A city is only as green as its residents

Collage by Gehl Architects Vison collage by Gehl Architects

In Copenhagen it is possible to buy an organic kiwifruit from New Zealand. These are displayed in the supermarket alongside non-organic Italian varieties. Which one should I choose? Should I buy the ethically farmed NZ kiwi, or should I buy the Italian one with fewer air miles? What is the most sustainable decision? And is it possible for the most sustainable decision to also give me the highest quality of life?

Decisions regarding sustainability are increasingly affecting how we build cities. This is especially true in Christchurch as it embarks on the single largest infrastructure investment in its history – that of rebuilding.

Debate around sustainable cities has historically centred on individual buildings. In this regard, it is very easy to get caught-up discussing the merit of a five-star versus six-star green star certification, or green roofs, or solar power, without considering other factors. This is evidenced in Melbourne, where the majority of new 6-star green certified homes have been built on the urban fringe. With limited access to public transport and cycling infrastructure, occupants require cars for most journeys. Just like the organic kiwi, a large amount of high-carbon transport is required to make these ‘sustainable’ homes accessible. Is it right to buy an organic kiwi on the other side of the world to where it grew? Can a ‘green’ house have a three-car garage?

What the Melbourne case highlights is that we must consider end-user behaviour if we want to make the most sustainable city. A recycling bin is no good if nobody uses it, or if its contents are contaminated and so taken to landfill. The most modern green workplace accessed by car produces more emissions than an older workplace accessed by public transport. A green building potentially isn’t green if its inhabitants use it differently than expected. A sustainable city is not simply a collection of green buildings, it is the infrastructure for a collection of people to enjoy sustainable lifestyles because they offer a higher quality of life.

A major factor in a sustainable lifestyle is transport choice. In 2009, 91% of trips were made by car in the Greater Christchurch Region. In Copenhagen the figure is 30%. Copenhagen has a long history of cycling which it has researched extensively. In 2010, 37% of people cycled to work in Copenhagen, with 70% continuing through winter. When asked their reason for choosing to cycle, the overwhelming reason respondents gave was convenience. Cycling in Copenhagen has nothing to do with ethical choices, it has to do with finding the easiest way to get from a to b. It is the result not of a ‘special Scandinavian mentality’, but of ongoing investment in cycling infrastructure by the City of Copenhagen, as well as the development of urban forms that create short enough distances for cycling to be viable. Copenhagen is internationally celebrated for the high quality of life cycling affords its citizens including health and accessibility benefits.

This identifies the issue at the heart of building a sustainable city. The central challenge is to make it easy and even desirable to be green – to create the infrastructure that will allow inhabitants to make sustainable decisions because they are in their own best interest. The challenge is for a city to be ‘Good for me’ and ‘Good for the planet’. This sometimes involves trade-offs such as weighing an isolated green building against integrated green transport. It will involve having an open mind.

In May last year, we asked you: ‘What kind of city do you want?’ Many of the most popular responses related both to a better lifestyle and sustainability. When debating your new sustainable city I encourage you to consider not ‘Is this city sustainable?’ but instead ‘How can this city make a sustainable lifestyle attractive for me?’ The answer to the latter question will illuminate the path to an enduringly sustainable city.

But back to the supermarket: Which kiwifruit did I buy – the organic New Zealand variety, or the lower-transport Italian? I bought the organic Danish apple.

Simon Goddard is a Project Architect with Gehl Architects in Copenhagen. He was extensively involved in the development of the Christchurch Central City Recovery Plan.

This article was originally published in The Press, Christchurch on 21 March, 2012.

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