The above-featured image is for illustration and is credit to Times of Malta.
Sustainable transformation of our urban open spaces
Access to nature and environments that provide a sense of refuge or relaxation are being sought.
By Sarah Scheiber
13 August 2023
Photo: Dawra Madwarna/Sarah Scheiber
Climate change, global warming and the exhaustion of fossil fuels have raised the sustainability agenda’s importance. In relation to urban design, sustainability refers to ways in which a city, community or development can meet economic, environmental, social and cultural needs.
Sustainability is not just about energy or resource efficiency but also about responding to community needs, that means, designing for people.
Open spaces are a central component of the urban landscape and, due to the impacts of climate change and demographic trends, are likely to become more, rather than less, important. How can we implement sustainability, and what does it mean in tangible terms when considering the planning and design of urban open spaces?
Numerous studies have shown that green open spaces in urban areas potentially provide several benefits concerning the three dimensions of sustainable development. These are social, environmental and economic aspects that should be considered in an integrated way. To achieve these benefits, various planning and design principles must be considered. Research on the planning and design of urban open spaces in Malta has shown that five principles require attention.
The first is creating recreational areas within urban areas. Recreational areas must be accessible to all – including those who do not drive. The closer we live to green open spaces, the more viable walking and using public transport is.
Research on the planning and design of urban open spaces in Malta has shown that five principles require attention
The second principle is thinking about a network and ensuring connectivity – improving street design for walking and cycling, and providing a network of high-quality public spaces facilitating public transport use. This can reduce many short car trips, making urban areas more accessible and attractive.
The third principle investigates maximising the presence of vegetation and its potential for multifunctionality. Integrating and increasing vegetation within urban open spaces improves air quality, creating comfortable microclimates and mitigating climate change impacts such as extreme flooding.
Local surveys have shown that access to nature and environments that provide a sense of refuge or relaxation are being sought in urban areas.
The fourth principle ensures socially inclusive processes and culturally responsive proposals. Engaging with local communities to respond to cultural preferences and create a sense of ownership for public spaces is essential for successful transformations.
The final principle calls for good governance: Creating a governance structure that ‘champions’ and drives the implementation of community participatory methodologies and cross-sectoral collaborations is an integral component.
Research has shown potential solutions to reclaim urban open spaces. All it takes is some re-thinking and being open to implementing innovative solutions.
Sarah Scheiber is an urban designer, spatial planner and a lecturer.
Vegetation in urban areas improves air quality. Leaf surfaces absorb nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide, while particulate matter deposited on leaves is absorbed into the ground as they fall or are washed by rain. Urban canyons (high densities/tall buildings) create concentrated pollution. Research shows that increased planting (green roofs, trees, etc) increases deposition of nitrogen oxides and particulates.
Active lifestyles are essential for physical health. Neighbourhood parks are typically too small to support aerobic activity such as walking or jogging required for adults. Neighbourhood walkability is thus crucial for supporting daily physical activity. One study showed that walkable green spaces, including tree-lined streets, in urban residential areas increased longevity for the elderly. Additionally, access to nature reduces stress and improves general well-being.
Global Sustainability Pathways Unveiled in Expert Survey
University of Eastern Finland
The majority of sustainable development researchers believe that in affluent countries, it is necessary to look beyond economic growth to achieve sustainable development, a recent study from the University of Eastern Finland suggests. The study, published in the scientific journal Ecological Economics, investigated the preferred future paths for countries at different income levels among 461 sustainability scholars. The survey results shed light on the strategic choices necessary for achieving global sustainability. The study focused on green growth and post-growth economic strategies. The green growth strategy aims to enhance both societal and environmental well-being as the economy grows. On the other hand, post-growth paths question this approach and advocate for a shift beyond growth, focusing on environmental and societal well-being instead of economic growth.
“This research reveals that an overwhelming majority of sustainability scholars, over 75 percent, support post-growth pathways for affluent countries already this decade. For less affluent countries, the majority of scholars favoured either green growth or post-growth pathways,” says Postdoctoral Researcher Teemu Koskimäki from the University of Eastern Finland, who conducted the study.Different paths are needed in countries with different income levels.In the study, scholars were asked to choose which pathways should be pursued in different country income groups in the 2020s and 2030s in order to achieve sustainable development globally. A comparison of the responses revealed that support for post-growth paths increased over time, while support for green growth declined in all contexts. Koskimäki emphasizes that the research results challenge the prevailing green growth-focused approach.“Currently, global Sustainable Development Goals are based on green growth. However, researchers emphasize the urgent need to consider post-growth strategies, particularly in affluent countries.”Koskimäki stresses the critical importance of understanding the views of sustainability scholars on suitable paths for countries of different income levels.
