Scaling up Systems to Make Cities More Sustainable

At the Innovative Metropolis conference organized by the Brookings Institution and Washington University in St. Louis, cutting-edge designers and policymakers explained how some cities can use a systems-based approach to become more sustainable. Gordon Gill, principal, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture; Johanna Kirkinen, SITRA – Finnish Innovation Fund; Fabio Mariz Gonclaves, Professor of Landscape and Urban Design, University of Sao Paulo; and Erik Olssen, Transsolar, covered how this can work in Chicago, USA; Helsinki, Finland; Sao Paulo, Brazil; and Masdar, United Arab Emirates.

Gordon Gill, an architect, is pretty famous now in urban design circles for his ambitious decarbonization plan for Chicago. The plan was inspired by Ed Mazria’s Architecture 2030 effort, which calls for buildings to be carbon neutral by that date. But it turns out the bold plan, which covers the entire Chicago loop, also had small beginnings. He and his firm were working on making a building in the loop more energy efficient. They discovered that a redesign could yield some 60 MW of energy savings per year. But the question became, “What is that saving worth?” How could the benefits be tapped? Gill found that scaling up savings into an entire “ecosystem,” so that buildings could leverage each other’s savings, was the way to go.

He assembled a group of 25 designers who surveyed the energy use and performance of all the 450 big buildings in the loop. Buildings went through thermal energy readings. “We looked at all the details.” A 280-page document was created with the Chicago city government (for which Gill also won an ASLA Professional Analysis and Planning Design Award) that found that “there are no linear patterns for a building’s energy behavior. The interconnectedness of the buildings were more critical than the age or height or other characteristic of a building.” Transit, building use, walkability — the broader human systems running through the buildings — had much more impact. For example, “if we increase density by 50 percent, we could reduce energy use by 20 percent.”


Gill added that it’s not just about engineering solutions, it’s also about improving the quality of life for the people living and working in these buildings. “We could just build a wind farm and take the loop off the grid, but that doesn’t deal with the design challenges.”

Surprisingly, Helsinki doesn’t sound like it’s way far ahead of some of the most forward-thinking U.S. cities. Kirkinen said Finlanders have about the same carbon footprint as Americans given they drive a lot and use a lot of energy to heat buildings in winter. Her group, an independent sustainability research and innovation fund set up by the government (why doesn’t the U.S. have one of those?), is interested in pushing Finland beyond “energy efficiency to resource efficiency.” Sustainable well-being is defined as meeting “social, economic, and ecological” needs. Finland is taking a “systems-approach” to group energy efficient buildings into communities.

Her group is financing new approaches to “sustainable master planning that create sustainable lifestyles.” These communities would use 1/3 less energy. An international competition yielded some new ideas for these places that would capitalize on the country’s untapped wood resources. The result: new energy efficient buildings will now be made of local wood in a few pilot districts, with 7,000 wood apartments coming online. “We of course had to change the fire codes,” noted Kirkinen.

These communities of apartments will also incorporate solar power and community activities like urban farming and flea markets. Kirkinen said, “we have to take a comprehensive approach and deal with food, community, energy, and health together.”

Unlike Chicago or Helsinki, Sao Paulo has the hard problems facing many large developing world cities. “We have troubles with ecology, biodiversity, in an era of untrammeled growth,” said Gonclaves, a landscape architect and educator. He’s focused on what public universities can do to address these challenges — creating a human system or network to find new ways to do more environmentally-sensitive growth. Sao Paulo, as was discussed in a previous session, is sprawling out, with new rich gated communities or poor favelas or slums taking over parks and building right up to the edge of its water reservoirs. Incredible traffic is one result. So is incredible inequality.

Gonclaves said there are hundreds of universities offering architecture degrees in Brazil, but just one — the University of Sao Paulo — offering landscape architecture and urban design degrees. As a result, “Brazilians can’t talk deeply about ecology and landscape.” To remedy this, Gonclaves said his university has formed a network of landscape and urban design professionals across Sao Paulo and other cities in Brazil. He says his university is the only one doing this.

Sao Paulo is the currently the 4th greatest recipient of investment worldwide. “So many people are putting money in the city.” On top of all this investment, there are tons of new cars, which means more roads are being built. The result is a complete degradation of the stormwater management infrastructure. Remaining parks now close often because of flooding.

On top of this, many landscape architects working in Brazil are focusing on “closed, gated communities,” where there’s design work. “Design magazines all highlight the landscapes and buildings of gated communities.”


Gonclaves has set up 30 workshops, with the goal of creating “local solutions” in Sao Paulo and other cities. This is because “cities have very different issues.” He’s involving both private and public universities in the mix. To date, “private universities have been focused on selling diplomas and no research.” In contrast, “public universities are doing research but don’t want to deal with real estate.” He said “both approaches are wrong. We have to reconcile and produce good professionals who address public policy issues.”

While the designers mentioned above seek to overlay more environmentally sustainable systems on existing cities, there’s one that was designed from scratch using a systems-based approach: Sir Norman Foster’s Masdar in United Arab Emirates. The city, said Olssen, is designed to be a “carbon neutral, livable community out in the desert.” Interestingly, Olssen added that Masdar uses ancient Arabic city-making techniques but just updates them with modern technologies.

To create a livable environment, streets were purposefully kept narrow to keep sunlight off streets, like an old bazaar. Because the wind tops 100 degrees in the shade, wind was also designed to be kept out during the day, but maximized at night, when it’s cooler.

Masdar, interestingly, has a “reverse urban heat island effect”; it’s actually cooler in the city than the desert outside of it. The entire city will use 80 percent less energy than a comparable community in Abu Dhabi. Solar systems are embedded into all the buildings, while external shading systems are built into the external walls.

This is “district energy at all scales plus photovaltaic,” said Olssen. Now, the goal is to “apply the lessons of Masdar to other cities.” Already, Oman, Boston, Toronto, Dallas, are looking at how to use Transsolar’s systems in a “whole block or community.” Systems are configured based on “access to wind, solar, daylight, and the unique urban form.”

Image credits: (1-2) Chicago Decarbonization Plan / Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, (3) Pilot wooden buildings / SITRA, (3) Housing in a ravine. Sao Paulo / Urban Omnibus, (4) Reserva Granja Julieta gated community, Sao Paulo / Tishman Speyer, (5) Masdar / Copyright Foster + Partners, (6) Masdar building screens / Footprint blog.

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