2021 CSU Green Cities Lecture Series: Bridging the Global and Local Perspectives

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By Maxinne Rhea Leighton, PhD. Associate AIA

Katharine Hayhoe in her extraordinary book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case For Hope and Healing In a Divided World, she eloquently writes about how to talk about the issues of climate change in a manner that can lead to collective action even in the most polarized of situations. CSU’s role to connect the global thought leaders concerned with sustainable urbanization and resilient design in a platform of shared ideas is an exemplar of the kind of inspirational dialogue and action that Hayhoe writes about.

While there is a degree of polarization that leaders and change makers face in developing ideas and dialogue in any city, the work of each of these speakers from Tshwane, South Africa; Los Angeles, California; Ljubljana, Slovenia; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Chicago, Illinois and Singapore are roadmaps of successes, challenges, opportunities of climate action.

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 Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization (CSU) events 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 Rick Bell under the mantel of CSU President Lance Jay Brown, FAIA who also hosted and moderated the Singapore session.

City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality, South Africa

CSU’s Green Cities invited Lutske Newton of the City Sustainability Unit and Stanley Nyanyirai, City Strategies and Organisational Performance from the City of Tshwane in South Africa. Their talk focused on the Tshwane Climate Action Roadmap as a Foundation for the City’s New Buildings Programme. 

Mainstreaming sustainability and climate action is the foundation for the new buildings programme. The third largest land mass municipality in the world, Lutske spoke about four pillars that are foundational for building a climate resilient and responsive city: Institutional Measures; Policy Measures; Research and Management Measures; Demonstration Projects and Advocacy. Climate action planning and strategy works in direct correlation with Climate Diplomacy.

Tshwane’s investment to establish the City Sustainability Unit, resulted in getting climate action main streamed into the municipality. A critical step for a climate action plan developed closely with C40 at the governmental level. Enduring political commitment and leadership was critical to their success. Even as governmental leadership changed the integrity of their work prevailed.

Tshwane is the first municipality in South Africa to develop Climate Risk Zones – social, environmental, economic and climate hazard vulnerabilities. The objective of the program under this plan is to transition to carbon neutral, efficient and climate resilient buildings and public facilities. This is in addition to developing an energy smart, and secure city with access to clean, efficient, and affordable energy for all.  

Stanley Nyanyirai addressed his focus of moving South Africa’s New Buildings Programme Towards Net Zero Carbon. As part of a C40 Cities pilot project, Nyanyirai spoke about the strength of global leadership coming from the Paris Agreement and the Paris Compliant Action Plan.  

There are many national goals now supporting net zero carbon which are performance based, supported and aligned with regulation; technically do-able and practically implementable, economically viable and inclusive. The development of policy and by-law development process developed best practices, policies along with stakeholder engagement and public participation prior to council approval for adoption of this new building program. The city of Tshwane and their implementation plan development is well underway. 

Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.

Los Angeles is a city with its own challenges and complex landscapes.  Adam Light, AICP-CUD is the Senior Director of Los Angeles’ Metro Systemwide Design for Los Angeles directs a team of planning and urban design professionals responsible for rail station design and urban design best practices implementation. 

As Los Angeles urbanizes from a more suburban to more urban development and moves more toward transit from cars, Light spoke about Los Angeles Metro’s new systemwide design standards as a means of support for sustainable urbanism as part of a larger group called Transit Oriented Communities. 

The Metro Vision 2028 Strategic Plan highlights five goals: Goal 1: provide high-quality mobility options that enable people to spend less time traveling; Goal 2: deliver outstanding trip experiences for all users of the transportation system; Goal 3: enhance communities and lives through mobility and access to opportunity; Goal 4, transform Los Angeles County through regional collaboration and national leadership; Goal 5, provide responsive, accountable, and trustworthy governance within the Metro organization. 

To date, there are 50-60 new stations under construction or design applying kit-of-parts design element and materials. With a focus on design excellence informed by lessons learned from global best practices, the objective is to develop designs that are reflective of Los Angeles: light, air openness; exposure to warm, sunny climate and a focus on health, well-being, and optimism. Design principles of safe, smart, clean, and green further expands upon these design objectives. Art programs tie you to the community while landscaping elements reflect the different microclimates you have in Los Angeles. The new Crenshaw/LAX Line is particularly notable. As a New Yorker, and mass transit rider, I experienced urban envy as I imagined traveling on one of these new innovative and sustainable subway lines. The creation of Transit Oriented Communities, many of which contain affordable housing, have a plethora of open space as well as accessibility that connects to the transit system as well as sustainable landscape features and high-performance materials. 

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana, Slovenia, focuses on challenges of a climate neutral transition in the European Union and the development of Ljubljana to become green and resilient. Approximately 3/4 of the City’s territory is green area, with urban forests covering 46% of the city, and reaching to the city center. There is 560 square meters of green area per inhabitant with accessibility to nature enhanced by green corridors and urban gardening. Transformations in mobility have been achieved through radical increases in public transit routes, use of electric vehicles and bicycle ways. 