“Policy-makers at various levels and sectors may rely on these experts as they implement the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”
Although sustainability scholars favour post-growth paths, the study shows they are not as familiar with this approach as they are with green growth.
“In my study, I address the challenges that this gap in knowledge and skills can create for achieving global sustainability,” Koskimäki says.
GDP is an insufficient measure of societal well-being
The study also found that most sustainability scholars who responded to the survey consider Gross Domestic Product, GDP, to be an inadequate measure of societal well-being.
“This underscores the need for a broader discussion of progress indicators, especially for wealthier countries, where the costs of continued consumption growth exceed its benefits,” says Koskimäki.
Based on the study’s conclusions, research, education, and policymaking should pay attention to targeted transformative change, with a particular focus on facilitating post-growth strategies in the wealthiest countries.
The study offers critical perspectives on the equitable and efficient implementation of various sustainability strategies and underscores the need for targeted approaches that take economic disparities between countries into account. According to Koskimäki, this recognition could facilitate the equitable and efficient achievement of sustainability, both locally and globally.
“The study reveals a potential contradiction between those sustainability paths addressed in sustainability reports and by political decision-makers and those favored by scholars. A broader, more inclusive conversation is needed to ensure that we are targeting the right transformations and implementing them in a controlled manner,” Koskimäki concludes.
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Universities must take “heroic action” to address the sustainability crisis after helping to lay its foundations by failing to take action sooner, Arizona State University president Michael Crow has claimed.
He said the sustainability emergency – which the GSDC is meeting to discuss urgent solutions for – was caused by the relationship between the built environment and the natural systems on which we are dependent.
Professor Crow told delegates at the event in Saudi Arabia that sustainability was “critical to our success as a species”.
“We in academia have contributed mightily to the designed environment, and hold much of the responsibility for the lack of sustainability of that built environment and its increasing disruption of the natural environment,” he said.
Professor Crow warned that the world was entering an “unbelievably challenging moment where everything is accelerating”, and that there were many things higher education could have done already but had not.
The sector’s inability to be “more conscious of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it” helped lay the foundations for the sustainability crisis today, he said.
“A lot of groups have been responsible for our lack of sustainability, but at the heart of all of them has been the academy, [and] the universities,” he added.
“It’s time for universities to really step up for heroic action in the way that universities did around some other issues in the past.
“It’s time for new types of knowledge to be produced, new ways of thinking.”
He called for universities to broaden the way they organised themselves because working in isolation would “not get us there quickly enough”.
The summit, held in the Middle East for the first time, is aiming to challenge the usual thinking on what higher education, with the support of governments, businesses and society, must do to help society meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
“It’s time for us to mount up, to begin working together, to begin aligning together, to begin working across institutions and across the world to take on this notion of global sustainable development,” added Professor Crow.
Also speaking at the summit, Tony Chan, president of KAUST, said the world was in a state of crisis that imperiled all of humanity, and universities across the globe should act with resolve.
“Our required response to the present crisis must be of a scale and sense of urgency akin to how we must respond to major world wars,” he said.
“Our universities must cease to be exemplars of unsustainable practices and we must become the transformative enablers of sustainability for others.”
Those outside higher education took their cue not just from what universities preached, but from what they practised, said Dr Chan.
“If academics are serious about tackling sustainability challenges, we can’t wait for the cavalry to show up,” he said. “We are the cavalry.”
We Expect A Lot From Our Buildings — How Do International Codes Assure Sustainability?
Today, society faces 3 major challenges in the built environment: ensuring building safety, improving sustainability, and addressing our affordable housing crisis.
May is Building Safety Month. Up-to-date international codes can make communities more equipped to endure increasingly frequent and severe weather events, improve sustainability, and address the affordable housing crisis. This year, innovation and collaboration are evolving due to the increasing frequency and severity of global weather events. All communities need building codes to protect their citizens from disasters like fires, weather-related events, and structural collapse.
It seemed to make sense to learn more about how modern and innovative international building codes address these imperatives, how code officials work day in and day out to keep the public safe, and how the International Code Council is enabling the flow of innovative policies and practices around the world to improve the built environment.
