What lessons can Citizen Jane share for today’s battle for the city?

Citizen Jane

Image via Dogwoof.com

A few months ago, I saw the documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City at the ICA with fellow members of Urbanistas London.

The film was well produced and the use of archival footage and audio was a fun and enlightening way to revisit Jane Jacobs’ work. But, it didn’t dig very deep into the hows, whys and ‘what nows’ of how we think about planning and urban form today in light of the lessons from Jacobs. If you’re new to urbanism, it’s a good crash course on two of history’s most famous planning adversaries, but for those who know the philosophies, it didn’t offer much extra.

The film depicts a battle specific to an era. The 1960s were not only a time in which planners held a lot of power, but government did in general. Much as the political landscape has changed since the 1960s in both the US and UK, so has the role of government and planners within it. Planners no longer have as large of a role in shaping cities. In fact, major infrastructure decisions tend to be done not by planners, but by politicians, special bodies, or worse yet, lobbyists and investors.

As the end of this review from Oliver Wainwright at The Guardian points out, there are many problems with painting Jacobs and Moses as black and white, good versus evil. What ultimately is the film’s message? Central planners no longer exist in the US or UK, and many of Jacobs’ philosophies are codified in planning, design and landscape architecture best practice (e.g. eyes on the street/passive surveillance, people scale and mixed-use design) today. The ills of urban renewal still happen, but rarely triggered by planners, rather by cash-strapped local governments fighting for economic investment.

What is the Moses equivalent we should be looking out for today? The final images of sterile, cheap, closely-spaced tower blocks in China suggest we’re meant to ensure that the lessons are passed on to more recently urbanising cities. That’s important, but nothing about the film suggests planners and designers in China are the intended audience.

Could the ‘smart city’ and ‘big data’ movements be today’s version of urban renewal–where society’s ills and the ‘problems’ of modern life can be solved by sensors, data and algorithms? Rather than leaving control of the city to the technocrats of old, we are meant to leave control to the technology itself. As with central planning, there can be good done with these types of strategies, but as soon as we act like they are a cure-all and stop considering the human side of cities, there are (perhaps unintended) negative consequences.

By focussing on the battles of the 60s without a clear translation for today, the film missed an opportunity to call out the mistakes we may be repeating. It was comforting storytelling and a good refresher, but it failed to note that today’s Citizen Janes are up against a system more complex than just one Moses.

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Translating climate solutions for everyday lives

This post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

Big news in the climate change world recently! With the EU and India signing on last week, 74 parties to the Paris Agreement (and counting) representing an estimated 58.82% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions have ratified the agreement. This means it will now officially enter into force on the 4th of November 2016.

While the agreement isn’t perfect, its speedy ratification is great news. The momentum and united support behind it and the symbolism of global cooperation are powerful and motivating, particularly in the face of a threat as complex and massive as climate change. But for the majority of us, the memory of COP21 is likely long gone, replaced with Brexit, elections and our day-to-day concerns.

For those who live in places like the UK or the middle of the US, where climate threats are just as real, but much subtler than hurricanes, sea level rise and starving polar bears, the need to translate global goals on climate to local action may not seem as critical.

As built environment professionals, not those in front-line communities facing climate-triggered displacement, at international negotiation tables or out protesting against new mines, what can we be doing to truly “address climate change?”

KLH has done a lot of work on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London to deliberately incorporate both climate change mitigation and adaptation measures into large-scale development. Some of this has involved pulling together efforts that were already happening in the name of sustainability, health and comfort, energy efficiency or biodiversity and ensuring that they addressed the broader pictures of carbon impact and climate risk response. Many other measures were instituted directly as responses to anticipated climate impacts over time.

To reduce the contribution the development makes to climate change, we are massively reducing carbon emissions by designing very energy efficient building fabric and services, then further reducing to zero regulated carbon emissions through district heating, PVs and carbon offsetting in the local community. We are also reducing embodied carbon and energy of the building materials by 15-20% by using materials more efficiently, substituting materials and using recycled materials. The development also promotes public and active transportation and reduces potable water use which, in turn, reduces carbon emissions.

To adapt to the effects of climate change in London, we looked at the potential hazards—such as flooding, overheating, extreme wind, urban heat island effect and water scarcity—their likelihood and severity and the risk for the development. Based on that, we developed cross-cutting strategies to help mitigate and adapt to those impacts. These strategies included green infrastructure, water sensitive design principles, designing for thermal comfort, resilient construction measures and building adaptive capacity.

Even when projects attempt to address climate on site, it’s important not to overstate the impacts of those efforts. Zero Carbon doesn’t literally mean no carbon is emitted. Climate Positive doesn’t necessarily mean there are no negative impacts on climate. PVs on every roof won’t help much if the building materials used to make those roofs has a carbon intensive production process. The use of some sustainable building materials may have negative impacts for energy efficiency or overheating risk. But even if one development doesn’t solve it all, the individual measures can still add up to real benefits.

Not everything we’ve instituted on our projects was driven by a desire to address climate change. There are many strategies incorporated in good design practice, which positively contribute to climate change adaption – and that’s where the real impact will come from.

It’s hard to convince some developers, designers, builders or even occupants to care about climate change as a driver. It’s important that whether by regulation, best practice design, long-term cost saving, risk management or unique selling point, measures that reduce carbon emissions and help communities adapt to more extreme weather become the norm. Only then will all developments be climate responsive projects, contributing to the implementation of the Paris Agreement.