Ana Struna Bregar, the Executive Director of CER Sustainable Business Network Slovenia and co-founder and former director of the largest Slovene architectural festival and platform, Open House of Slovenia and Miran Gajsek addressed this groundbreaking work. Gajsek, since 2005, has been the head of the Department for Urban Planning of the City of Ljubljana and since 2000, been the representative of Slovenia at the European Council of Spatial Planners (ECTP-CEU).

Bregar began her presentation “A Changing Climate for The Cities & The Business: Accelerating Green Growth in Green Cities”, addressed her own carbon footprint to focus on carbon neutrality. CER, Center for Energy Efficient Solutions, is a sustainable building network, with 80 partners. Working with international partners and closely with Cambridge University, CER received NGO status which gives them a special position in the ministry to advocate changes. At the intersection of different sectors their focus with various policy makers and decision makers is on advocacy (carbon and climate neutrality); capacity building with educational programs and networking and getting new partnerships. Engaged with delegations with other countries to learn about other green technologies they are developing a certificate for climate action in business along with ESG criteria to measure their goals and actions. 

Bregar acknowledged that moving to net zero emissions is inevitable. Cities have a unique opportunity to create innovative low carbon emission pathways and contribute to long-term sustainable growth.

Reminding us of that climate neutrality 2050 is just 28 years away, Bregar spoke about their “Ambition Loop” developed to set clear targets for both Government Climate Policy and Business Climate Action. Incentives are set that will motivate these groups to make these changes. 

In the context of the European Green Deal’s is focus on climate and energy, and for the EU to reduce its net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels there is a motivation to turn cities into innovation hubs, benefiting quality of life and sustainability in Europe.

Miran Gajsek expanded the conversation about Urban Development in Ljubljana by underscoring the importance of strong leadership with one Mayor, committed to this work for 14 years.  In a country of 2 million inhabitants, 20,000 Square kilometers, Ljubljana won the European Green Capitol competition in 2016. 

Gajsek in addressing Ljubljana Vision 2025 spoke about the15-minute city – no matter where you live you are in 15 minutes of the green part of the city. It is a polycentric city. Not everything is in the city center. Green wedges are very important so that the land use plan protects green space. Urban gardening is very important for the city as much as the business zones. There are more planned pedestrian zones developed in the past 5 years then in last 15 years, which adds value to the city. Especially now post COVID the planning and programming for the future is extremely important and demonstratable for their citizens. 

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

Ray Gaskill, Director Remaking Cities Institute – David Lewis/Heinz Endowments Director of Urban Design and Regional Engagement, Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture discussed Pittsburgh’s approach to being a city that is increasingly more resilient, sustainable, and equitable. He further expanded upon Pittsburgh’s transformative initiatives that include the P4 metrics for sustainable development, the OnePGH resilience strategy that follows the P4 values of People, Place, Planet and Performance developed in 2015. Gaskill expanded upon the ideas for the revitalization of community neighborhood planning, including adapting the Eco District approach, the coordination of complete street design vision and implementation, affordable housing, riverfront planning, new and reinvented public spaces, and adaptive preservation. He also spoke to Pittsburgh’s capacity to remake its economy and built form cognizant of, yet going beyond, its industrial legacy. 

Pittsburgh was working on innovation as part of its economic identity for the past 35 years. 1986 National Robotics Engineering Center was the beginning of that with the collapse of the steel industry: transformation of a steel plant in 1980s to a technology center and becoming one of the main testing sites for autonomous vehicles. These efforts were the building blocks to the next steps for a more sustainable city. 

With the City of Pittsburgh Smart Spine System was foundational to developing an inclusive innovation approach Eco-innovation district models which in addition to transportation were critical to neighborhood plans. The city looked at the riverfront, affordable housing including inclusionary zoning as well as a resilience plan as part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities. The Pittsburgh 2030 district is the largest 2030 business districts in the country. Sustainable development goals took the UN goals and overlaid it in the planning process. They worked with CCNY on a model that looked at equity indicators and developed an analysis of the most obvious gaps and set up a system where every two years they would report out on how those metrics are being met. People – Place- Planet – Performance – continued as the values metric for development.  In designing for the future, the focus is on an urban mix of health and opportunity including an urban wilderness park. 

Gaskills’s Remaking Cities Institute is going strong conducting regional, national, and international research in urban design including the impacts and opportunities of changing mobility, changing work, resilient regional communities, engagement, and citizen participation planning processes, and sustainable development. 

Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.

The City of Chicago envisions a green recovery that strengthens local communities, provides critical relief for residents, and improves overall livability. Angela Tovar, Chief Sustainability Officer for the City of Chicago, discussed how the Lightfoot administration is advancing strategies that position Chicago to achieve its 2025 and 2035 clean energy targets and reduce reliance on fossil fuels while delivering equitable co-benefits to residents and businesses. 