Q: Thanks for making yourself available to answer some questions. For those unfamiliar with the International Code Council, why is it in existence, and what effect has it had on cities and towns across the globe?
Dominic Sims, CEO of the International Code Council, Photo provided by International Code Council
The International Code Council was established in 1994 as a non-profit organization dedicated to developing a single set of comprehensive and coordinated model building codes. The mission of the Code Council is to steward the development process for model codes that benefit public safety and support the industry’s need for one set of codes without regional limitations. We are a member-focused association with members from across building industries who come together to participate in our democratic and transparent process to develop the most widely used set of building safety codes and standards in the world – the International Codes® (I-Codes®).
Our technical staff works closely with legislators and code officials to help jurisdictions implement the most appropriate set of codes for their specific regions.
Q: I’m struck by the call for reciprocity toward improving sustainability and addressing the affordable housing crisis. These 2 objectives seem not to be related. Might you offer some insights into their symbiosis?
We expect a lot of our buildings. They are complex systems that have broad ranging impacts on our lives and communities. They protect us from hazards, influence our health, and impact our environment. Finding the balance across all these expectations while maintaining affordability is challenging, but the Code Council and governments must navigate these complexities.
Housing affordability is particularly important for low and moderate income households. These households are often the hardest hit by disasters — many of which are exacerbated by climate change — and lack the resources for post-disaster recovery. At the same time, they spend a disproportionate amount of their income on utility bills — in some places 3 times as much as the average household. When we talk about housing affordability, it’s not just whether we can get someone in a house but whether they can afford to stay there.
The International Code Council is currently the only code development organization that actively considers cost as an element of the code development process. Through the code development, process stakeholders from across the building industry come together to identify the best practices for safety and sustainability while ensuring the resulting buildings remain affordable and accessible to broad populations. Naturally, individual communities have their own perspectives on priorities for their building stock. The Code Council provides communities with tools to achieve those priorities from model codes that capture the current consensus to stretch codes that can assist communities in going beyond minimum-level requirements.
Q: May is Building Safety Month. What should our readers know about the need to adopt modern, regularly-updated building codes?
Today, society faces 3 major challenges in the built environment: ensuring building safety, improving sustainability, and addressing our affordable housing crisis. Modern and innovative international codes are society’s first line of defense to address these imperatives. One of the most cost-effective ways to safeguard communities against natural disasters is to build using hazard-resistant building codes.
FEMA studies show that every dollar invested in the adoption of modern building codes provides 11 times more in savings by reducing casualties, lowering the cost of building damage and helping communities get back on their feet faster by minimizing indirect costs such as business interruptions and lost income. We want to emphasize to all communities the importance of adopting modern building codes and stress the critical importance of continued inspection and enforcement to keep buildings and their occupants safe and healthy. We also encourage local governments to fund their building departments to support the needed level of maintenance inspections.
The formula for success in implementing and supporting modern building codes and inspections is simple: staff, train, and finance.
Q: How is the building industry working to increase water efficiency through innovative practices and technologies — not just domestically but worldwide?
Logo provided by ICC
Innovation and collaboration must evolve due to global weather events’ increasing frequency and severity. There are many examples of countries in water-scarce areas that are innovating to increase water efficiency. Those involved in the code development process can draw best practices from the following examples across the globe:
Israel is leading the world through its policies, practices, and technologies for its water resources and conservation, most notably through reclaiming over 80% of its wastewater and stormwater for agricultural operation.
Saudi Arabia boasts the highest production of desalinated water worldwide (the country removes salt out of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf) and is in the process of converting its desalination plants to solar.
Cape Town, South Africa is incorporating automated domestic water metering installations to set a target water usage for each resident per day, leveraging alternative water sources, and updating their supply network infrastructure.
The United Kingdom is cutting water use through water metering, incentives for water-saving technologies, hosepipe bans, and investing in updating the country’s water supply equipment.
The North China Plain has addressed increasing agricultural demands on water through increased monitoring, institutionalized water conservation practices, ground leveling, and more efficient drainage and irrigation sprinklers.
Q: How does Building Safety Month address some of the issues that we face as a global community, including extreme weather events and water scarcity?
