Dr. Anna Grichting outlines in detail the multifaceted research agenda arising from Qatar University’s Sustainable Urbanism – New Directions Workshop she curated and staged in March 2016.
While the New Directions in Sustainable Urbanism research agenda makes some references to Qatar and the Gulf Region, it is intended to have a more generic and wide-reaching scope and to focus on the Social Sciences – or the social and human aspects in technology and science-based research. In academia and research, particularly in the Middle East region, there is a tendency for research funding to privilege science and engineering, which generally ranks higher in journal publishing and other outputs. Understandably, the hard sciences often require greater funding sources to conduct research due to the high cost of equipment, but it is increasingly necessary to elevate research and support development in the social sciences.
Introduction: the challenges and opportunities of urbanization in the 21st century
From now until 2050, 93% of total growth is expected to happen in the developing world and the rise of urban populations will predominantly take place in medium size cities in Asia and Africa. Currently, over 800 million people live in slums with a majority in Africa, Asia and South America. The prevailing urbanization model has been dominated by real estate visions and values, with the automobile as main transport mode. The resulting urban form is generally characterized by a high level of zoning, tall buildings or superblocks, freeways, decorative landscape (as opposed to functional and ecological landscape), and a high contrast between formal (blocks and superblocks or gated communities) and informal neighborhoods (slums).
In rapidly urbanizing nations, this has created increasing social economic disparities (increase in the gap between the rich and the poor), increase of informal urbanization, poor safety and lack of governance. The rapid urbanization affects planning and provision of basic infrastructures and services (water, sanitation, energy) resulting in a poor percentage and quality of public spaces with low density urban forms, population overcrowding and traffic congestion, high unemployment rates (with over 50% of youth) and an informal economy that at times reaches 70%. This also reflects a weak public sector that does not incentivize economies of urbanization or economies of agglomeration and the city loses its prime role as a multiplying wealth generator.
While there are many challenges facing cities and urbanization in the 21st century, there are also opportunities to create more sustainable cities and urban regions. Accessibility of technologies to communicate, gather and share information and data, networks and citizen led initiatives, online education and training, increasing offer of micro-scale infrastructure to produce energy (solar), clean water, or produce food, new financing models (public-private partnerships, micro-credits and crowd funding) – are amongst the societal and technological developments that can positively affect change in an urbanized and urbanizing world.
These are accompanied by novel approaches to more ecological and systems thinking applied in architecture, urban and landscape design, as well as models of urbanization that are not only top down but also generated from the bottom up. Co-creation, citizen-science, community led design are amongst the emerging trends that are steering the social sciences back to the center of research in sustainable urban design.
Identifying the proponents of sustainability in non-Western, but increasingly Westernizing cities
If the goal is to achieve sustainability as a cultural asset, which members of society, organisations and firms have a culture of resourcefulness and resilience as internalized values? Who has the skills to bring these methods forward? What can ‘Old Doha’ contribute to this discussion? Can all the different generations of people be brought to the table? Sustainability is about both matter and spirit, after all.¹
Research into the city as a regenerative system: an organism, a vulnerable ecosystem, and a habitat for humans
Cities are regenerative systems and, like all organisms and ecosystems, run on positive and negative feedback loops. Positive feedback loops stimulate growth and expand a system; negative feedback loops limit or contain a system within boundaries. Limits, or boundaries, through containment, actually help a body to function well and build its resilience – the length of an arm stretching, the containment of muscles, ligaments, bones within skin.
When limits are known and boundaries are set, resources are allowed to circulate within a system, nourishing different parts as they pass through and regenerating their energy.² An example of is the soil cycle. ³ The concept of resourcefulness is also highly relevant here. This is measured as how many times a resource can be looped before it leaves an organism. With each pass of a resource, more energy is built instead of lost.
