Building Green Cities

Wed, 02/19/2014 - 16:18

Concerns about climate change have motivated both countries and cities to work towards developing ecofriendly environments. Reykjavik in Iceland provides an example that more cities could learn from, having taken advantage of its natural surroundings, this city is powered by renewable energy, mainly geothermal and hydropower, and will be completely independent of fossil fuel by 2050. Vancouver in Canada is well-known for using technological innovations in its sustainability strategy. For example, the city uses solar-powered trash compactors that are the same size as a regular bin but can hold up to five times more garbage. This results in fewer garbage pick-ups, therefore lowering carbon emissions. The waste to energy incineration program in place in Sweden has shown itself to be even more successful than expected, providing heat and electricity to its inhabitants so efficiently that the country actually ran out of trash to be used for this purpose.

For green cities to work, they depend on technology, proper use of available resources and a commitment from their inhabitants. Many countries have found that the houses people live in and the buildings they work in can be improved to become pillars of sustainable support. Construction is the primary structural element of urbanization and can change cities from their core infrastructure outwards. Traditional construction methods become costlier, ultimately affecting the quality of buildings and their subsequent environmental impact. Similarly, poorly designed buildings have disproportionate utility consumption rates that take a heavy economic and environmental toll. Sustainable building practices have proven capable of delivering a more efficient final product, by reducing utility consumptions and environmental impact, thus reducing running costs. According to studies by Schneider Electric, green buildings tend to have 30% lower energy consumption, between 30% and 50% lower water consumption, and 35% lower carbon emissions. It is true that green buildings incur greater initial investments, but these are paid back through lower running costs. Greater efficiency rates also help make these buildings more commercially successful.

Sustainable buildings have attracted the commercial interest of a number of different actors. This includes organizations that have developed standards, codes and rating systems that help to increase confidence in this approach. Some have even been successful in persuading legislators to adopt these standards when creating sustainability and construction regulations. Green building certification institutes have played an important role in shifting architecture and construction models towards greater sustainability and efficiency. The latter has been the most powerful incentive for increased investments in green building designs. The World Green Building Council’s mission summarizes its goal of making building certifications ignore common practice throughout the world, “to facilitate the global transformation of the building industry towards sustainability through market driven mechanisms.” The UK uses the BREEAM system, the most widely used certification system in the world. BREEAM has been used for over 20 years, and over that time it has certified 250,000 buildings in 50 countries. The International Organization for Standardization has jumped aboard this trend, issuing the ISO 21931 for the environmental performance of construction works. The LEED certification is also becoming increasingly popular, creating franchises in many countries including Mexico.

Mexico has no obligatory regulations in place regarding sustainable buildings, or federal incentives that promote certifications. But in 2013, Mexico took an important step in sustainable building planning when norm NMX-AA-164 was issued. This voluntary norm sets the minimal requirements buildings must meet in order to be considered sustainable under Mexican government standards. Norm NMX-AA-164 is not the only measure the Mexican government has taken to encourage the construction industry to embrace sustainable methods. The Sustainable Building Certification Program (PCES) is an environmental policy planning tool that aims to promote green buildings in Mexico City. The program’s mission statement emphasizes concepts like resource preservation, environmental efficiency and quality of life improvement for the inhabitants of Mexico City. The implementation of this program is entirely voluntary, driven by economic incentives and tax deductions. These, however, are not specified, the PCES statement states that interested parties should negotiate incentives with the Finance Ministry. Although Mexico’s rather loose regulation regarding sustainable building standards might seem discouraging, government organisms are taking other actions in this area. CONAVI, INFONAVIT, and the Mexico City Housing Institute have implemented ecodesigns within public housing projects. Houses designed under the direction of these entities have energy efficient lights, water-saving devices, rainwater harvesting systems and solar-powered heaters and street lights.

Urbanization puts pressure on the availability and quality of resources, such as utilities, and reduces the natural environment’s capacity to integrate the impacts that result from human settlements. Economically, urban sprawl raises the cost of delivering basic services, as these require greater investment the more cities expand. Furthermore, unplanned urban sprawl, a common phenomenon in Mexico, blurs municipal boundaries and creates inefficient and chaotic settlements.