Sustainable urban development is a new way of thinking for American cities. Technology is emerging to help planners, architects and residents make the transition — and address the converging pressures of rapid growth and decaying infrastructure. The question isn’t whether to use technology to make cities more sustainable, it’s how best to use it. Three experts on sustainably built cities discuss the answers with Denis Du Bois.
This program was first aired in September, 2011.
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Theme music: Alexander Blu & Chris Keister
Earth reached an important tipping point several years ago: More than half of Humans now live in cities. In some ways that’s a good thing: Cities are a very efficient way for us to live. But mass urbanization also has its downside. It puts tremendous strain on city infrastructures that were pretty old, to begin with. It could take investments in infrastructure of $180 billion a year or more, just to keep up.
Meanwhile there’s pressure to make cities more sustainable. If a city wants to attract residents and businesses, its infrastructure has to do much more than just keep up. It has to improve on the status quo — to enable the clean industries and green lifestyles of the 21st century.
The idea of a sustainable city is moving gradually from theoretical to practical. But it needs to happen faster. Part of the solution is technology. It enables us to imagine and model our urban environments and shape how they’ll support the needs of the people who live within. Technology let us “see” proposed memorials at Ground Zero in New York City, and “drive” a new approach to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, long before they were constructed.
Our guests for this program are Emma Stewart, James Moore and Terry Bennett. These experts discuss the need for sustainable cities and the role of technology in creating them.
Emma Stewart has been named a Cabinet Member of the World Economic Forum’s Low Carbon Taskforce, and a First Mover Fellow by The Aspen Institute. She founded and directed the Environmental R&D Division at Business for Social Responsibility, which develops corporate sustainability initiatives. In 2009 she founded the Sustainable Design Living Lab program at Autodesk, which uses real facilities as a testing ground for new software to rapidly green existing buildings. She is currently Senior Manager for Sustainability at Autodesk.
James Moore led the Florida Center for Community Design & Research, when he was an Associate Professor in the School of Architecture & Community Design at the University of South Florida. He helped Florida write its statewide transportation policy regarding the role of mobility in developing sustainable communities. He joined HDR, a global architecture, engineering and consulting company, in 2000, as the National Community Design Principal. For the past three years, he’s been a member of HDR’s Sustainable Solutions Leadership Team, looking for ways to integrate sustainability best practices throughout the company’s work. He is active nationally with the Urban Land Institute and the Congress for the New Urbanism.
Terry Bennett is the Senior Industry Program Manager for Civil Engineering and Planning at Autodesk. He’s been a practicing professional for 28 years and was at one time the company manager and lead designer for a civil engineering, geotechnical, & land surveying firm, directing their services throughout New England for many years.
Terry: Technology can give you the right answers…if you ask the right question, and I think we just have to rethink what the right question for a sustainable urban center is going forward.
Denis Du Bois: Sustainable urban development is a whole new way of thinking for American cities. Technology is emerging to help planners, architects and residents make the transition and move more quickly to address the converging pressures of rapid growth and decaying infrastructure. The question isn’t whether to use technology to make cities more sustainable, it’s how best to use it.
This edition of Energy Priorities is titled “Sustainable Cities: There’s an App for That!” and it’s coming up right after these news headlines.
Denis Du Bois: Earth reached an important tipping point several years ago: More than half of Humans now live in cities. In some ways that’s a good thing: Cities are a very efficient way for us to live.
“The Millennium Development Goals Report 2007” United Nations http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/pdf/mdg2007.pdf
But mass urbanization also has its downside. It puts tremendous strain on city infrastructures that were pretty old to begin with. It could take investments in infrastructure of $180 billion a year or more just to keep up.
Meanwhile there’s pressure to make cities more sustainable. If a city wants to attract residents and businesses, its infrastructure has to do much more than just keep up. It has to improve on the status quo–to enable the clean industries and green lifestyles of the 21st century.
The idea of a sustainable city is moving gradually from theoretical to practical. But it needs to happen faster. Part of the solution is technology. It enables us to imagine and model our urban environments and shape how they’ll support the needs of the people who live within.
Hello again, I’m Denis Du Bois and this is Energy Priorities. Our topic: “Sustainable Cities: There’s an App for That!”
Denis Du Bois: My first guest is Emma Stewart. She’s been named a Cabinet Member of the World Economic Forum’s Low Carbon Taskforce and a First Mover Fellow by The Aspen Institute. She founded and directed the Environmental R&D Division at Business for Social Responsibility, which develops corporate sustainability initiatives. In 2009, she founded the Sustainable Design Living Lab program at Autodesk, which uses real facilities as a testing ground for new software to “rapidly green” existing buildings. She is currently Senior Manager for Sustainability at Autodesk.
You earned a Ph.D. in environmental science and management at Stanford. It seems like you had your sights set on sustainable urban development as a career?