Tovar focused upon what has been foundational to her vision and to her career, a just and equitable climate future for our cities, communities, and residents. Referencing the global pandemic, she addressed deep and systemic racial inequities, the downturn of many economic sectors, compounding impacts of the climate crises, the need toward a more visionary agenda to achieve climate goals that have hyper-local benefits for communities. The four pillars that drive Chicago’s sustainability vision are: 1) address profound environmental challenges; 2) uphold and deepen climate commitments; 3) center equity and environmental justice; 4) generate economic benefits for local communities. The urgency of reducing greenhouse gas goals is critical but must also be looked at through the equity lens of other environmental challenges and public health issues communities maybe dealing with historically. 

Chicago’s first climate action plan was 2008. It committed to an 80% reduction by 2050 for their 1990 levels. That work was updated in 2015 to align with Paris Climate Agreement and 2017 100% renewable energy transition by 2025 for their municipal buildings and clean energy transition citywide 100% by 2035. Tovar explained that this new administration wants to uphold those goals but also to expand upon them. To that end, they are practicing equity in all their work and using an equity lens and driving economic benefits so that neighborhoods are well-served along with workforce development and leadership opportunities. She reminded us of equity being both an outcome and a process. (Center for Social Inclusion: Outcome and Process). 

The Mayor’s Green Recovery Agenda includes a series of strategies to build resilient and equitable communities: air quality reform; building decarbonization; water equity; utility franchise; comprehensive waste study; renewable energy transition; low carbon mobility and climate planning. With the built environment in Chicago accounting for approximately 70% of city emissions, by advancing a zero net carbon buildings strategy it could not only lower economic burdens on residents and businesses but reduce energy insecurity for communities of color in addition to utilizing an equity lens to assess the costs and burdens of these strategies. Tovar underscored that some of the exciting things about decarbonization is there are opportunities now to make this happen with energy efficiency, renewable energy and building electrification as well as pilot new technologies. Chicago’s decarbonization policy working group includes 51 members, with a diverse set of expertise and perspectives with the common goal of developing solutions for everyone. 

Singapore

The last stop on our global tour of 2021, was Singapore with Yong Kai Saw, First Secretary, Singapore Permanent Mission to the United Nations as our speaker.  Saw oversees the environmental and sustainable development issues for Singapore at the UN.  

Sustainability has been a part of Singapore’s DNA even before sustainable development was in the more expanded nomenclature. Singapore pursed sustainable development by balancing economic growth with protecting the environment. A small island-city state with no natural resources and limited land area, their challenges and constraints were further underscored during COVID-19, as supply chains were disrupted, travel restricted, and life altered. Even in the context of these challenges, the city maintained the belief that sustainable development is about future proofing itself and building resilience against crises and shocks. 

Singapore plans for the generations to come. Long-term thinking is critical given their constraints: cost, land, manpower, resources, and the amount of carbon emissions/carbon footprint. How they can be more sustainable in housing, transportation, food, power, and industry are some of the questions they ask themselves in the planning process. Sustainability is based on the premise of being leaner (doing more with less – using resources more sustainability; closing the water loop; desalinization; closing the waste loop; industrial symbiosis); stronger (building resilience – climate mitigation; climate adaptation; climate negotiations; enhancing food security; ensuring a clean, affordable, and reliable energy future); kinder (co-creating and c-delivering sustainable solutions; bridging the digital divide; enhancing social services).

The launch of the Singapore Green Plan 2030 earlier in 2021, provides a whole-of-nation approach to sustainable development and charts ambitious concrete targets over the next decade. Singapore will plant one million more trees, now that’s a city after my own heart, quadruple solar energy deployments, and produce 30% of their nutritional needs locally. 

As part of global efforts to build collective resilience, Singapore also co-facilitated Ministerial negotiations on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement on carbon markets and is committed to working with other countries in new areas such as green finance and clean energy solutions. 

Key takeaways from Saw are that: cities are home to more than 50% of the world’s population and that by 2050, there will be 2.5 billion new urban dwellers; carbon will increasingly be a constraint; resilience is about future proofing ourselves against external shocks; leaner, stronger, kinder and sustainability will need to be a way of life. 

Summation

As we read about these cities across the US and around the globe, the commitment to sustainability is addressed as part of a respect for life, community, collective vision, advocacy. Conversations engage with diverse and at times polarizing perspectives. Equity, compassion and in the words of Young Kai Saw, kindness are not “soft skills” but rather patterns of behavior that are integral to developing a truly more sustainable city.

In the past few weeks, since completing this writing, there was a new report released from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, on global and regional sea level rise scenarios for the United States. The United Nations Environment Programme and GRID-Arendal issued a report with an urgent call to governments to rethink their approach to extreme wildfires. 

Amidst all these warnings and further dire predictions is the war in the Ukraine.  I imagine the earth, a mother herself, standing with the people and the nation of the Ukraine, crying for their children as well as her own – the water, air, trees, and the land itself. 

Sustainability is a complex issue but to truly move this effort forward, our humanity must remain non-negotiable. It is, in the words of author Vandana Shiva, “Earth Democracy.” 

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 environmental justice and design. Dr Leighton is Director of Marketing, Communications and Business Development with the global engineering firm Jaros, Baum & Bolles, President of WIIS-NY, Advisory Council Member for the Save Ellis Island Foundation, and a member of CSU Advisory Board.