Investigating the city as a system of waste streams
Much of what a city considers waste is actually a valuable input and a start of a regenerative system. Organic waste from landscape companies, produce and animal markets, restaurants, homes, hotels, office complexes and universities could be collected and composted to create soil amendment and healthy, moisture-holding local soil not dependent on the chemical fertilizers and imported organic materials currently used. Trees that die and pruned branches would be laid down, buried or chipped and allowed to decompose to support fungal communities. ⁴ It is therefore vital to revalue the city’s waste streams as foodstocks and set up processes to redirect them to feed other systems within its organism/ecosystem.
Aside from the organic waste streams, we should also consider the inorganic waste streams (glass, metal, etc), and new forms of recycling such as urban mining. Urban mining is defined as actions and technologies designed for the recovery of materials and energy from products of the urban catabolism, providing a systematic management of anthropogenic resources stocks and waste (products and buildings), in the view of long term environmental protection, resource conservation and economic benefits. ⁵ For example, the gold concentration in electric and electronic scraps is considerably higher than the amount of gold in gold mines, recovery of gold from may potentially result in a more ecologically compatible mining activity.
Many urban areas are polluting their landscapes with landfills and trash. The cities of the emerging urbanizing world – in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia – are generally more resource efficient and have been recycling their materials out of economy and necessity. Urban mining is becoming a new form of employment and income generation in cities, which also contributes very positively to urban sustainability.
Community green infrastructure
The future green belt proposed for Doha, Qatar and the region should not be isolated in its concept and function but more integrated into people’s lives via community-designed roundtables guided on the principles of agro-ecology. ⁷ Action research can engage communities, investigating the Green and the Grey/Black, what is above ground and below ground level. Green Infrastructure should also be researched from the micro to the macro scales, and also from the concept of Flux rather than the idea of Balance. Bioreceptive microorganisms – for examples lichens – are barometers of air quality. They create symbiotic relationships with other organisms (host organisms).
Urban forestry, a city-wide programme
Urban forestry is the management of trees for their contribution to the physiological, sociological, and economic well-being of urban society. ⁸ There will be multiple benefits from implementing a city-wide Tree Charter supported by local business and academic institutions to spotlight the importance of indigenous trees and plants in modifying microclimate, stabilising soils, beautifying the city, and inspiring an urban forestry movement at local and city-wide level. The concept behind this is better cities through better citizens. The Urban forester will become a better citizen. An urban forestry programme can include a community heritage tree component, which would include the propagation of indigenous species from known heritage trees in the city, with certain areas of the city promoted as urban forest reserves. ⁹
Biourban restoration: towards flexible cities
The aim in biourban restoration is to bring about a flexible city which can coexist in harmony with the different pulses of nature, especially the sea taking in regard the opportunities rising up with the climate change, but also rainwater events, providing the chance for regeneration of dust storms with the opportunity to harvest soil materials from elsewhere for the benefit of bioregeneration of spaces in the city.
We can develop research and design methodologies that combine the theories and practices of urban acupuncture (Casagrande), swarm planning (Roggema) and Blue Urbanism (Beatly: Grichting). The instruments supporting these methodologies are a vision plan and a series of plans for the realisation of tactical urban acupuncture projects developed by the group? which can be implemented within the current urban conditions through punctual interventions in available spaces to be identified. These will have an ecological restorative ripple effect swarming throughout the entire city. This model is applicable to other similar Gulf and dryland cities. ¹⁰
The city as a system of organic streams eg. grey water, sewage, organic waste, urban runoff and storm waters
Capturing the rising amount of rain, storm waters and dust creates the resource and material for establishing new urban organic layers key to the city’s sustainability. Materials brought to the city – whether water from the sea (desalination or sea-level rise or storm surge) or dust from storms — have the potential to transform a desert into an oasis. With a combination of modular environmental technology, open form infrastructure and landscape urbanism these material streams will become a steady source of power for the new organic layers of the city composed of parks, trees, water elements, wetlands, green roofs, wild nature, urban farms and collective gardens. These layers reduce the heat-island effect of the city, produce a comfortable micro-climate, encourage pedestrian movability, create an attractive public entourage and a new urban ecological luxury.