Emma Stewart: Yeah, I’d like to think that my career actually started at age seven–which was when I first heard the term “environmentalist” and realized that that described me quite well; I just hadn’t fully understood it. And I went on to study genetics and evolutionary biology which gave me a foundation into how humans as a species have arisen and the effects we’ve had on planetary systems upon which we depend, whether it be the carbon or water cycles.
And I had a eureka moment, to be quite frank, one day in the middle of the forest in western Brazil, where I was chasing endangered species called the black lion Tamarin monkey in order to collect their DNA and relocate them to create genetic diversity where it had been demolished by ranching. And perhaps it was the elusive monkeys or the sticks or the mosquitoes or the humidity, but all of a sudden I realized that I could have far more impact by working with the ranchers down the road–who were likely supplying to McDonald’s–than I could working with the geneticists in the forest. And that was when I changed my career to focus on the intersection of business and environmental issues.
Denis Du Bois: And why did you feel it was so important to make the urban jungle a more sustainable habitat for humans?
Emma Stewart: Well, again, my instinct is to go back to evolution and look at humans and our existence on this planet, which actually really represents only one percent–less than one percent–of the planet’s history. And yet humans have had this transformative effect on some of our most fundamental systems in a very, very short period of time. And over the same span of time, we have urbanized. We’ve become an urban species. As of a couple years ago, we’re now–a majority of us–living in cities. And that trend shows no sign of abating. In fact, McKenzie estimates that by 2030, five billion of us will be urban dwellers, up from 3.5 billion of us today.
And I think this represents a big opportunity, honestly, for us to both slow down some of the planetary changes that we’ve induced and to also better adapt to some of their effects. By that I mean cities represent an opportunity to do more with less. The density leads to efficiencies of scale. You can essentially produce more economic growth with less land. And you can provide for basic needs like food, shelter, security through networks rather than trying to generate each of them in isolation.
And in social terms, historically cities have represented an improvement in the quality of life. You see reproduction rates drop. You see education rates rise. And, generally speaking, health improve.
So I think this inflection point at which the species finds itself in having just recently become quote-unquote “urban” is actually an enormous opportunity to, for the first time ever, strike a balance between quality of life and sustainable resource use.
Denis Du Bois: I’d like now to introduce James Moore. As an Associate Professor in the School of Architecture and Community Design at the University of South Florida, Dr. Moore led the Florida Center for Community Design and Research. He helped Florida write its statewide transportation policy regarding the role of mobility in developing sustainable communities. He joined HDR, a global architecture, engineering and consulting company, in 2000 as the National Community Design Principal. For the past three years, he’s been a member of HDR’s Sustainable Solutions Leadership Team, looking for ways to integrate sustainability best practices throughout the company’s work. He’s active nationally with the Urban Land Institute and the Congress for the New Urbanism.
In 24 years in this field, you’ve had a number of interesting positions. And they brought you to this role at HDR…
James Moore: Wow. Well, you know I grew up in a family of academics, and it was pretty much assumed that I’d carry on and I’d go into academia, which I did for a while. And then–to some extent, to be quite frank–I left academia in part because I just felt I wasn’t doing everything I wanted to do, but I also wanted more of a national platform to look at things. And you know, being in Florida, I had a statewide platform but I wanted to get to that larger audience.
And I got into architecture because I figured, well, it starts with building. And then I realized, well, it’s more than one building; it’s a lot of buildings and then you keep stepping backwards, and you always sort of look at the next larger problem. And I think, really, in dealing with cities and sustainability you have to think at a regional scale; you have to be able to see how everything operates within that region, from the individual building all the way to the big systems–transportation, water, natural ecosystems, et cetera.
And it may have some impact that both my parents were physicists…and they see the world slightly differently than the rest of us.
Denis Du Bois: Alright… nice segue to what I want to talk with you about first–around the world each city seems to see sustainability differently. And it seems that the most progressive cities are those that are under pressure from rapid growth. What’s different in cities where there’s a rapid influx of people versus cities with a flat or even declining population?
James Moore: Well, I think you’ve hit on a couple of points there. Every country approaches urbanization differently. And it’s interesting because we’re all very well-versed in the technical aspects and the environmental aspects in that, but everything we do exists within a political realm as well. And in many ways, the political realm has as much impact on your capacity to do things as anything else and is arguably the least controllable. And I don’t mean that in a negative sense but there are aspects of it that are very different from the technical aspects that we deal with. And you can look at a model from, say, a European city or even a China now, but the ability to extrapolate from that and pull it back into, say, an American context–a United States context–there are some issues along the way.
If you think about how you live your life, you live your life at three scales: You live at a neighborhood scale; you live at a regional scale; and you live at a global scale. But our government tends to operate at the mid levels; it operates at a city scale or a county scale or a state scale. And there’s a serious mismatch between the way we live and the way our political system is structured. So there’s an impact– there’s an inefficiency built into the system that we have.
