Sustainable neighborhoods — ‘bobo’ ghettos or future cities? (09/10/2008)
Special to ClimateWire
LAUSANNE, Switzerland — The sustainable neighborhoods Europe has been creating over the past 20 years are yielding positive results, including lower greenhouse gas emissions. Yet these communities are few in number and are quite small compared to conventional neighborhoods.
The very concept of “environmentally friendly neighborhoods,” or “eco-neighborhoods,” still draws widely divergent reactions from Europeans. Some consider them dream communities, laboratories for future cities. Others see ghettos for affluent people who yearn for an alternative lifestyle.
These and other findings arose from an international conference entitled “Planning Sustainable Neighborhoods: From Idea to Implementation,” which was held last week at the University of Lausanne. The conference’s speakers agreed that European urban planning has reached a historic watershed: After long promoting growth in all its forms, cities are now setting their sights on better quality of life.
Cyria Emelianoff, a professor at the University of Maine in France, said the European movement began with “showcase neighborhoods,” designed for international exhibitions. These led to more fully developed projects inspired by sustainable development policies implemented in cities such as Stockholm, Sweden; Freiburg, Germany; and Helsinki, Finland. More recently, private promoters have begun presenting turnkey sustainable development projects.
Today, and mostly in France, she sees a strong trend. “Though brand-new, this trend is very strong,” said Emelianoff. “Resident associations are seeking to acquire land so that they can build eco-neighborhoods on a smaller scale: from a few dozen to several hundred housing units. The concept of the ecological neighborhood is attractive: It is a dream for many. People want to be able to afford to live in city centers without sinking into debt. They want to avoid fleeing to faraway suburbs.”
Each of Europe’s sustainable neighborhoods has its own characteristics, linked to its country’s climate, culture and local situation. Yet the Lausanne experts say these neighborhoods do share enough aspects to enable us to define the concept of the “sustainable neighborhood”: Its population density is relatively high, its buildings are environmentally friendly, and it uses renewable energy and reuses rainwater.
A sustainable neighborhood also selectively sorts its waste materials, uses environmentally friendly means of transportation, allows cars little space, has greener public spaces and has inhabitants who participate in neighborhood life. Such neighborhoods are often adjacent to the countryside and include private or community gardens.
Catering to people first, then bikes, then cars
The best known of these neighborhoods are in Sweden (Bo01 and Augustenborg in Malmö and Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm); in Finland (Viiki in Helsinki); in Germany (Vauban and Rieselfeld in Freiburg; Kronsberg in Hanover); in Denmark (Vesterbro in Copenhagen); in the Netherlands (Leidsche Rijn in Utrecht); and in Great Britain (BedZED in Beddington). These pilot projects have inspired similar programs in other European cities, such as Lausanne, which is now working on two plans for sustainable communities.
According to Marianne Thomann of the University of Lausanne, northern European countries have developed an approach focusing on energy issues, for climate-related reasons, while cities in the Mediterranean area are paying greater attention to quality of life and the concept of public space.
This is the case in Barcelona, Spain, which has been attempting to give space back to pedestrians and cyclists since the 1980s. “We started off by asking, who should be given priority for the use of urban spaces, pedestrians or cars? We chose to place pedestrians first, then bikes, with cars only in third position. In this way, we began by defining a network of streets reserved for pedestrians and cyclists, then we limited car use to the wider streets,” explained Francesc Magrinyá, a professor at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona.
According to researchers at the University of Lausanne, the sustainable neighborhoods mentioned here are yielding tangible results. The researchers estimate that their CO2 emissions are 20 to 60 percent lower than those of traditional neighborhoods, and they use 20 to 50 percent less water. These neighborhoods often operate largely (and some entirely, like BedZED, Hammarby and Bo01) on renewable energy. Thermal solar and photovoltaic energy are used in all the projects, while some districts also derive power from geothermal sources, wind and wood chips.
The experts add that these sustainable neighborhoods save up to 60 percent of the energy used by conventional neighborhoods. In addition, they are always linked to intra-urban public transportation systems and apply policies aimed at reducing car use, such as limiting the number of parking spaces. “Coupled with other measures such as creating bike paths, setting up Internet ordering systems for merchandise and car-sharing services, these measures appear to be bearing fruit,” explained Thomann.
Yet Europe’s eco-neighborhoods also have their limitations. They are certainly promising, but their impact is still insignificant among the mass of conventionally built new urban projects and energy-guzzling non-renovated urban areas. In addition, most of these projects are new communities, although they are often built onto former industrial sites: Among the experiments mentioned, only those at Vesterbro and Augustenborg rehabilitated existing neighborhoods.
‘Ghettos for bobos?’
Another drawback for sustainable neighborhood plans is the danger that costs for high-tech technology may get out of hand “under pressure from environmental markets,” when simpler materials could have done the job, said Emelianoff. During the conference, some in the audience wondered whether European cities were creating what they called “ghettos for bobos,” or “bourgeois bohemians,” with few options for the working class.
According to the experts, there is some demographic diversity in Kronsberg (where housing is financially accessible to 90 percent of the population) and at BedZED (where half of its units are subsidized and reserved for families). On the other hand, the mix at Vauban, where very few housing units are rentals or destined for those of moderate income, consists of managers and university professors. The experts also recognize that the risk of gentrification is a real one in rehabilitated districts such as Vesterbro in Copenhagen, where rents have gone up.
Several of Lausanne’s conference speakers nonetheless reject the term “ghetto.” “Eco-neighborhoods are laboratories; they are where we are reinventing cities,” said Gérard Magnin, Director of Energie-Cités, an association of European local authorities for the promotion of local sustainable energy policies.
Pierre Kermen, an urban planner from Grenoble, France, a city that began building its own eco-neighborhood several years ago, agreed: “The ‘post-carbon’ urban shockwave is spreading: Eco-neighborhoods are now the places where we are experimenting and learning. An eco-neighborhood is not an end in itself. It is a laboratory combining innovation and experimentation, for the benefit of a sustainable urban policy.”