Blue Urbanism – Free flooding of the sea
If the sea is invited to be an active part of the cityscape by introducing a series of controlled cracks in the flood defense walls and by designing the free water movements within free spaces in the city, Doha will be prepared to deal with the future rise of the sea level and changing weather conditions. The urban water elements will also act as stormwater relief channels and contribute to the microclimate of the city. New mixed-fresh and salt water greenery will be introduced into the city, developing Doha into a partial urban mangrove and inviting back original site-specific forms of flora and fauna.
Local knowledge, collectivities and communities
In a biourban city, all communities must thrive. The biourban development of a city to support its future sustainability must be connected with the collective conscious, and with subconscious knowledge and understanding of the different layers of the existing communities. Local knowledge – ancestral knowledge – will re-surface to the street level once industrial control is opened up in order to let nature to step in – including human nature. The expatriate communities also bring their own knowledge and practices to shape the cities and landscapes. This will also create new local knowledge as a key element for the ownership of the shareholders of the organic future. How best can this new knowledge be harnessed and shared?
Third Generation City
The Third Generation City is proposed as the organic machine of the future. ¹³ There is a shift from the industrial and patriarchal to the organic and matriarchal. Designing the third generation city is not just about shaping new urban forms and urban infrastructures, but looking at the inbetween spaces – at the cracks in the existing city – and working on these.
Permaculture, an academic programme
There are pioneering Edible and Sustainable University Campus and Desert Farm projects at Qatar University, each with strong sustainable value, which can be developed in the future as one mutually beneficial and collaborative urban project. Desert Farms signifies transformation through permaculture, with plants to preserve the soils and create a more protected microclimate and ‘growing’ farm buildings from the geology, recycling stone that lay in the soil for foundations, and reclaiming farm timber for construction. This enables the possibility of creating a vernacular that draws from the land, merging built form and forest clumps to cool, protect and sustain.
The Edible and Sustainable University Campus is a model for the city
A campus landscape is articulated by wadis, ephemeral riverbeds that comes to life during heavy rainfall. In these valleys, the natural topography supports forests of self-seeded vegetation that express indigenous characteristics of the place – ‘fields’ of restricted access and biological research – rather than integral to the campus experience. They display the vital interrelationship of soil, water and vegetation as natural assets to be mapped, explored and promoted as part of the campus ecology.
The Edible Campus initiative could be further informed and expanded by these landscapes. Water-demanding growing plots could be changed to a patchy mosaic of indigenous edible plants across the campus within the wadis, adapted to intermittent irrigation. This would be a more self-sustaining approach to edible planting, drawn from the palette of native species, like those at the desert farm, resilient from one generation of students to the next; a project developed and nurtured as a cross-disciplinary collaboration involving social science, biological and environmental science and architecture. ¹⁴ Other approaches to a sustainable campus could involve students calculating their own ecological footprint. ¹⁵
A research-based prototype model for an eco-fareej neighbourhood
The least explored aspect of sustainable urbanism is the socio-cultural implications of introducing sustainable infrastructure systems in neighborhoods, especially when the urban form and design of the neighborhood is highly related to the socio-cultural mores of the society inhabiting it. This being the case in traditional Arab-Islamic neighborhoods, merging sustainable infrastructure systems for energy, water, food, and waste in a fareej should be at the forefront of urban design research in Arab countries. This calls for developing a research-based prototype model for an eco-fareej. ¹⁶
Sustainable participative design
There is a need for collaborative and participative design to develop and/or redevelop local environments in a way that is sustainable in a holistic sense, building knowledge and responsibility. Through the process of community involvement, overlapped with design, construction and maintenance, sustainable design can be co-designed.
