better.

The challenge is that the people who operate the buildings aren't necessarily fully convinced that those savings are being realized. With advanced metering, people are becoming more informed of what the buildings in the community are doing. They can see the benefits that they're actually having based on real research.

From a carbon footprint perspective, we realized that whether you're in Jurong, or in California or the United States, the carbon footprint for all cities is different, and the make-up of that carbon footprint is different, so that the solutions that are required to reduce it are different. In Jurong, 80 percent of the carbon footprint was associated with the buildings. If you take a city like San Diego or other cities in California, 80 percent of carbon footprint is associated with transportation. It's not a one-size-fits-all solution. We are trying to develop a process where we can work with cities to recognize the areas with the biggest bang for their buck and put it all together as an optimized solution.

It's very interesting to hear examples of successes in world cities and to think about the level of requirements and the paybacks-the financial incentives. It's interesting for us in the U.S. to look at these as models.


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