1/21/2011

Can cities be ecologically smart?

I have just finished to read an article published in Architect's Newspaper. This article "Smart Grid City", written by Ann Lock Lui, a Chicago-based journalist, illustrates new change in terms of thinking cities. I will focus on some aspects of this article. I don't know Chicago (only New York and North Florida), so I will not discuss much longer that I would like on this city.

Towards a Smart Grid City
According to this article, Chicago with its past, a city with history, attempts a shift into a smart city. I am a little bit confused with the terms of "smart" but this article highlights core elements that prove this change. LSE/Urban Age has also developed research, with their think tank LSE Cities, on Chicago, a "old" city which same issues than European cities: a population decrease. It is clear that Chicago as well as "old" cities (I prefer the term of cities with urban history than "old" city), better cities with urban history, cannot be compared with some Asian cities. While Chinese, Korean cities face an increase of population — Dongtan, Tianjin, Songdo, to quote but a few — Western cities, which have an urban history, face a decrease of population. Model of city planning such as that of Tianjin or Dongtan, or other Asian, or else, middle-eastern cities like Masdar city (Abu Dhabi), cannot be exported to cities in Europe, America or Australia. As Ann Loc Lui writes, "sustainable design choices are a natural for new buildings". It cannot be the case with existing cities.
MONU will focus, in a issue that may be launched in November or December, on preservation and urbanism. It will be interesting to see if some papers will treat this issue of ecologically sustainable preservation. My opinion is: yes preservation can be ecologically sustainable. Chicago can be an example for cities with urban history to "do with" existing building stock. According to Andrew Bardeau, the managing director of the Center for Electricity Innovation at IIT, who, with its company, wants to "make Chicago a hub for smart-grid manufacturing and deployment", "the most sustainable building is one that already exists." What does he mean? Our cities cannot rely on new green construction, Ann Loc Lui reports. Instead, they have to do with existing building stock, as I just mentioned. Preservation can be used as smart tool in urban planning in that it is low cost comparing with designing new cities. With financial crisis that disrupts our societies, (re)developing cities appears to be "dangerous" if it is based on a tabula rasa or scrap/build (I am thinking of a city like Tokyo which urbanization used to do, partly, but certainly, with scrap/build process) because it is high cost as it supposes new constructions in large scale. It is clear that we cannot opt for this solution anymore — maybe later but, for now, it is not possible. So what can we do? How can we "build" city which already exists? Ann Loc Lui presents some cases in Chicago. Let's take the illustration Elements of a smart grid system.
Originally appeared on Architect's Newspaper.
Elements of a smart grid system. 1. Solar panels 2. wind turbines 3. Smart appliances 4. Remote control for non-essential appliances 5. Plug-in hybrid cars 6. Locally generated power 7. Wireless communication between users and urility company 8. Web and mobile device interfaces to monitor usage from a distance 9. Energy storage

It contains: solar panels, wind turbines, smart appliances, remote control for non-essential appliances, plug-in hubrid cars, locally generated power, wireless communication between users and urility company, web and mobile device interfaces to monitor usage from a distance, and energy storage.
To a certain extent, we are not so far from what Big's Bjarke Ingels spoke with his "elastic city".
Smart city is a self-feeder city, but also a city where people are connected to their urban environment which becomes a "wireless urban environment". I will not discuss the social aspect (but I recommend to read Saskia Sassen's research on this issue. Some books are listed in the of this paper) of this issue.
Smart buildings
Smart building means a building that consume less, if not to say that is low consuming. Roger Frechette, president of PostivEnergy, a consulting firm launched by Chicago-based Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill Architecture argues that "in a much more dcentralized grid, each building can function as a power plant". Let's take another example. Morphosis's Phare Tower, in Paris-La Défense, which construction is scheduled for this year (and which is due to be completed in 2015) will be equipped with wind farm. Wind farm is a group of wind turbines. Not only does it permit to produce energy but also it helps to reduce energy consuming. This is an example of 'smart building'. This can be exported into cities as Loc Lui says.
The illustration "Elements of a smart grid system", above, is an example of how to combine smart and city. As she writes, a smart city "would provide more reliable energy" — as a smart building does but in much less large scale.
Yet, this ambitious project of transformation of our existing cities into green existing — or smart grid — cities has a cost. It is not using passive solar or double pane windows only as it is current when speaking of "sustainability" but to create "more efficient buildings" as Bardeau says. That is to look "more at advanced technologies for businesses and home owners to cut down their electricity use."
Ann Loc Lui quotes some case studies that concern the United States that I will not discuss, so I advice the reader to read her article to have detailed information of what is — and will be — changing in the US. However, I will just say that I agree that we shall associate preservation with ecologically sustainability. As Roger Frechette from PositivEnergy mentioned, there are elements of the smart grid that are already utilized as well as there are other elements that are not.
As we can see, Architects naturally add sustainable strategies in their project. I took Morphosis, as example but there are much more projects — Cox Rayner Architects with their Innovative Office Tower in Brisbane, to quote but a few, I can add research led by AADRL with Michael Weinstock, others like Michael Hensel, Achim Menges, etc. Architects design better performing buildings, building with positive-energy, to say with Matthew Summy, President of the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition.
This paper shows alternative strategies of eco-Asian-middle-eastern-cities. Chicago, which seeks to be a pioneer in terms of ecologically sustainability, demonstrates some interesting examples of ways of doing with* the existing for a more liveable, ecologically sustainable city, and less expansive in terms of costs — even though retrofitting has a cost.



* "way of doing with" is a translation of "mannière de faire avec" used by French geographers such as Michel Lussault. They suggest to do with existing cities instead of demolish and reconstruct them since "doing with" appears to be more ecological and less expensive than designing new green cities. The principle is to modify "modern" city into 'smart grid' city.

Source: Ann Loc Lui's "Smart Grid Cities", appeared on Architect's Newspaper (January, 17th).

About Saskia Sassen research, I suggest the reading of some of her books: A sociology of Globalization, Cities in a World Economy, and, to only propose a few, Territory, Authority, Right: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (particularly the third part "Global Digital Age").

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