CSU Kicks off its 2021 Green Cities Lecture Series

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The Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization (CSU) promotes ​a better understanding of the role of sustainable urbanization and resilient design in the planning of our cities. Part of CSU’s role is to connect the global thought leaders concerned with urbanization in a platform of shared ideas.

Green Cities 2021 is a monthly virtual lecture program organized by CSU on the first Thursday of each month at noon Eastern Time. The series focuses on innovations and achievements in sustainability and resilience worldwide. The first four sessions presented projects undertaken by city representatives from New York, Rio de Janeiro, Barcelona, Paris and Tshwane.

The UN-Habitat New York office, the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter, the Habitat Professional Forum, the New York based NGO Committee on Sustainable Development for the United Nations, Columbia University’s Center for Buildings, Infrastructure, and Public Spaces (CBIPS)Program, the Creative Exchange Lab of the Center for Architecture and Design of St. Louis, are the event partners for this series. Perkins Eastman New York and Washington, DC provided the platform for the event and Rick Bell, FAIA, CSU Board Member, spearheaded this series. Each session was hosted and skillfully moderated by CSU President Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, and Rick Bell.

NEW YORK CITY

The inaugural event on 6 March 2021 invited New York City’s representative, Daniel A. Zarrilli. Zarrilli spoke as New York City’s Chief Climate Policy Advisor and Director of OneNYC which is preparing New York for the future by delivering on New York City’s Green New Deal

Under his leadership, New York City released its long-term strategic plan, OneNYC 2050, which includes bold new actions to confront our climate crisis, achieve equity, and strengthen our democracy.  While Zarrilli discussed the current crises of COVID-19 and the life and death disparities in health outcomes associated with race and class, as well as the challenges we face currently with both our physical and digital infrastructure, he adroitly wove in his role in meeting the climate crises building upon these existing challenges, underscoring that we are in a climate emergency.

The NYC panel on climate change predicts that by 2050 not only will NYC’s climate feel more like Birmingham, Alabama, but that there is a potential 4 – 11% increase in average annual precipitation as well as a 1 – 2 foot likely rise in sea level. Zarrilli and the City’s plan is an integrated approach to urban resilience, a Green Deal for NY for transformational change. This is a solid plan that accesses our vulnerabilities and addresses them with clear overarching goals to address the needs of all New Yorkers while retaining New York’s reputation as one of greatest cities in the world. Primary goals included: a vibrant democracy, an inclusive economy, thriving neighborhoods, healthy lives, equity and excellence in education, a livable climate, efficient mobility and modern infrastructure.

Part of achieving a livable climate will require divesting from fossils fuels and moving towards

electrification of the city and securing 100% clean electricity. Zarrilli and the City of New York are not alone in this objective. New York is part of a global movement with more than 30 global mayors as part of C40 Cities, focused on tackling climate change and driving urban policy that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and climate risk.

While New York has an overall strategy of investment in coastal protection, Local Law 97 remains a critical part of NYC’s robust plan to ensure that we meet the challenges of reducing carbon in our building infrastructure. Zarrilli’s advice for the next mayor is “to keep up the focus on this challenge, as it will define the next decade.”

RIO DE JANEIRO

CSU’s Green Cities next traveled on April 1 to Rio de Janeiro, where we were joined by speaker Washington Fajardo. Fajardo, an architect, urbanist, Harvard GSA Loeb Fellow, Rio de Janeiro City Planning Commissioner and President of Pereira Passos Institute for Urbanism at Rio de Janeiro City Hall, passionately shared his vision for the city of Rio and how “architecture is not an end in itself but rather a process of connecting people, nature, culture, and even the symbolic.” His bold new housing stimulus for the city’s downtown, as well as his plan to use new technology for shifting the paradigm of the favelas, promises positive impact for Rio’s future. Fajardo spoke to how the city of Rio has been growing and how to re-engage the presence of nature and the native Brazilian people’s spiritual connection with nature to the city. Referencing plans of the past—the Agache plan of 1930, LeCorbusier’s 1929 plan for Rio de Janeiro, Doxiadis’ plan in 1960s and the City Plan of 1977— Fajardo is currently addressing the massive transformation of Rio and the city’s downtown. One of the challenges is the downtown’s fragile environment, particularly now during COVID with the closing of so many businesses and the lack of housing. Fajardo described part of his mission as increasing building renovation and housing proposals as well as public space. While land is cheaper outside the city, the expansion of housing there is not only not good for the urban core, nor for the commuting workers but it is not good for nature either, as more of nature is being converted into the built environment.

