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Moving beyond green buildings to green cities: the challenges and solutions

Where will humanity get the 89 billion tons of natural resources each year to fuel our consumption in 2050, asked Professor Mark Swilling at the Green Building Convention 2017 held in Cape Town last week and hosted by the Green Building Council South Africa (GBCSA).

2050 will arrive in 33 quick years and by then the earth’s population is set to double, requiring a staggering 89 billion tons of natural resources per year if we do not change our ways. To cope with the pressure, urban authorities need to be prepared to learn how to adapt, warned Swilling.

A focus beyond buildings, to green cities

 And many cities are trying to adapt. “The world has broken out in a rash of experiments across all dimensions of urban life. We cannot continue to see cities simply as opportunities to channel finance into property development, or to spend money on out-of-date infrastructure,” he told delegates.

“Local government and GBCSA members need to talk about not just green buildings, but about green cities. Cities should be our focus, so that our impact is greater than singular buildings,” agreed Parks Tau, President of the South African Local Government Association.

Annual consumption: 89-million tons of natural resources

 Swilling used urban metabolic analysis to understand how resources are used globally and found that if humanity’s consumption habits do not change, then resource requirements scale from the current 40-billion tons to 89-billion tons per year.

And less land will be available to supply these resources. In 2050 cities will more than double their current surface area to cover 2.5-million square kilometres, he said. And, if this expansion takes place, it will eat into the most productive agricultural land – normally found on urban outskirts.

African cities can pivot easier to sustainability

 But what if a sustainable growth scenario occurred, where everyone lived in a green building, used bus-rapid-transit and were powered by a series of mini-grids connected to renewable energy sources? “We found there would be a 40% saving in total quantity of resources consumed,” Swilling said.

And the challenge will not be introducing sustainable technology or systems, but rather the reconfiguration of governance necessary to bring about the change.

“We need an entrepreneurial mode of governance that allows experimentation. And, in my view, our cities in Africa have an extraordinary opportunity to do things differently. We are still going through the big decisions on the types of urban systems required, and we can learn from cities in more developed countries. Are we going to emulate older outdated nodes or are we going to anticipate and act? Are we going to say we don’t need private cars, we don’t need sprawl, we can do zero waste, we can do net zero multi-storey buildings?” Swilling challenged.

Resource crunch creates gap for green building standards

 But what of South Africa, where local governments require financial surpluses from water and energy to cross-subsidise other service delivery efforts? “As an advocate for sustainability I am equally an advocate for long-term municipal sustainability,” Tau said.

“This is why, during my tenure as Mayor of Johannesburg, I asked City Power for a new business model. I asked for reduced green-house gases, increased revenue, increased collections. It was a long multi-year conversation. Now, consider if City Power were a facilitator of microgrids and so enable demand-side supply?” City Power used to be in a strong position to create billions for the City of Johannesburg’s budget, but Parks forecast that by 2022 this opportunity would be gone, “so it needed to start thinking about another plan”.

Similarly, while urbanization places municipal services “under massive stress, there is an opportunity. For example, amend building codes to meet GBCSA guidelines,” Tau said.

Future cities will share and repair

 “Change is a hockey stick and we’re getting to the exponential bit,” said Jason Drew, Founder of Agriprotein. “We’ll see more change in the next five years that we can imagine.”

Future businesses are moving away from the extract-manufacture-throw away product cycle and multi-generational product development, he said. A new way of doing business has begun where durable products can easily be repaired, shared and operated in a closed-loop cycle.

“Today the world’s richest cities have huge bike share programmes, and the world’s largest hotel company, which helps to find beds for 80 million people annually, doesn’t own any infrastructure but instead invites ordinary people to share their second most valuable asset: their spare room,” said Drew.

In 2008 Drew started a closed-loop business involving flies in Tulbagh. “After many years of failing we started to understand how to grow flies. Today our factory in Philippi receives tons and tons of organic waste from the City of Cape Town, which fly larvae then turn into fertilizer, and the flies processed to create fishmeal or animal feed oil,” explains Drew.

Agriprotein’s fly larvae factories are being commissioned all over the world, and Dubai will use them to become the first zero-waste to landfill city in the world by 2021.

“We can repair the future, and we can do this in the most unusual ways,” concluded Drew.






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