I believe that the best way to think about sustainability is at the regional scale. And if you step away from the notion of the city as a political entity, bounded on all sides by a border with other entities, and you step and you say, well, regionally–there’s the Boston region; there’s the San Francisco Bay area; there’s the Tampa Bay area; there’s the Atlanta region–in many cases you’re dealing with dozens, if not hundreds, of separate governmental entities.
And there’s a layer of communication that’s missing. There’s a layer of balkanization that’s missing. And that impacts both cities that are growing–and obviously, in a growing city, there’s always this notion that there’s economic opportunity, and that regardless of how quickly things are changing the future will be better–and cities that are declining.
And I think it’s an interesting issue, because a lot of cities are in this slow stagnation. You know population, essentially, increase has stopped. People are getting older. Young people leave because opportunities aren’t there. Infrastructure starts to fall apart. And it’s all band-aids; you’re keeping everything together. As opposed to some cities that–literally–have hit bottom and in many ways are liberated to explore some really interesting opportunities and to think differently about how they go about things.
Denis Du Bois: Let’s take a moment to introduce my third guest. Terry Bennett is the Senior Industry Program Manager for Civil Engineering and Planning at Autodesk. He’s been a practicing professional for 28 years and was at one time the company manager and lead designer for a civil engineering, geotechnical and land surveying firm directing their services throughout New England for many years…
Terry Bennett: …and so my background is in real estate, land development, urban design. My formal background is in natural-resource management. So you combine the two. I’ve always taken much more sustainable approaches to development–much more the New England colonial type of development–where there’s a real focus on maximizing the natural environment and making sure that it is in sync with the man-made environment for a number of years. And now it’s on the process of taking that and helping to apply technology tools to make that planning process much more efficient.
Denis Du Bois: Well, welcome to the program. This brings us up to the first break. When we come back what I want us to discuss first is why American cities would need to pay attention to sustainability now. Local governments already have their hands full with other pretty serious issues. The status quo has served cities adequately thus far. And while we do see increasing signs of global weirding, the environment isn’t exactly crumbling around us. Is the un-sustainability of our cities really a crisis yet? We’ll try to put into quantitative terms the actual risk of inaction…when we return from this brief break.
Denis Du Bois: This is Energy Priorities; I’m Denis Du Bois. My guests are Emma Stewart, James Moore and Terry Bennett. Our topic is sustainable cities and the role of technology.
Terry Bennett, when cities do grow quickly, or even steadily, it obviously puts strains on energy supplies and urban infrastructure. How do you put that in context? How far can we stretch these resources, and at what point, if any, does the impact of urban growth reach crisis proportions?
Terry Bennett: As Emma pointed out, you know the fact that we are now an urban species, coupled with the fact that the cities we live in and the infrastructure systems that support them were designed hundreds of years ago in many places, they were never intended to take on the amount of people nor is the configuration set up for that amount of people as well–where water and sewer systems are located, where the urban centers are, where the populations shift among these cities. And you know the age and complexities of our cities mean that they are relentlessly challenged in that expanding demand and contracting supply of materials and/or services. And so we’re developing infrastructure; strategically, that’s going to become mission-critical.
And I think that’s really an interesting point, as Emma puts out there, is that–based on various measures–80 percent of the greenhouse gases are affected by cities, either directly or indirectly. And if we are going to redo how we look at cities, then there’s a great opportunity to make them much more environmentally conscious and to make sure that they are designed for where we want to go for the next 50 years; not try to recreate what we did the last 50 years and hope it’ll come out differently.
Denis Du Bois: Emma Stewart, we were talking before the break about social scales and political scales–is there an ideal size for a city? Is there some point where we should say “that city’s full, start another one?”
Emma Stewart: An interesting point that comes to us from social psychologists is that human beings tend to be most comfortable in groups of roughly 500. And they claim this is because that is the size that was common during key evolutionary periods. And then you have quotes from philosophers like Aristotle, who say that democracy is most vibrant in groups of 10 to 20,000. And then you have environmental scientists who say the most efficient size for a city is so large we have yet to experience it.
And I think the real answer lies somewhere in between, in the sense that, if you want to manage resources to their utmost use and benefit to society, you need to almost map your governance against the way those resources are produced.
And I’m not suggesting that we re-architect the entire form of governance, but rather that we at least appreciate the mismatch between those two and break down some of the silos between governments, who are often providing similar services–sometimes in the same location, to the same people–but without any level of shared accountability.
So, in many ways, we’ve set ourselves up for a bit of a shock when we’re no longer able to provide to these urban cores hungry for resources, and we don’t have the governance systems to match.
Terry Bennett: Yeah. I mean, if you look at it, North America is probably going to spend somewhere around $180 billion this year and every following year on infrastructure projects. And as Emma alluded to, there’s going to be an awful lot of people that want part of that money for various projects. And if you divide it and conquer it into separate silos, then you will gain no efficiencies and what actually gets built will get stripped down to where it really won’t have much of an impact. And the real goal is to be able to transition to a much more integrated approach; an assessment of what is needed so that you can build these systems so that they work together rather than work against each other; and have the ability for planners and designers and owners to really visualize and understand where $1 equals the biggest return within an environment for the infrastructure so that the dollars that are spent are done so wisely and we understand what the benefit of that dollar is long before you break ground and find out it wasn’t really what you intended to do with it.