The plan, REVIVER Centro, is addressing those issues with a focus on transforming the downtown into an engine for urban growth and making the downtown area attractive to people with beautiful public spaces. Fajardo outlined the following strategies:  preserve existing housing and build more residential; develop a strong retrofit stimulus in downtown; improve public services; transform the downtown’s urban reputation as more than just a place to work but also to live; enhance communication and data; ensure a participatory process as these plans progress.

At present, housing downtown is mainly comprised of studios for CEOs, not neighborhoods for families. After having spent a week living in the downtown area, Fajardo saw firsthand many of the challenges: a lack of accessibility to groceries, i.e., having to walk 20 minutes to buy eggs, and learning that women did not feel safe in downtown. While the opportunity exists for transforming commercial space into housing, part of the adaptive reuse challenge would be to ensure quality indoor space for residential use. Another was how to honor the historic nature of many of those buildings so that the cultural fabric of the city was maintained, and that the cultural legacy of Rio’s African and native Brazilians was not lost. Ensuring that the mix of residential included affordable housing was also critical.

As part of the vision for a new master plan and dealing with increased density and the growing need for more green space, the use of rooftops was described not only for public space but for gardens and urban agriculture. 

One cannot have this discussion in earnest without speaking of Rio’s network of favelas. “Why do we know more about the surface of Mars then we do about serving human problems?” Fajardo reflected when discussing his approach to deepening not just that understanding but taking steps to find solutions to these issues. This statement was brought up in the context of the work he is doing with MIT’s Senseable City Lab developing “Favelas 4D” a digital map to analyze and better understand the urban morphology of Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro. The nature of informal settlements such as Rocinha are absent formal city infrastructure and services. MIT utilized LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology to collect data with findings that could assist Fajardo and the City of Rio to develop planning strategies within the favelas and improve their conditions.

The many challenges and opportunities facing Fajardo and Rio, while local, have positive global repercussions not just for the city’s downtown but the approach to informal settlements as they continue to grow around the world.   

BARCELONA

On 6 May 2021, Green Cities took us to Barcelona where we met Josep Bohigas, an architect, and Associate Professor at the Barcelona School of Architecture (ETSAB). Director of the Barcelona regional strategic planning agency since 2016, he was previously co-director of the BOPBAA architecture studio with notable projects including the expansion of the Thyssen Museum in Madrid.

During his energetic “Hola to the World”, Bohigas contextualized the path the City of Barcelona has transverse over the past few decades, and some of the catalytic events that shaped it.  He began with the early years of democracy, 1979 – 80 and the transformation of public space into gathering spaces, something that was not possible under the Franco dictatorship. Post-dictatorship, design and citizenship became integrated dynamics. This led to the rediscovery of the waterfront and its relationship to the city of Barcelona. While the 1992 Summer Olympics was pivotal in the holistic transformation of the city’s infrastructure and landscape, there was a precursor to that transformation. From 1980 – 86 there were small-scale transformations in the squares, streets and parks. From 1986 – 1992 there were large-scale changes at the waterfront, along with residential and sports areas that aligned with the Olympics goals. This continued into 1992 – 2004 at the metropolitan scale, with a continued focus on infrastructure and strategic areas of growth. From Bohigas’ poignant perspective, during this specific phase of growth, Barcelona was up for sale and parts of the soul of the city were lost. While many of the world’s best architects flocked to Barcelona at this time, many of their buildings served neither the citizenship nor the spirit of the city. The identity of many of the places that had once defined the zeitgeist of Barcelona were sacrificed in order to become, as described by Bohigas, “a global city with rankings”.

Which leads to several provocative questions asked by Bohigas: “How does one recycle the city that already exists and what is the city of the future?” Superilla Barcelona, a plan to move the Barcelona superblock to a new phase, thereby becoming the street transformation model for the city, addresses those questions and more.

Superilla Barcelona presents the opportunity to create a healthy, greener, and more equitable city that not only reclaims space for people once occupied by cars, but in doing so creates public space that promotes interconnectivity and contributes positively to a neighborhood’s economy. It is an opportunity to return the narrative of the city to the citizens, with their experience and livability at the center. With some streets being freed of road traffic, networks of green hubs and squares could be developed, making pedestrians the priority as well as relating these experiences to nature and the surrounding rivers and mountains.

PARIS

Marion Waller was the speaker for CSU’s fourth Green Cities program, 3 June 2021. Introduced by Rick Bell, CSU Board Member, and panel moderator, he described Ms. Waller as one of the most articulate, smartest, and committed people he has ever met in municipal government. That’s a powerful statement from someone who has worked for municipal government since John Lindsay was Mayor and for eight Mayors in New York.

