Rain Gardens among the Dinosaurs
[IHDC Part 1] Global cities
Margaret Reynolds reports
On 15 October Footprint attended the third IHDC (Integrated Habitats Design Competition) conference, Ecosystem Services come to Town, graciously hosted by the Natural History Museum amid the dinosaurs.
Two hundred of us assembled to hear a line-up of speakers from Whitehall, business, property and academia as well as experts from Sweden, Germany and Holland, and a contingent from Beijing. Architectural practices attending included people from Paul Davies & Partners, Anne Thorne Architects, Cotterell Thomas Architects, Sprunt Architects and Ann Bodkin Architects. Eco-debate and networking flowed freely. Can we avoid species extinctions – cue dinosaurs - including our own? Is the financial bottom line the only motivation? Given that cities are ‘the future of our globe’ - 6.3billion people by 2050 – can we release nature to intertwine with city infrastructure?Does anyone care?
It’s partly semantics. Say ‘sustainability’ or ‘ecosystem’ and people’s eyes glaze over, dare to promote ‘biodiversity’ and they head for the nearest exit. But if you quantify for people the benefits of ‘nature’ and ‘wilderness’, such as pollination, water cleansing, cooling by foliage, replenishment of oxygen, air cleansing, faster recovery from illness, absorption of flood waters, maintenance of sea levels, the message starts to sink in.
Emerging from last week’s IHDC conference was the message that all this is beginning to get through. Like the polar ice caps, people’s hearts are perceptibly melting.
This was an impressive event. Four sessions set up by the core RESET team of Gary Grant, Dusty Gedge, and Blanche Cameron worked us through the global and government perspectives, details of implementation, business investment successes, and prime-movers of London’s adaptation. The museum’s own Head of Innovation, Bob Bloomfield skilfully chaired and fielded wide Q&A debate. All this was also a fringe event of the 11th United Nations COP on Biodiversity in Hyderabad and the launch of its publication, Cities and Biodiversity: action and policy, one of whose authors Åsa Gren, came to present it. The award ceremony for the IHDC projects followed in the evening in C F Moeller Architects’ Darwin Centre (2009), in the presence of 20 million species of insects and plants, preserved in the centre’s dramatic 8-storey cocoon and accompanied by a string quartet.
Section 1: Global Cities
Lord de Mauley (Rupert Ponsonby), as of September the in-coming Under Secretary at DEFRA, launched a major theme of the conference, the economic value of green infrastructure. ‘If we ignore the value of nature, we expose ourselves to unnecessary costs. For example locked-in climate damages in Western Europe are estimated to cost 0.9% of GDP. ‘We are also missing out on huge opportunities to make ourselves and future generations better off through investments in natural assets’ (see DEFRA White Paper, The Natural Choice – securing the value of nature).
Lord de Mauley said that investment in green infrastructure is ‘justified, because it works with nature to provide a wider range of benefits’, citing four examples:
- Victoria Business Improvement District’s street trees, green roofs and sustainable drainage
- ‘New York City, for example, expects to save $1.5 billion over the next 20 years by using green infrastructure’ (Lord de Mauley did not mention that this has partly been a result of a 2010 ‘greenroof tax credit in New York City’).
- Bold Colliery, St Helens: ‘The south of the former colliery site was planted with a mixture of structured and naturalistic woodland’ in 1986. Now adding £15 million to existing property values and £75 worth of new development, community woodland is worth £90 million to this St. Helens community.
- Leeds City Region, involving the mapping of natural environments, creating carbon sinks and delivering green infrastructure on derelict sites
He highlighted the new DEFRA Local Nature Partnerships (LNPs) identifying three themes of involvement:
- Sustainable land use and management
- Green economic growth
- Quality of life and local health and wellbeing
Lord de Mauley also commended the Town and Country Planning Association’s Good Practice Guide for Green Infrastructure and biodiversity, published in July 2012, including advice on securing GI funding through updated Local Plans. Britain is becoming a world leader in green infrastructure.
Hilary Benn, Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government, spoke on the need to find new ways of measuring profit, quoting Robert Kennedy who claimed GDP measures everything ‘except that which makes life worthwhile.’
Professor Dr Peter Hoppe, of MunichRe Insurance and the Munich Climate Insurance Initiative, presented the insurance industry’s blood-chilling analysis of climate change impact. This was not predicted impact, but the already proven. 2011 was the worst year for extreme climate events since hurricane Katrina in 2004.