James Moore: You know Terry brings up an interesting point. And I’m listening to Emma and her story about being in Brazil. There’s this myth that there’s this sort of natural environment out there and then we sort of come in and we build a little bit. The reality is most of us inhabit a made world; we inhabit a built ecosystem, something people have created over time. And I would argue that we probably understand aspects of the Brazilian jungle as ecosystems better than we understand any American city as an ecosystem. And Terry’s point, that the different entities, the utilities, the different planning divisions, they each have their little silo–they each do their little thing. But there really is no one looking out at the city, the community, however you want to call it, as a built ecosystem and how it operates. And that’s just inherently inefficient.
And it’s almost like we have to step back and say, “We live in this world we created. We don’t really understand it. We know it’s inefficient. What are we going to do to make it so that it’s not only wonderfully livable, but that it can continue in perpetuity?” Because right now we’re building up a huge debt–not just a financial debt, but a resource debt, an ecosystem debt, a pollution debt–and at some point, the system will no longer be able to maintain that.
Terry Bennett: Right, and we now that how the last 50 years of working in silos has translated to what we have for man-made systems that are the nerve centers of our cities today. And these $180 billion or even more, depending on how it gets financed, really will give us the opportunity to look at things differently. And I think this infrastructure spending will change not only the economic-policy environments, but can also have ways of dealing with the business and technology and project-delivery environments so that they can be modernized at the same time, so things can go up in months and weeks, not years and decades.
Denis Du Bois: A hundred and eighty billion dollars a year on infrastructure–I believe that figure comes from the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce World Markets study. We’ll have a link to more information about it on our web site. And of course the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act pumped billions into shovel-ready infrastructure projects. Has all this investment started to make us, as Terry put it, look at things differently?
“Investing in a solid foundation: infrastructure” James Dunn, The Australian, April 28, 2010 http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/wealth/investing-in-a-solid-foundation-infrastructure/story-e6frgac6-1225857617534
Emma Stewart: Well, I think one of the major shifts that’s required for us to transition to a world in which cities are sustainable is to recognize the need to rebuild rather than build from whole cloth. As James points out, the concept of wilderness is really an outdated concept. Ninety percent of the plant life on the planet has been affected by humans, to one degree or another. So cities are a particularly dense portion of humans’ footprints on the greater planet. But our impacts are far, far more widespread than simply our city footprints. What we can do, though, is make the city footprints far more efficient, by utilizing concepts like infill, redeveloping brownfield sites that are not being used to their utmost benefit for a given city, rather than looking out to the greenfields surrounding the city–way outside of the boundary–that requires a very long commute to get into one’s job and requires an extension of all of the networks to provide services to those living out in those suburbs.
So I think by encouraging density but at an optimal level that allows for community building, that allows for safety and security, and that sort of concept of rebuilding from the inside out, requires certain technological advances to understand what we already have.
Denis Du Bois: What kinds of technological advances? Give us some examples.
Emma Stewart: As Terry was saying, we built these cities, but we don’t necessarily understand what’s there. And some of the most promising options, I think, are now evolving in the space called reality capture, which is kind of almost an ironic term. You’re living in reality and yet you haven’t been able to capture it. Technologies like laser scanning or using satellite imagery to understand exactly how buildings relate to one another or how transit systems relate to utility grids; those sort of intersection points between the given systems in a city are critical for urban planners as they deal with a much greater population coming in from rural areas and a higher resource demand from each of those individuals.
Terry Bennett: That’s a really good point. I mean, you see the news–on any occasion, anywhere in the world–where any sort of construction is trying to be done and all of a sudden there is a water main or a gas main or some other underground or hidden part of infrastructure that’s hit because nobody knew it was there. And one of the advantages we have today is that we do have tools and technology where you can create very high-accurate, very high-precise types of digital representations of the existing urban environment that then become the starting points–you know the as-builts of what exists that we’ve changed and modified over years–to very quickly get into an existing condition by which we can then figure out is this new redesign and this new redevelopment, is it going to fit? How much is it going to cost? How long will it take? What will be the impact for the traffic flow? You know, the personal impact of what it means to you, as a person in and around these urban centers or that has to commute through it.
And now the technology exists where you can look at that in very much of a virtual-reality type world and that an opportunity we never had 15 years ago that we do now going forward, as we look at how to best use our time and dollars to make our cities much more livable and more sustainable.
