What Makes A Sustainable City?

DCFW Hatch member, James Stroud reflects on ICE Wales’ event which took place in Cardiff on 13th January 2016

Guilt weighed heavily upon me as, running late, I drove my petrol guzzling car hastily across the city, heading to What Makes a Sustainable City’, a lecture by Kirsten Hensen of KLH Sustainability, hosted by ICE Cymru and Sustain Wales.

Parking a few yards away from the venue in the pouring rain, I was reminded how lucky, in some ways, those of us who live in Cardiff, a relatively small city, are when it comes to how easy it is to just jump in your own car to get around. This is something that, given the growth expected in Cardiff over the coming years, is likely to become an unsustainable luxury.

Less than five minutes in to a well attended event, it was clear to me that the main draw was Kirsten, not the sandwiches, as she began a broad and interesting talk about her beliefs in the benefits of ‘Green Spaces’ and in particular their role in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and at the Favelas of Rio.

Hensen, who trained as a Civil Engineer, opened with some interesting facts – reporting that, in an age where sustainability should be at the forefront of all our minds, the construction industry is a key sector that needs change. The industry uses 400 million tonnes of material each year, with a staggering 13% of materials delivered to site going unused. We have known this for many years but the pace of change still seems glacial.

Hensen also endorsed early contractor involvement which, at the Olympic Park, provided, she said, significant savings, such as avoiding the need to export 2.5m tonnes of waste by reusing site-won materials for gabions, and adding value by reducing the need for importation of similar quantities, something with which I whole heartedly agree.

The lecture, however, quickly broadened out; “It’s about more than climate change,” Kirsten exclaimed. She spoke of the notion of ‘place–keeping’ rather than ‘place–making’, specifically in relation to the often socially challenging areas to which her projects had taken her. Speaking again of her role at the Olympic Park, staggeringly, Hensen said that for every tube stop on the Jubilee line between Westminster in central London and Stratford, an adult male loses one year of life expectancy. She stressed the need for community engagement, understanding and respecting the context, recognising that whilst not everyone wants to shop in a Westfield and live in a zero-carbon home, the former offers employment which alongside other measures to retain and enhance the existing culture will lead to social regeneration and ‘place-keeping’. Interestingly, Hensen told us how the residents of the Rio Favelas had been commissioned by the Rio Olympic committee to make 45,000 ‘athletes cushions’ following engagement with the entrepreneurial community. She spoke of the project involving the 40 Knowledge Hubs being created on the outskirts of the Favelas where people from the surrounding, more developed communities, can interact and together fill the skills gap that exists, leading to, hopefully, a better future and greater social integration.

Finally and particularly relevant, Hensen gave examples of the importance of the concept of ‘soft failure’, an interesting idea, citing the recent UK flooding as an example – if we are to admit that flooding is going to happen, she said, then why not embrace the idea of a soft failure, that is, plan our cities, town and villages with anticipation of such floods, meaning that we identify the low impact areas that could be flooded, spaces such as football pitches, parkland etc? This would be far less of a danger than flooding of people’s homes, schools and hospitals or aiming to stem immensely powerful water flow with inadequate barriers.

I didn’t mind being distracted from the sandwiches as Kirsten Hensen provided plenty of food for thought in a thoroughly interesting hour!

James Stroud is a Project Designer at Loyn & Co Architects and an active member of DCFW’s Hatch network for fresh-thinking shapers of the built environment in Wales.