Cities are particularly vulnerable:
- High concentration of people, values and infrastructure
- Due to high economic activity, relative high energy consumption
- High degree of sealed surfaces (precipitation cannot percolate, surfaces reach hightemperatures)
- High air temperatures (especially in the evenings and nights), ‘heat island effect’ with temperature differences up to 10°C compared with outskirts
- In general lower wind speeds, but jet effects in straight street canyons and invicinity of high rise buildings
- Increased risk of intense precipitation events (especially on the lee side of cities)
- Increased risk of thunderstorms (lightning), skyscrapers act like ‘lightning magnets’
- Higher pollution levels (particles, ozone, NOx)
10 per cent of the world’s population is within 5 km of a coast, 3/4 of the world’s largest cities are on coastal plains, the record melting of Arctic sea worsens the probabilities, and the sea level is expected to rise at least 1m by the end of the century, not to mention the increased power of storm surges. Many cities are on large rivers; more frequent downbursts cause flash-flooding and drainage systems are not prepared to cope. Clearly investment in climate change mitigation will give a huge payback (to any survivors).
Gary Grant, independet ecologist and member of the IHDC, cited twelve priceless benefits of nature, refuting the long-held conviction that ‘nature doesn’t belong in cities,’ and insisting that we must work with natural forces: rain, sun, wild plants, and waste. It’s even better if the project, say a roof garden, is multi-functional, i.e. provides cooling, oxygen, sound and energy insulation, flood prevention, property values, an office gardening club, and incidently, of course, biodiversity. Starting off with RESET as an ‘underemployed ecologist’, Gary Grant is now very busy leading training up and down the country. The many community Local Plans being reissued will incorporate the provisos of the Flooding and Urban Water Management Act of 2010. He was jubilant at inserting a green wall into the Westfield Shopping Centre, West London, a biodiverse answer to developers merely seeking an acoustic barrier. His new book provided the title of the conference:
Section 2: Global implementation
Åsa Gren, a scientist with the Institute of Ecological Economics, Royal Swedish Academy of Science and Stockholm Resilience Centre. Discussing the Convention on Biological Diversity publication Cities and Biodiversity Outlook she said urban areas will have tripled in size between 2000 and 2030. Architects take note because 60% of this projected urban area has yet to be built.
Asa put forth ten key messages, grounded in scientific evidence, in favour of ecosystem services:
- Urbanization is both a challenge and an opportunity
- Rich biodiversity can exist in cities
- Biodiversity is critical ‘natural capital’
- Functioning urban ecosystems can significantly improve human health
- Urban ecosystems can contribute to climate change mitigation
- Biodiversity of urban food systems can enhance food and nutrition security
- Ecosystem service must be integrated into urban planning and policy
- Ecosystem services must involve multiple sectors and stakeholders
- Cities offer unique opportunities for learning about resilience and a sustainable future
- Cities have great potential for innovation and must take the lead in sustainable development
Dr Johan van Zoest , author, teacher of urban planning at Technical University of Eindhoven in the Netherlands, and senior policy advisor to the cities of Amsterdam and The Hague, presented an attractive view of the Dutch approach, which he said was ‘nice for the Twentieth Century, but not enough for the Twenty-First.’ Encouraging developments are now springing from new technology, better business models, and enlightened governance. Some intriguing Dutch innovations include: Agricultural Childcare - showing strong growth, with farmers diversifying into child-minding and family activities delightfully alongside animal husbandry; and an increasing groundswell of ‘bottom-up’ local-hero projects independent of, but enabled by, state policies.
Professor Susannah Hagan, Director of RED (Research into Environment + Design), and Professor of Architecture at the Royal College of Art, said she was from ‘the enemy, i.e. the maker of buildings,’ but that architects were ‘trying to clean up our act.’ Citing Herbert Girardet’s calls for an urban ‘circular metabolism’, her teaching develops architectural techniques to set cities not on top of ecosystems, but linked into surrounding nature, building with rather than against. This means designing artificial ecosystems derived from natural ones: the architect has to create a continuum that makes the two environments, wilderness and built structures, sit together. Her students worked on climate-based design on Swedish sites in Malmö and Gottenberg, creating double-function designs combining form and environmental performance.
Look out for more from Margaret Reynolds at the IHDC coming soon on AJ Footprint.
Should RIBA have an annual sustainability award?