Design becomes a creative process of problem solving involving dialogues across mixed groups of people, transcending boundaries between professionals and communities, and facilitating collaboration between different stakeholders. It mediates power balances and reveals existing informal knowledge and ambitions and dreams. It also builds existing knowledge and skills within communities, otherwise known as social capital, translatable in many instances into new jobs and platforms. It encourages trust, ownership, pride, responsibility, a sense of belonging and commitment to a sustainable future.
Methods include design workshops and charrettes for community action planning involving local people – youth, parents, grandparents, teachers, managers, and those playing a variety of roles interacting with others. ¹⁷ This is an emerging field of practice, and key performance indicators need to be defined and debated by participants at the outset and through the process to help validate and guide activities: the pros and cons of goals and methods; the judicious involvement of professionals and non-professionals and modes of interaction; strategies for developing relevance and credibility; the best use of time; funding and funding solutions; evaluating the process; building a legacy, ways of sustaining the results and lines of responsibility. ¹⁸
The ethos behind co-design activities is one of resilience in the face of changes – climate change, economic downturn or population growth or decline. Participants need to perceive the city as an agile system able to withstand and/or bounce back, but simultaneously as an anti-fragile system, strengthening its resilience through disruptive change. This calls for commitment to research of the city as a complex adaptive system, building shared agro-ecological knowledge and on how to design from this paradigm. The focus is on co-design activities in the more fertile parts in the urban system so that the city can slowly transform into a green and blue urban environment.
Big Data or Bad Data? Research for or against city design driven by data
How can the city best use data? Is there an overbelief in data? It is not data that tells us how the city can become sustainable, but people living in cities. People are driven by emotions, feelings, a sense of belonging and ambitions, and leaving out these elements in the design of our cities because data have taken over, means plans that bring about a cold and calculating future. A fruitful aim of research in this area is to discussing the information required for planning a city or a neighborhood instead of the data. ¹⁹
Energy, climate change and city: Planning that responds to citizen behaviour
Post-carbon cities have recently emerged from a rupture in the carbon-dependent urban system that has led to high levels of anthropogenic greenhouse gases. This threat requires a paradigm shift in thinking about and planning relationships between energy, climate change and the city, in order to respond to the multiple challenges of climate change, ecosystem degradation, social equity and economic pressures.
Energy, environmental and social aspects are all woven together and inseparable, making sustainable urban planning and management a complex task with multiple objectives. Hence, to tackle sustainability challenges of post-carbon cities, urban planning strategies must not only look at the technology-related “smart city” efficiency, control and speed of complex infrastructure systems, but also at citizens’ behavior and to how they respond to building performances and available urban services. Furthermore, citizens and all private consumers should be more aware, active, energy sufficient, as well as being prosumers producing energy for their own consumption, where this is possible. ²⁰
Sustainable urban districts and energy efficiency programmes must take account of socio-economic complexities of both the building market and urban forms
Recent European Union research has revealed that policy makers may be ignoring the human factor in energy transition to the detriment of rapid and significant change across Europe. This implies significantly less emphasis on technology and on top-down planning and more emphasis on the enabling of both individuals and social groups to articulate themselves and participate in the energy transformation.
Unfortunately, the available literature on sustainable urban districts and energy efficiency approaches tend to be either engineering-led without understanding socio-economic complexities of both the building market and urban forms, or simply qualitatively based on small surveys and case studies. This gap influences negatively sustainable urban planning policies. ²¹
Resilience thinking with regard to cities and climate change
Self-organization and local knowledge for coping with changes without external help, or the “resilience thinking approach” is vital for city dwellers living with the unpredictable disturbances of climate change effects. Self-organised tools and measures to face the quick change are of far more relevance than efficiency and economic growth. This includes retaining knowledge in neighbourhoods and cities, valorization of labour and preparing students to translate their intellectual and aesthetic work into effective contributions to their communities, aware of all the other communities that could be affected by their choices. ²²
Interdisciplinarity approaches to sustainable urbanism and the role of city data
Progress in building sustainable cities requires contributions from a broad range of fields, ranging from green infrastructure, urban acupuncture approaches, food urbanism, ecological systems, and public-private partnerships. These interdisciplinary approaches must be underpinned by high-calibre city data in order to achieve effective and lasting change. ²³
Building a culture of comparable data to support sustainable urbanism
One of the key challenges is the lack of high-quality, comparable data on city sustainability performance, operational planning, design and management and quality of life. This paucity of truly comparable data is a major deficiency for many key strands of research on sustainable urbanism, including urban mobility, infrastructure and housing development, resilience, and natural resource management.
