Rapid Urbanization and the Sustainable Response

William F. Baker, PE, SE, FASCE, FIStrucE, NAE; CTBUH Trustee and Partner at SOM

Next month, design industry leaders will gather in Shanghai for the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat’s (CTBUH) 2012 Congress. Titled ‘Asia Ascending: Age of the Skyscraper City’, the congress appropriately focuses on Asia’s ascent as a global center point for the vertical movement and the rapid urbanization of cities. And yet, while the continent is home to 85% of the world’s 20 tallest buildings and over half the world’s population, its significance extends beyond height and density. Asia is at the confluence of unprecedented growth and limited natural resources and it will serve as the benchmark for our 21st century professional response to sustainability concerns. As designers, this situation presents a defining opportunity that will forever impact the healthy future of our cities and all who inhabit them.

In recent years, the profession has mainly focused on the individual tower as a vehicle for sustainability. Designers employ multiple strategies, including advanced building control systems, climatically responsive layouts, advanced cladding systems, renewable energy sources, waste reduction principles and natural daylighting, in an effort to substantially reduce energy and water consumption, carbon emissions and waste. The next generation of high performance towers aims to provide a superior environment for building occupants while also minimizing the structure’s environmental impact.

And yet, while all of these efforts should be applauded, recent research shows that the most comprehensive sustainability approach begins with urban planning. Today’s city designers advocate for a more holistic vision of the urban environment, arguing that by merely focusing on the skyscrapers themselves, strategists are in effect unable to see the forest through the trees. Plans like Chicago Lakeside, Shunde New City and Beijing Bohai Innovation City demonstrate how environmental infrastructure can successfully weave with urban development. The award-winning plan for the expansion of Beijing’s Central Business District East Expansion not only proposes a network of enhanced transportation and pedestrian-friendly spaces; it also defines new strategies for building municipal infrastructure and high performance buildings. If implemented, the plan could reduce energy consumption within the district by 50%, water consumption by 48%, landfill waste by 80% and result in a 50% reduction in carbon emissions. The reduction in office building emissions alone is equivocal to planting 14 million adult trees.

The sustainability challenge is better addressed as the sum of its many parts. A holistic strategy is necessary to ensure the growth of our global cities and the health and ecology of our communities. While the CTBUH has long been the leading body in the field of tall buildings, it will be interesting to see how the organization embraces the burgeoning significance of the urban habitat, particularly as it relates to sustainability concerns. With 400 million people expected to migrate to Chinese cities by 2050, rapid urbanization and our sustainable response is a timely matter and one which will undoubtedly merit worthy discussion at the upcoming congress.

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