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Green Urbanism according to Professor Peter Newman

April 22, 2010

Green Urbanism: How does Singapore Compare?

So last night, I attended a talk at the Pod at the National Library Building on Green Urbanism. I was rather curious as to what was meant by “Green Urbanism” and how it compared to urban sustainability for instance. I must say that while I wasn’t entirely convinced that the two were any different after the talk, I do agree on some points that Professor Peter Newman brought up in terms of how far Singapore, and other cities in Pacific-Asia, have come in terms of “greening” cities.

The talk on Green Urbanism: How does Singapore Compare? was organized by the Asia Research Institute. In particular, it was the Asian Urbanisms Research Cluster (originally named “Sustainable Cities” but has since been renamed and repositioned to look at issues beyond sustainability, and also not to clash with the Center for Sustainable Asian Cities Research Group at the School of Design and Environment at NUS) who organized this talk. The Asian Urbanisms cluster provides space for empirical investigation of emergent urbanisms within ARI’s areal scope. Yet the Cluster also takes regional urban diversity as a resource for wider theorization. The theoretical orientation of the Cluster is towards work which: (1) speaks in transformative ways to urban studies debates beyond Asian area studies; and (2) resists the ingrained impulse to refer back to antecedents in North America or Western Europe. As such, the Cluster is particularly interested in forms of relational, comparative research which de-centre the West as the putative leading edge of urban transition, innovation and influence. Avenues for such work include (but are not limited to): cultural circuits and imagery; intra-Asian urban emulation; tropical sustainability and urban lifestyles; natural disasters and urban resilience; cultures of urban heritage; and religion-related urbanisms. More information here.

In essence, this talk presented results from a paper done up by both Professor Peter Newman and his students from the Department of Architecture during his time at NUS. It basically argues that in order to achieve green urbanism, cities need to reduce their ecological footprint while regenerating their immediate bio-region. Prof Newman suggests that green urbanism is simply part of the waves of innovation, where cities come out of collapses. We are in the 6th wave of innovation, based on smart and sustainable technologies that are evidently shaping and re-shaping our cities today.

Professor Newman propsed 7 types of cities which are part of this 6th wave and work towards achieving green urbanism. These include: Renewable Energy City, Carbon Neutral City, Biophillic City, Distributed City, Eco-Efficient City, Place-Based City and the Sustainable Transport City.

These types of cities were explained using examples from around the world. For example, the Renewable Energy City was exemplified by Vauban Freiburg, Germany.

He argued that there is “European leadership” in developing and using renewable energy. Prof Newman suggests that Singapore is moving towards becoming a Renewable Energy City since the solar industry is growing, alongside the photovoltaic industry. However, there is a need to establish a goal (e.g. 20% by 2020) and a regional cooperative to rope in the rest of S.E.A and perhaps even Pacific Asia.

Next, Professor Newman looked at Carbon Neutral Cities, bringing up BedZED in the UK, a common example of zero-carbon dwellings.

bedZED

The key to carbon neutrality is to reduce, renew and offset. Carbon offsets are applicable to Singapore and should be used to regenerate the bioregions of Malaysia and Indonesia (especially rainforests). Prof Newman suggests that Singapore get proper accreditation by UK’s Carbon Trust as a start and work towards establishing a carbon management unit towards carbon neutrality in the future.

Third, the Biophillic City is characterised by visual greening and the enlivening/reviving of waterways. Examples given were green roofs/vertical landscaping in Singapore and the Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul.

Cheonggyecheon River, Seoul

I am still rather apprehensive about this point though, since physical greenery cannot be taken as an accurate marker of how “green” a city really is. However, I agree that vertical landscaping does function well in the tropics and this idea/concept should be exported to other cities in Asia and around the world. The concept or notion of urban agriculture and gardens came up too, although the speakers’ lacked expertise in this area so it wasn’t well elaborated on.

The Distributed City is one that is small in size and comprises of local systems. It is also known as the polycentric city or can be achieved by subdividing cities. Examples given were that of Dongtan and Tianjin in China. Professor Newman called this an “unstoppable movement”, citing that Singapore’s 22 subcenters acts as a model for developing new cities so as to better manage energy demands, supplies and to have better control over cities’ green infrastructure.

Fifth, the Eco-Efficient City needs no introduction really. However, Professor Newman contended the EEC is a largely industrial based city, with Factor 4-10 efficiencies. He cited Western Australia’s Town of Kwinana as an EEC.

The Place-based city highlight “place-stories” and bring the people dimension alive in green urbanism, suggesting that people contribute significantly to sustainability and in sustaining it. Prof Newman recommends that identity and place are placed high on the agenda, citing Singapore’s Concept Plans and Master Plans which have traditionally focused largely on creating a sense of place and identity in new towns and homes in familiar places etc.

Lastly, the Sustainable Transport City. This focuses on reducing Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) and is coupled with the need to reduce urban sprawl. Professor Newman even said “the freeway era is ended”, and that the litmus test of automobile dependence shows that the percentage of transit use has been steadily increasing. He citied Perth as an example.

He also suggested that Singapore has done well in this aspect, given the new lines opening but warned that transit use has in fact decreased since 1995-2005. Dr Paul Barter added that a new North-South freeway/highway was proposed in Singapore and that perhaps activism is the way to promote sustainability more in Singapore. There is also a need to create “walkable” cities and cities ar are more bicycle friendly. Professor Newman highlighted the need to combine Smart Grids+Electric Vehicles+Renewables (what is known as the Al Gore’s Moon Shot). However, he warns that Singapore should not be complacent and continue to develop new and innovative transport systems that move us towards becoming a Sustainable Transport City.

All in all, I thought the presentation was OK. However, it didn’t really go into the details and the makings of Green Urbanism. There was too much optimism by both speakers and I guess it was because they might be visiting lecturers not well aware of the socio-political and economic situation and motivations behind some of the policies here in Singapore. Nonetheless, I did appreciate both speakers taking the time out to give a talk on this topic and at a great venue too (may I just add that I LOVE the National Library’s Observation Pod :D). It was good to see some degree of optimism I think. We Singaporeans tend to be overly critical sometimes and while I am also guilty of this, I feel that perhaps it’s time to give ourselves a pat on the back for our achievements in “greening” thus far but also work towards greater sustainability and green urbanism in the future.

Professors Paul Barter, Peter Newman and Tim Bunnell

Also, I’d like to end off by wishing all our readers a HAPPY EARTH DAY. And for other presentations by Professor Peter Newman, click here.

Mel

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