Ultimately, the lack of comparable data reduces the quality and applicability of the findings, particularly for supporting city governments around the world in dealing with the complex, interconnected challenges of rapid urbanization. Building a culture of data through investments in research and innovations for society. ²⁴
From Smart Cities to Smart Citizens
Technology-centred smart cities are not enough: citizens want human-centred responsive cities. Urban design, urban sociology and behavioural science are central areas of research to achieve this vision. ²⁵ The challenge is to engage the cognitive capacity of citizens, especially young people. Citizens Design Science is geared towards better urban design, urban governance, urban management.
At present, smart cities are digitized – but not smart. For example the concept of the Swiss smart city is a maximum quality of life and minimal use of ressources and it is planned that the future city of Zurich will be emission free. Research at the Future Cities Lab (ETHZ Zurich and Singapore) is looking at the concept of the quantum city and the the city– a combination of physical and virtual infrastructures and of complex models. It is a metabolism in movement, with various scales, stocks and flows.
A comprehensive vision for sustainable cities and mental health: the relationship between urban living and mental health – growth agenda, resilience
A healthy city requires populations and communities that are healthy – both physically and mentally. ²⁶ Researchers in cognitive neuroscience have correlated city living with greater stress responses in humans and this research suggests a new empirical approach for integrating social sciences, neurosciences and public policy to respond to the major health challenge of urbanization. Other innovative research areas mental health and the built environment includes are neuro-urbanism, also a stream of BioUrbanism. BioGeometry combines modern sciences and ancient knowledge of energy, addressing both physical and mental health in built environments, and developing structures to remediate the harmful effects of electromagnetic fields and to heal mental illnesses. ²⁷
From Interdisciplinary to Antidisciplinary and Extradisciplinary Research
Antidisciplinarity means between and beyond disciplines. ²⁸ It’s time to go beyond the interdisciplinary to focus on a higher mission and on the changes needed in academia and research funding in order to allow more people to work in the wide-open white space between disciplines – the antidisciplinary space. Research needs to embrace people people who can move seamlessly between disciplines, people who translate and push the boundaries. Extradisciplinarity ²⁹ is proposed as a transformative spiral, a new sort of reflexivity – involving artists as well as theorists and activists in a passage beyond the limits traditionally assigned to their practice. It conveys a desire or need to turn towards an exterior field or discipline in an attempt to transform the initial discipline, to end its isolation, to open up new possibilities of expression, analysis, cooperation and commitment.
Public-Private Partnerships for Sustainable Urbanism.
How can cities adapt and evolve to forge new public and private partnerships (PPP)? A new concept – PPP + P – promotes Public Private Partnerships that put people first, that are elaborated for and with People. These participatory and co-creative Public Private Partnerships are leading to new ways of financing and maintaining construction and infrastructure projects that are physically and socially sustainable.
A recent report (2015) by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) emphasizes the need to engage and empower citizens in order to achieve long term goals and success by increasing citizens’ awareness and involving both the private and civic segments of society. Participatory Budgeting (PBP) is a new way of governing” that gives local communities more opportunities to influence how money in the public budget is spent. This concept of budgeting originated in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 and has since spread around the world.
7 Pillars to achieving sustainable development in fragile zones: A regional reconstruction strategy for the Middle East
It is time to establish a regional reconstruction strategy for the Middle East, that involves collective vision, broad participation, smart security, equality, and other key elements. The region, at all levels, now expects to be treated with dignity and to be the driving force behind its own development. It is high time to pull together to establish a “Regional Reconstruction Strategy” that maintains a holistic, problem-solving outlook while drawing on various forms of intervention (e.g. community driven development, inter-regional development projects, targeted counterinsurgency operations, stabilization, statebuilding, for example.