James Moore: But I would like to add one more sort of piece on top of what Emma and Terry have said. And this gets to the issue of true pricing or true costing. The current system that we’re in is, in fact, the way it is, in part, because we tend to subsidize. You mentioned the suburban infrastructure–we tend to subsidize that and not actually charge people for the fact that we’re running sewer pipes miles and miles into the countryside. And, you know, people are very rationally responding given the current system, and part of what we don’t understand is we don’t understand the true costs of what we are, in fact, planning.
And as part of it–I mean yes, we need to rethink how we think about infrastructure. We need to rethink how we think about planning. We really have to come up with a system that allows us to value things–you know, price things–at their true value.
What can we do when we no longer have this resource? What is the value of it? As opposed to a simple cost approach. And ultimately that’s an economic question and a political question, but that is a very, very important piece of the overall consideration.
Denis Du Bois: Often the absence of that sort of true-costing market force is counterbalanced by stringent building codes and energy efficiency policies designed to promote sustainable practices.
James Moore: The reality is, is that if you were to do something like add a $2 a gallon price to the cost of a gallon of gasoline–a tax to support other things–you would dramatically change human behavior and you would dramatically change how our cities in fact operate.
Emma mentioned the notion of density. Density tends to be a word you use very carefully in many parts of certainly the United States. You have to treat it carefully because to many people the opposite of a subdivision of two units to the acre is some place in Mumbai. And they don’t really understand that there are gradients and that you can look quite wonderfully at eight units or 12 units or 16 or 20 units to the acre. And that some of the most expensive real estates in this country–in say Manhattan–is often at hundreds of units to the acre. Again, the reality is many people–even people in the profession–don’t completely understand the ecosystem that we’ve created called cities.
Denis Du Bois: That brings me to a question for Terry Bennett about “people in the profession.” James touched earlier on the various silos of government and Emma touched on the silos of infrastructure. There are a lot of different professional disciplines involved in community planning; do they all play well with others?
Terry Bennett: I mean if you look at any sort of development–let’s say an office building or some other similar type of thing. If we look at how sustainability plays into that, you will have an architect who wants to look at being able to capture rainwater to use it internally in the building so that they don’t have to increase the water main size.
If you look at the engineer–or the civil engineer on the other side–he’s thinking, “Well, I need to somehow capture all this rainwater that’s coming down, get it off of the parking lots, put it in the catch basins or get it off the site so we don’t flood the streets, we don’t flood the parking garages, et cetera.
Now, together they’re both doing exactly what they’re intended to do and what they’ve been trained to by practice. If you look at what we mentioned earlier, stepping back and holistically looking at the whole site or the neighborhood, you see that the two systems are really competing against themselves.
One is trying to capture and move it off site; the other one is trying to do as much as it can to capture and keep it on-site and use it within the building. And so what we really need to start thinking about is really looking at systems within the cities holistically and looking at them as a system rather than a discrete object.
And, that has been some of the biggest challenges we had in is the way we put projects out for bid; the way the infrastructure is constructed. We have been mandating almost a very siloed effort where the planners don’t necessarily work well or work in conjunction with the designers very often. They have great concepts but you still have to make sure that they’re designable.
And then on the other end, when you do the design work, sometimes you have no idea who’s going to do the construction. And so we could gain incredible efficiencies if we can look at how we work together and collaborate around the table and create both the policies that allow engineers and architects to innovate and less stringent about telling them how to do their job but trusting them as professionals to do their work; and create both the political environments as well as the project requirements that allow these guys to work together on a project and provide alternatives to all of the systems that need to be constructed within a project, not just forcing them into their individual silos.
James Moore: Now, here’s another example. One of the more efficient ways we can provide energy including heating and cooling to cities–to buildings–is through a district heating and cooling system. It could either be heating and cooling; it could be electrical generation. Midtown Manhattan: much of that is driven through a single system. But instead every building now thinks it has to provide its own heating and cooling; its own electricity. And so you have ferocious amounts of redundancy.
But that is beyond the realm of any individual property owner or any individual building owner. They are doing, as Terry said, exactly what the system tells them to do. And someone or some entity, some agency, some profession needs to be able to step back and say, “You know, the most efficient way to provide energy to the downtown is to do the following…”
And in some cities you see that; you’re increasingly seeing that. But there are quantum steps that we could make that would enhance efficiency without radical technological transformation. District heating and cooling has been around for hundreds of years.
Emma Stewart: I think we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves in terms of this natural tendencies to break up the problem into its component parts and create specialties. I think humans do that naturally so what we really need are ecologists for cities. Folks who study the intersections between the different layers or in the case of cities, the different assets and systems that together make us a whole.
But I think one large obstacle to that has been that data has been sorely lacking. And now that we find ourselves in an area of radical transparency you see the corporate sector for the first time, for example, putting out into the open information about the risks they see associated with energy price increases or climate change to their business, to their supply-chain, to their customers.
I think cities actually have something to learn from the corporate sector, believe it or not, in this instance. Because the data that we need to understand and compare city-to-city or block-to-block or to have one urban planner have that holistic view that Terry was talking about is not available…or if it’s available, it sits on 500 different computers in 30 different agencies.