Clean water is the world’s most precious commodity, and public health depends on safe and readily available water. The World Health Organization estimates over two billion people live in water-stressed countries, which is expected to worsen in some regions due to a changing climate and population growth. Water conservation and efficiency issues have become crucial conversations amongst building safety professionals in recent years. Building Safety Month raises awareness about these issues by reinforcing the need to adopt modern, regularly-updated building codes, and helps individuals, families, and businesses understand what it takes to create safe and sustainable structures.
Q: What additional details or insights might you provide on how we can institute these best practices in the US?
There is currently no national standard on maintenance and inspection. Individual states follow their own enforcement procedures to seek out, modify, adopt and enforce their own building codes and standards. Currently adopted codes, which local jurisdictions can, and do, modify on a case-by-case basis, may or may not include provisions for building re-inspections and maintenance requirements. The International Property Maintenance Code® (IPMC®) established minimum requirements for the maintenance of existing buildings through model code regulations that contain clear and specific maintenance and property improvement provisions. The latest edition is fully compatible with the International Building Code® (IBC®).
Every jurisdiction needs to understand what their specific regional needs are so that their building, maintenance, and re-inspections codes have appropriately specific provisions for the natural, environmental, and emergency conditions more prevalent in their area (e.g., Florida hurricanes, Kansas tornadoes, California earthquakes and wildfires).
Ensuring responsible consumption and production patterns – as outlined in the UN Sustainable Development Goal 12 – requires minimizing environmental impacts, enhancing resource efficiency and reducing waste.
In this regard, experts point out that competition and consumer protection policies are uniquely placed to help.
“Competition and consumer protection policies are conducive to improving the efficiency and fairness of markets and are therefore well placed to serve public policy goals,” said Teresa Moreira, head of competition and consumer policies at UNCTAD, while opening a high-level session of the UN Trade Forum 2023 on 9 May.
The meeting gathered experts from academia, international organizations as well as government agencies from Austria, Cabo Verde, Greece, Kenya, Russia and South Africa.
Their conversations revolved around a new UNCTAD report, which examines connections among sustainability, consumer protection and competition policies.
They also discussed success stories and potential opportunities where such policies can enable markets to work better for sustainable development.
Addressing challenges to public-private partnerships
Long-term cooperation between governments and businesses, also known as public-private partnerships (PPPs), can help advance sustainability, as evidenced by Kenya’s experience.
Kenya, home to over 50 million people, generates about 22,000 metric tons of waste per day, around 60% of which is recyclable – according to Ninette K. Mwarania, who works on planning, policy and research for the country’s competition authority.
To bolster the circular economy, Kenya is drawing on PPPs to mobilize much-needed private funding for sustainable waste management, which is capital-intensive.
The country also uses PPPs to help connect remote villages to the power grid, expanding electricity coverage while reducing the use of CO2-emitting kerosene lamps.
But such partnerships pose competition challenges too, often foreclosing smaller businesses. Given the long-term nature and amount of investment required to participate in these agreements, only a few private-sector players are eligible.
“Competition regulators need to optimally interpret competition law and policy to accommodate such agreements,” Ms Mwarania said.
Competition guidance to keep up
When sustainability and competition conflict, experts call for clearer guidance on what is permitted under competition law.
Doing so entails identifying sustainability benefits that can lead to efficiency gains – for all citizens rather than individual consumers – to offset anticompetitive effects.
For example, in Austria, draft guidelines recognize biodiversity as an efficiency gain.
“As companies need certainty for their actions, we published guidelines for sustainability agreements in 2022,” said Natalie Harsdorf-Borsch, director-general of the Austrian federal competition authority.
“On this basis, companies can assess whether their cooperation is in line with Austrian competition law.”
Consumer education remains vital
According to UNCTAD’s world consumer protection map, consumer education initiatives related to sustainable consumption cover only 37 out of 104 countries where information is available.
For consumers to make sustainable choices, they need accurate and reliable information about what they buy from markets.
“By ensuring that consumers are well-informed on the impact of their choices and that their rights are protected, we can create a marketplace that incentivizes companies to prioritize sustainability, benefiting both consumers and our planet,” said Jorge Laguna-Celis, who leads the One Planet Network, hosted by the UN Environment Programme.
Policies to forge collective efforts
Fostering sustainable consumerism is a shared responsibility among all market actors, including governments, businesses, consumers and relevant civil society organizations.
They can enact sectoral policies concerning land use, transport, energy and housing, remove subsidies that contribute to unsustainable patterns and promote sector-specific best practices in environmental management.
Besides, governments should guide businesses in sustainably designing, producing and distributing goods and services.
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