Novel approaches rooted in genuine regional leadership, broad participation, youth engagement, and the utilization of technology will increasingly need to be applied. The pillars of such a strategy – seven in total – should be a collective regional vision, effective local participation, smart security, reconciliation and justice, equity, reconstruction and development, and capacity. ³⁰
Measuring sustainability and the prosperity of cities
What contributes to a city’s prosperity? And what is the relationship between prosperity and sustainability? We need to go beyond development goals and targets that adhere to ‘sustaining’ the same old economic and social models and advance more radical conceptual and practical approaches that challenge this reductive understanding of ‘sustainability ‘and integrate the concept of prosperity in dynamic socio-ecological systems. This paradigm shift may benefit from looking at examples in the Global South.
UN Habitat has developed City Prosperity Initiative (CPI) that enables city authorities, as well as local and national stakeholders, to identify opportunities and potential areas of intervention for their cities to become more prosperous. The CPI is both a metric and a policy dialogue, which offers cities from developed and developing countries the possibility to create indicators and baseline information, often for the first time. It is also a global monitoring mechanism, adaptable to national and local levels that can provide a general framework that allows cities, countries, and the international community to measure progress and identify possible constraints. ³¹
City Data and indicators and informal urbanisation
In the last ten years, cities have grown 5 to 7 times – both in physical growth and population growth. This has resulted in many formal and informal forms of urbanisations- both slums and gated communities. During the same period, inequality has grown by 70% in cities over the last ten years.
There is also an increasing privatization of the city. How do we measure inequality and privatization in the city, and what is the relationship to sustainability and prosperity of the city. IS a city sustainable if the prosperity concerns an increasingly smaller segment of the population? In some cases, 60 % of the development in cities is informal. How do we deal with city data, is it only for elite cities, alpha cities, etc. How can we create smart cities that are outside of the legal framework – the informal cities? ³²
Data and the social science of urban sustainability
There is a need to bring in social sciences and not focus on technology based solutions for urban sustainbility– they must be integrated with people based solutions, with social engineering and citizen science. For example, it is people that use energy, and not buildings.
What is the role of data in social engineering and urban sustainability? Chief Data Officers are playing a new and essential role in city planning and sustainable urbanism. An Urban challenge requires an operational response. Data officers have access to information and can facilitate cross cutting research. How do we use data and the social sciences to build a body of knowledge. Data is in abundance. But the concern is that the measurement doesn’t capture the measurements of human beings – what we cannot measure, why, what impact? ³³
Women in the city
Some successful programs have been developed in rural areas, that surprisingly do not concentrate on educating the youth, but on educating and training grandmothers. Turning grandmothers into solar engineers is one of Sanjit Roy’s priorities, and he favours women over men, as they maintain their roots in the village (or city neighbourhood) and pass on the knowledge to their children and grandchildren, while the men leave for the urban areas looking for jobs as soon as they had the skills.
Similarly, the architect Marco Casagrande has also collaborated with a community of grandmothers in the urban context, in a project in Treasure Hill in Taipei, working with them to preserve their productive urban landscapes – their agricultural knowledge and old farming based values – and to reinforce the existing urban farming qualities with the state of the art high environmental technology solutions (active solar panels). These urban acquapuncture interventions contribute to preserving community landscapes and cultural values which produce knowledge and food. ³⁴ From grandmothers in rural and urban areas, we can also reflect on the role of women in cities and their active engagement in the economic activities of the city. In working with local and national governments to develop strategic visions for sustainable urbanization and to create integrated projects and programmes, it will be important to factor in the positive role of women in shaping a safe and sustainable urban realm and contributing to the creation of the knowledge capital of their cities. ³⁵