Denis Du Bois: OK, we need to take a break and when we return we’ll talk more about “ecologists for cities” and how to give them the data they need. “Sustainable Cities: There’s an App for That!” will continue right after this.
Denis Du Bois: You’re listening to Energy Priorities; I’m Denis Du Bois. I’m talking with three experts on sustainably built cities: James Moore, Emma Stewart and Terry Bennett.
We were talking before the break about how the data about cities is scattered or nonexistent. Do planners need that information if they’re to develop the holistic view Emma was referring to?
Terry Bennett: Yeah, one of the advantages we do have now is that we do have the capability to model a lot of this information and the interaction between these systems to really understand real-time “is this the right approach; is it not?” And be able to make the changes as we go through this. And I think by doing that what it allows us–the designers, the civil engineers, the contractors, the owners and the general community–will allow them to better understand the information because they can do things like visualize their approach, they can simulate it, analyze it. As well as figure out what the appearance and the cost is going to look like.
And by doing that, they’ll deliver this information or deliver these projects faster and more economical with reduced impact on the environment because they’ve been able to put that as an income or an input into this process.
James Moore: You know it’s interesting because I think sometimes we all have a tendency to get into our silos and our areas of expertise. And, you know, remember there is “a means” and “an ends” situation here. And infrastructure for the general public is “a mean”–it’s a way to do things; it’s a way to get a better life; to have more livable quality of life; et cetera. Whereas, for many of us, it becomes “an ends” because that’s what we do as professionals; we have to build that highway or we have to build that pipe. And I think, unfortunately, there’s so much competition for things–more roads, more transit, more highways, more building, et cetera, et cetera–that we don’t really have a mechanism for deciding, “Should we build this road…or do we build that transit system…or do we step back?”
And the analogy I think we can take is to the game “SimCity,” which has always fascinated me because a group of computer programmers sat down and they essentially created an artificial city with all sorts of factors and algorithms and inputs and outputs, and you get to endlessly play “what if I do this or what if I do that?”
Well, the challenge is to learn enough about our current cities that we can play “SimCity” for real. I mean to take the data that Emma talked about and really discover the algorithms that are those interfaces between different systems. And then be able to say, “The most efficient application of resources or the most efficient outlay of money to achieve the following goal, the following level of quality of life, or level of livability would be to do X.”
Emma Stewart: And I think the “SimCity” approach–or being able to model out different scenarios with rich data sets–allows us to move to a world where we’re not basing our success on the first cost of a project but rather on the full life-cycle cost and the outcome measured in many different ways of that project. So rather than saying, “Well, we were able to shave 10 percent off of this project through value engineering…”, asking the question, “In 75 years, when your grandchildren are experiencing that city, how often are they taking their bike or walking to work versus relying on a single-occupancy vehicle? How often are their water needs met by desalinated or recycled water? How often are they confronted with a gated community of wealthy urbanites living next to a slum?”
James Moore: And the technology is coming available to let us to essentially preview how a project, a development, a city will act and operate over a long period of time, which should convince the financial resources that this is justified and we should put our money into it.
Terry Bennett: Just to extend that a little bit; I mean, if we can use much more modern analysis tools, design tools and project approaches to deliver our infrastructure and reduce the upwards of 30 percent of a project’s cost that’s tied to change orders and confusion and requests for information, just imagine how much of that money could then be redirected into other infrastructure projects rather than into just addressing the same problems we had before, which is project delays and project overruns and cost overruns.
And I think that’s really where the big opportunity around this 3D modeling comes in is we can then look at these scenarios, plan them out, make them outcome-based. And if there’s going to be a mistake, it’s made on the desktop during the design; it’s not made during the actual construction. The actual construction becomes much more like choreography than it does guesswork.
Denis Du Bois: Are there some good examples of that kind of modeling in use?
Terry Bennett: Yeah, actually, we’ve got some very, very good examples. I would say one of the ones that’s probably right at the top of the list is the entire new entranceway to the Golden Gate Bridge that has been written about in a few places. The Presidio Parkway Project is the perfect example. You’re taking a development that is going through a very historical site, in the Presidio. You’re looking at a lot of traffic going over the Golden Gate Bridge. You can imagine the impact of those that live around the area that like that park, that like the trees, that don’t want their neighborhood to change. You can imagine the number of stakeholders for these projects–from the state to the federal to the local constituents. So it’s the perfect example of what happens, even at a small scale in a local New England town to a big-scale project. You’ve got a lot of people that are concerned and need to understand what’s happening and why. And, really, what you’re doing is you’re providing the answers.
And what they’ve been able to do using a lot of visualization and simulation technology is to make it personal. In other words, not just rely that the engineer creates these set of plans but only the engineer can understand them or only the planner can understand them or only the financier can understand them, but by making it a visual context–you know, what James said, the “SimCity” view of it–everybody can understand a visual if they’re in it and understand it.