As advisor to the Mayor of Paris, Marion oversees architecture, urban landscape, green spaces and funerary monuments. A significant contributor to urban regeneration in the French capital, Waller as the former advisor to the deputy Mayor of Paris oversaw urban planning, innovation, and attractiveness issues. She is an urbanist and philosopher specialized in environmental studies who published her first book Artefacts naturels in 2016.

Waller’s presentation, Reinventing Paris, is an invitation to think about cities as more than just buildings but in the context of their natural assets. While Paris is so special because of the harmony between the river, green spaces, and the buildings, it is also one of the densest cities in the world making it quite complicated when one wants to change the landscape.

One of the projects that demonstrated the political vision and ambition of the mayor was a highway along the Seine that was transformed from a place dedicated to cars into space devoted to pedestrians and bikes. While initially hugely controversial, once people¾not cars¾appropriated the space, it changed public perception and liberated the area to include playgrounds, sports, people walking, skating.

Another aspect of the mayor’s program was to instill in the professional community that public space was as important as construction. This resulted in Reinventing Paris, a competition for innovative urban projects. With construction taking 50% of natural resources and producing 25% of carbon emissions, the building industry was asked to change how things were traditionally designed and built. Twenty-three (23) sites were chosen where professionals could develop their ideas and express their talents. The city challenged themselves as well. Rather than selling the land to the highest bidder, the city developed a different kind of paradigm. Sites would be sold to the best project, not the highest bidder. Further, the city would lower the price of the land if the project exceeded expectations for innovative environmental and social measures. That was a big move by the city and changed their interface with the private sector. The competition was met with great success. They received 372 entries, real projects with big teams.

Fostering innovation in a city which is mostly built; extending the scope of urban commons so that every building, every square meter would be useful; and ensuring that social relevance was integral to every design became some basic tenets highlighted in the competition. At an abandoned railroad station, a new wood-clad and plant-covered tower focused on food production, a food university with urban agriculture on the roof. The use of wood as part of the design was quite new for Paris. “Thousand trees” or “Mille Arbres” became an opportunity to redefine the outskirts of Paris, changing the image of existing parking lot infrastructure from one of constraint to a fully sustainable structure, a lush urban paradise with social housing, offices, community center, etc. Completed projects from the competition were noted: La Ferme du Rail by architect Clara Simay and Edison Lite by architect Manuelle Gautrand. Based upon the competition’s success, the city of Paris developed some new rules: 1) Change the recipe. No longer about concrete but bio-sourced materials; 2) Buildings should create ecosystems; 3) Use what is already there.

In the context of post-pandemic urban planning, Marion Waller discussed tactical urbanism and faster and lighter urban space. New bike lanes were put into place and people adapted quickly as was emblematic on Rue de Rivoli where the street was transformed, with the concept of less noise and less pollution. Reclaiming parking spaces during the pandemic for more space for queues and developing parklets for the survival of cafes and restaurants was also noted. Waller concluded with the necessity for a new urban narrative, where streets are talked about differently and people have priority over cars. A competition that is part of this new narrative, focuses on what you would do with 10 square meters in front of your house. This is complemented by a program with the objective of making schools the capital of each neighborhood, planning the city for children. Rick Bell noted at the end of Waller’s talk, just how much cities learn from each other, referring to New York’s High Line as one such example of what New York learned from Paris.

While all these speakers are from different parts of the globe, what they all share is passion, vision and a “leadership without easy answers,” a phrase so applicable from Ronald A. Heifetz, in his book of that title. All our speakers challenged assumptions and addressed core issues impacting the built environment and the natural world. They spoke not just about what they are doing and why, but how local issues have global implications with far-reaching impacts on their city’s democracy, livability, and equanimity.

CSU’s Green Cities most recent lecture invited Lutske Newton and Stanley Nyanyirai of the City of Tshwane in South Africa on 1 July 2021. The next article, to be published in the Sixth Edition of CSU NEWS, will detail the discussion that focused upon key milestones and successes, and opportunities and barriers to mainstreaming sustainability and climate action in the Tshwane context. It will also report on the upcoming lectures. August will take us to Los Angeles, California in the USA and September to Ljubljana in Slovenia.

By Maxinne Rhea Leighton, PhD. Associate AIA

About the author: Dr. Maxinne Rhea Leighton’s leadership in engineering and architecture ranges from professional services marketing, communications and business development to climate advocacy and the nexus between race, socioeconomics, environmental justice and design. Dr Leighton is Director of Marketing, Communications and Business Development with the global engineering firm Jaros, Baum & Bolles, Vice President of WIIS-NY, Advisory Council Member for the Save Ellis Island Foundation and a member of CSU Advisory Board.