From urban spaces to urban ecosystems

Instead of damaging ecosystems, why not start creating them?

Prof. Jacqueline McGlade

'Instead of damaging ecosystems, why not start creating them?' says Prof. Jacqueline McGlade. 'We have the technology and the design skills. There are examples of the future all over Europe but these are pockets of innovation. We have to move from pockets of innovation to cities of the future.'

'Take light — it’s a natural resource. People like working and living surrounded by natural light. Building can easily make much better use of natural light. Or take vertical gardening. Vertical gardening means turning our cities into sustainable urban farms where crops are grown on and in our buildings.'

'The idea of living walls and vertical allotments is very old, going back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It's amazing we haven’t done more of this before but now there is a new urgency to change our habits because of climate change,' Prof. McGlade says.

Higher temperatures in cities, caused by concrete and tarmac absorbing heat and releasing it slowly, would mean a longer growing season and improved yield. Rainwater could be harvested on roofs and networks of pipes would allow it to drip through each level. The plants would also have an insulating effect, keeping the living space inside the building cool in summer and warm in winter.

Populations on the move

The global population is congregating in our cities. Eighty per cent of the world’s estimated nine billion people in 2050 are expected to live in urban areas. Many of our cities struggle to cope with social and environmental problems resulting from pressures such as overcrowding, poverty, pollution and traffic.

The trend towards urban living is set to continue. Around the world, cities occupy 2 % of the earth's surface but account for half of the global population (20). In Europe, 75 % of us live in cities. This is likely to rise to 80 % by 2020. Europe’s cities and towns currently account for 69 % of our energy use and thus most greenhouse gas emissions.
The environmental impacts of cities spread far and wide as a result of their reliance on outside regions to meet demand for energy and resources and to accommodate waste. A study of Greater London (21) estimates that London has a footprint 300 times its geographical area — corresponding to nearly twice the size of the entire United Kingdom. Pollution from cities also often impacts areas outside the city.

Climate change is a new and ominous threat to city living. Some cities will suffer considerably as a result of climate change. This could aggravate social inequalities: the poor are often most at risk and do not have the resources to adapt. Climate change will also affect the urban environment: air and water quality, for example.

From adaptation to new thinking

So, our cities and urban areas have many problems ranging from social to health to environmental. However, the proximity of people, businesses and services associated with the very word city, means there are also huge opportunities.

Urban settings offer important opportunities for sustainable living. Already, population density in cities means shorter journeys to work and services, greater use of public transport, and smaller dwellings requiring less lighting and heating. As a result, urban dwellers consume less energy per capita than rural residents (22).

Our cities also exist in a unique position with regard to climate change mitigation and adaptation. Physical characteristics, design, governance and location of a city are just some of the factors that can contribute to or alleviate both.

Clearly, engineering approaches — such as flood barriers — are only a part of the solution. Adaptation also calls for a fundamental rethinking of urban design and management, and it should be 'mainstreamed' in all related policies, including land use, housing, water management, transport, energy, social equity and health.

Rethinking urban design, architecture, transport and planning we can turn our cities and urban landscapes into 'urban ecosystems' at the forefront of climate change mitigation (better transport, clean energy) and adaptation (floating houses, vertical gardening). Better urban planning will improve quality of life across the board and create new employment opportunities by enhancing the market for new technologies and green architecture.

The key lies in planning cities in ways that facilitate lower per capita energy consumption, using means such as sustainable urban transport and low-energy housing. New technologies for energy efficiency and renewable resources, such as solar or wind energy and alternative fuels, are also important, as is providing opportunities for individuals and organisations to change their behaviour.

Designing the future

'The future will turn out different than we expect — that is all we can be certain of. We are planning for that uncertainty,' says Johan van der Pol, deputy director of Dura Vermeer, a Dutch construction company currently designing and building IJburg, a new floating district in Amsterdam.

IJburg is one of the most ambitious projects the municipality of Amsterdam has ever undertaken. An expanding population and rising water levels have forced the heavily populated city to be creative: experimenting with novel types of architecture on the water itself. The new houses are 'docked' to floating walkways and hooked up to electrical, water and sanitation services. They can easily be disconnected and moved somewhere else — bringing a whole new meaning to ‘moving house’. The developing town includes eco-friendly floating greenhouses where all manner of fruit and vegetables are growing.

The floating houses of IJburg are just one example of a new movement in architecture and city planning. Climate change impacts range from drought and heatwaves in southern Europe to flooding in the north. Cities must adapt. Rather than simply strengthening flood barriers or shipping in water, some architects, engineers and city planners are looking at a whole new approach to urban and city living. They are approaching urban landscapes as urban ecosystems of the future.

Exchanging knowledge and good practices

'European cities face different challenges which demand different responses' says Ronan Uhel, head of the Natural Systems and Vulnerability programme at the EEA.

'Those cities initiating measures early on are bound to see the best returns on their adaptation investments. Yet to date, only a few European cities have developed strategies enabling adaptation to the "new" climate change conditions — and actual implementation of measures is, as yet, mostly limited to small scale projects,' he says.

Other cities may not be so fortunate in terms of knowledge and resources and will require ongoing support and guidance. At this stage, improvement in the exchange of experience and best practices among cities would be most valuable.

'Thisted is a small community in western Denmark that provides all of its energy itself. Sometimes, it even feeds energy in to the national grid. This community is reclaiming its destiny. It sounds philosophical but that's what we're talking about: reclaiming who we are', says Ronan Uhel.

'We have created societies of assisted people. We often only have a virtual connection to our natural surroundings, our shrink-wrapped food, our water. We need to rediscover ourselves and our place in nature.'

Paris is buzzing

Bees have been kept on the roof of the Paris Opera house for 25 years. The colony at this most Parisian institution is thriving and produces almost 500 kg of honey every year.

The city bees are flourishing and there are as many as 400 colonies in the city. New hives are now in place in Versailles Palace and at the Grande Palais. Indeed cities provide an abundance of flowering plants and trees in our gardens and parks. And while there is pollution there are much fewer pesticides in cities. Urban bees appear to be doing better than their country cousins in Europe.

The French National Union of Beekeepers started a campaign — 'Operation Bees' — in 2005 with the goal of integrating bees into the urban landscape. It seems to be working. The beekeepers union estimates that each Parisian beehive produces a minimum of 50–60 kg of honey per harvest and the death rate of the colonies is 3–5 %. That compares to country bees that produce between 10 and 20 kilograms of honey and experience a death rate of 30–40 %.

Bees are also busy in London. According to the London Beekeepers Association, urban bees appreciate the abundance of flowering plants and trees combined with relatively low pesticide use. This, and the slightly milder weather, means that the bee-keeping season is longer and usually more productive than in rural areas. A perfect example of the potential of our urban ecosystem.

Keeping an eye on the earth

At the EEA we believe that if we are to tackle our environmental problems, we must engage with ordinary people and ask how they can 'inform' us. Farmers, gardeners, hunters, sports enthusiasts — all have ready local knowledge.

Eye on Earth — a collaboration between EEA and Microsoft — provides fast, interactive, near real-time information on bathing water and air quality across Europe, with more services to come. And it allows users to have their say, supplementing and validating (or perhaps refuting) official information. By engaging citizens as contributors and empowering them with relevant and comparable information, services like Eye on Earth can contribute significantly to better environmental governance.

20. United Nations Environment Programme, 2008.

21. Greater London Authority

22. IEA, 2008