And what they’ve been able to do is not only take these visualizations and show them through a YouTube-type video, but they’ve even created an application where you can download this onto your iPhone or iPad and actually pretend that you’re driving across these bridges and what it’s going to look like next year or the year after.
So that what it’s doing is preparing people to understand what their community’s going to look like during the construction and, more importantly, why it’s so important at the end and what it’s going to look like once this whole project is done.
And so there’s a couple examples, both the Presidio Parkway Project and the Bay Bridge; two different reasons but most of them for seismic retrofit. But whether it’s a retrofit of the bridge for seismic concerns or the retrofit of a city for urbanization pressures, it still comes down to “can you get a perspective of the individual who’s going to have to commute during this” or understand what it means to live in it during these types of developments?
James Moore: I think in the next 10 or 15 years– just as the big visualizing technologies are going to dramatically change how we plan and think about cities–I think the small, bottom-up, individual technologies and changes in apps and just the ability to move information about how the cities are functioning will dramatically increase. And so we’ll see efficiency increase from a top-down, sort of big-picture point of view. But we’ll also see efficiency increase from very much a grassroots, bottom-up, one-on-one point of view as well.
Emma Stewart: I would agree with you both that visualization and data collection through smart devices and metering are both essential components, but they don’t go far enough, in that, visualization is key to help the stakeholder preview what the experience would be like, and data collection is key to have the city essentially report back to its planners how it’s performing. But what I think is hidden in the background oftentimes–and James, you alluded to it in terms of the algorithms in “SimCity”–is actually some very sophisticated simulation and analysis capabilities, engines running in the background, that actually allow you to look realistically at a number of different scenarios and analyze them long before you would even consider selecting one.
I think Berlin has a good example of looking across the expanse of their city at the incidence of solar rays on different rooftops and surfaces. And this requires, actually, a reasonable amount of analysis to understand how shading affects those rays, whether it leads to heat gain–what’s called the “heat urban-island effect.” But the reason they’re undertaking this large exercise is to understand the potential at the urban level for capturing the sun’s rays and using them for energy production, similar to the way a forest fragment might photosynthesize sun.
And, so, that’s the sort of analysis that I think is needed at that urban level because it informs things like policies and incentive systems–the rebates that you might get from your utility or how photovoltaics might play into your demand-response program. So I think visualization, data capture from smart systems, and then combining those through analysis are really the three key parts to solving this problem.
Denis Du Bois: Where is this technology headed from here? What are some of the long-term trends and the future vision for technology’s role in planning more sustainable cities?
James Moore: I mean, you’re going to have increasing opportunities to visualize decisions way in advance and compare dozens of opportunities, in essentially real time, at real scale, so that the average person can understand it, as opposed to, say, a technical professional or a PhD type of person.
I think everything around us has information content and, historically, it just hasn’t been accessible to us. And increasingly we’re becoming aware of that, even so that the foundation of a bridge will tell you, “Hey, things are starting to crumble in here. You’ve got to do something.” And as we get the sensors and the meters and the switches, I mean, increasingly the world will become sentient to some extent and we’ll be able to mine that information and figure out how to optimize it.
And then, there are these very powerful algorithms running in the back. We think in terms of flows and sheds: How are things moving through a particular area? And with these, essentially very powerful software programs, we can capture the information from the existing environment, model it into a future environment, and really look to optimize it across many dimensions.
Terry Bennett: And I think too, if you look at it, a lot of the technology that exists today to visualize, simulate, and analyze the future of our designs in urban environments already exist. Their adoption could be increased. So there’s still a gap between what is available versus what can be used and how many people are using it, and I think that’s an advantage that can close. But beyond that, one of the big changes I see is the power and the mobility of the information and the access to the information. We now will have the ability with infinite computing and cloud computing, where you can have 10,000 computers working on one analysis program–or algorithm, as Emma said–for a couple seconds and solve what would’ve taken months in a matter of seconds.
Emma Stewart: And, Dennis, in answer to your question, I tend not to be too Pollyannaish on technology, even though that might seem ironic working at a technology company, because I think every advance we make, we pat ourselves on the back, and then we fail to integrate it with the other advances we’ve made historically.
So you can bet the first time someone sketched out a building on paper as opposed to just trying it with mud and wood, they thought they were really advanced. So I think we need to take that technology conversation to the next level, in terms of “how are we going to integrate all of these advances to take that full life-cycle view of a given bridge or train system or building or, in the case of this conversation, urban environment?”
James Moore: And ultimately–and this is, again, where it becomes very, very interesting–some of the most critical decisions will not be made by the folks who understand the technology. They’ll be made at a political level. And so the challenge is really to ensure that the policymakers, the decision-makers are really aware, they understand what the opportunities are. Because, in the end, it’s all about creating wonderful places for people to live, work, and play. You know, just the kinds of livable environments that we all aspire to. And in many ways, livability hasn’t changed all that much in hundreds of years; people are people. Our capacity to provide livable environments for more and more people–ultimately for the entire population of the globe–has gone up, but our resources for doing so are limited. And, you know, the challenge is how do we increase the livability of life for as many people on Earth as possible but stay within the level of resources that are available to do that?
Denis Du Bois: So let me ask each of you: what other really significant change do you hope or expect to see in urban planning as a result of the advances we’ve been talking about? Terry?
Terry Bennett: I think the only thing I would add is, you know, going back to previous history–when I was one of three people managing about 150,000 acres across three states of roads and everything else–is, we’ve really got to look at what is the ultimate goal. And as it relates certainly to the area of focus I have now, which is around infrastructure, is that not all the answers to the problem reside in more man-made features. And the balance between what should be man-made versus what should be natural, I think, has to be looked at differently. And I think we have to approach our designs differently and not just assume that the best way is to build the problem out, but you know, being able to have the tools that allow you to have that type of analysis to really figure out, “What is the right balance, given this location or this urban center, between what is man-made and what is natural?”
Denis Du Bois: …so really balancing the built environment with nature. James?
James Moore: The other point I think we need to keep in mind is that cities have to appeal to their entire audience, and that not everyone agrees; not everyone wants to live in the same type of neighborhood; not everyone wants to use the same types of facilities. You have a very diverse audience. And so you can’t really deny people, I think. I think if people want to live on large lots somewhere at the edge, that’s fine. We have to ensure that the cost of that to the community as a whole is being allocated properly. So it’s really a case of “how do we allocate the resources that we have to allow as many people as possible to live the lifestyle they wish within that awareness that you can’t have everything?” And we have to price things properly.
Denis Du Bois: ..not only true costing but equitable cost allocation. Emma?
Emma Stewart: One change I think we’re starting to see and we’ll see increasingly in the future, is actually development of entire city plans from scratch–Tianjin being one example, Songdo in South Korea being another example–where, actually, perhaps even a private group not a city government, is tasked with creating these outcome-based goals, understanding what the city plan needs to look like, what the optimal density level is, what the optimal size is. And those may actually act as the blueprints for existing cities to learn from. Because if there’s one thing we know as a species, it’s that adaptation takes trial and error. And so we should always be looking back at the errors of the past and applying them to the future.
Terry Bennett: And I think technology can give you the right answers, if you ask the right questions. And I think we just have to rethink what the right question is for our sustainable urban centers going forward.
Denis Du Bois: That’s all the time we have for this edition of Energy Priorities. You’ve been listening to “Sustainable Cities: There’s an App for That!” with Terry Bennett, James Moore and Emma Stewart.
We had production assistance from Anna Pinkert.
You’ll find more programs and resources about sustainable cities at energy priorities dot com.
Our theme music is by Christopher Keister and Alexander Blu.
For Energy Priorities, I’m Denis Du Bois.
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Wow, what a wonderful conversation, and what a great group of outstanding and intelligent people having it!
Yet somehow I’m left with the feeling that the conversation stayed up around 80,000 feet – around the outer edge of the atmosphere, for those who are counting – and never really quite got to the point.
From a hard-nosed, technical/analytical perspective, we have about 20 years to cut our collective environmental foot print – carbon biodoversity, water, etc. – about in half. Not in per-capita terms but in absolute terms.
Absolutely sustainable cities are a crucial vital central part of the hard turn we actually need to make to kept our living environments recognizable.
I’m just not sure this lovely conversation ever quite got to the point. What do we need to do differently with the rest of today, and tomorrow, and the day after, systematically, comprehensively?
It may take a bit of a different attitude to get a practical grip on the real issues here – down on earth.
Kevin Matthews has a question that I’d like to respond to, after noting the shudder Emma gave me with wilderness being “an outdated concept”: yes it’s affected by air pollution etc., but we’d better work damned hard to keep what’s left if motivated only by protecting our own sanity! Much else to admire here though – but back to a proven answer to ‘how to.’
A small group of community leaders turned a 1950’s-like neighbourhood development for +/- 14,000 on a brownfield site into a 21st century project winning national awards for sustainability in Vancouver BC between 2002 and 2009. Key elements as related to the World Planners Congress here in 2006, chronologically not comparatively: 1. influence at the planning table acquired from the civic government; 2. local, practical, and theoretical knowledge base in both local organizing and in sustainability; 3. open membership, constrained only by restriction on participation for private benefit; 4. consensus decision-making model, meaning the group spoke with one voice (no factions); and 5. willingness to say yes when the best that could be achieved at this time was on the table. Four very politically different City Councils approved each stage unanimously because an open, consensus-based local community group guided the city planning and engineering departments, and the developer, toward a model for a sustainable future, accepting nothing less. Quite a few careers were made by it. We’re just happy with what we did. Check out http://www.riverdistrict.com, with links to City Council presentations etc.