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Tackling the urbanisation challenge

There are few who don’t know of the trend for urbanisation – the gravitational pull of city dwelling – that means by 2030 an estimated 60% of the global population will be living in cities.

The obvious implication is that a great deal of infrastructure will be needed. What is less certain is whether civil engineers will be called on to design and build it in the manner they have been used to over recent decades.

Not all cities are growing at the same rate, nor is infrastructure investment always aligned to that growth. The BRIC developing nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and their thriving metropolises are being joined by their counterparts from the newly identifi ed MINTs (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey). In the past, the world of construction and civil engineering has watched, waited and responded. Global giants set up hubs and spokes to ensure they had the market covered when the boom times come.

The Middle East provides an excellent recent case in point. The speed with which cities have sprung up from almost nothing has created great opportunities. Oil and sovereign-rich countries mean that almost whatever the client wants, there will be someone willing to build it. And the mantra has often been bigger is better.

Soon enough, sustainability began to creep into the construction language of the region, but the extent to which it has been effective is debatable. Qatar off ers an obvious example – it may not only be the way that it secured the 2022 World Cup that is controversial, if the allegations about bribery have any grounds. It is also questionable whether it should be trying to stretch the bounds of engineering in its insistence that it will be able to tame nature to create a comfortable tournament for players and spectators alike. Anticipating temperatures of 50°C in the summer, plans are afoot, though not yet fully realised, to cool the (outdoor) stadium playing area to 26°C, with the spectator area expected to be calmed to 32°C.

Whatever the no doubt very clever solution is, when it comes there will remain serious questions about how this can be done sustainably in a way that is truly socially and morally responsible.

Beating the law of nature, or manipulating it if you prefer, is undoubtedly an achievement, but there are ways in which engineers can prove their worth in more harmonious ways. Last week NCE published a special report on the many ways the Dutch are handling the threat of floods. In one particular project – the Sand Engine coastal protection scheme – engineers are experimenting. Previous handling of the erosion of the Dutch coast meant that every fi ve years beach replenishment would be carried out to restore sand lost to the tides.

Instead of fighting the sea, the new thinking is that perhaps its natural inclination could help the cause of protecting the country. So between March and November 2011, Rijkswaterstaat and the provincial authority of Zuid-Holland created a 2km wide, hook-shaped peninsula, extending 1km into the sea.

The rhetoric used is “building with nature” but the logic is if the sea is inclined to move sand around, perhaps it could do humans’ work of replenishing some sand-deprived areas. It is early days and experimental but if the Sand Engine fulfi ls expectations, sand replenishment off the Delfl and Coast will be unnecessary over the next 20 years. In addition, the below sea level country is giving more room to its swelling rivers – avoiding the continual need to create bigger and burlier barriers between humans and nature.

There is a certain nobility in accepting failure in the battle with the elements, especially when alternatives can be found. Admittedly there are questions about how much the Sand Engine is entirely sensitive to nature in that it is still disrupting the natural order, but it is nonetheless an improvement on what went before.

Affecting our environment is probably an area that off ers great potential for such innovation, especially when things become serious enough to stop us in our tracks. It’s not just in the world of floods. The Department for Transport had just such a challenge when last year it was forced to pause for thought on major parts of its Smart Motorways programme in light of concerns over breaches of European Union air quality standards.

In the hubbub of the urban environment, highways have found themselves a potential breeding ground for unpleasant emissions of nitrogen dioxide. Over in Paris this spring, tourists and the city’s inhabitants were finding it a little less than pleasant – an early heatwave generated unbearable smog; Soon after, Saharan sand swept its way toward the UK and much spluttering followed.

While the latter problem comes under the heading of “quirky” alongside problems like ash clouds grounding flights, engineers are who we turn to when looking for solutions. In Paris – and subsequently other French cities – simple but effective solutions included offering free public transport to encourage people out of their smog-inducing cars. Another option considered is allowing access for cars on alternating days, according to whether the registration plate starts with an odd or even number.

This certainly forces people to begin to consider their own personal responsibility for contributing to such problems. But there is surely more to be done. The UK government is hopeful that the transition to electric cars will help reduce pollution problems in the long term.

The research and development in that field, along with low carbon solutions more broadly, gained a little more support last week with the announcement that £500M will be spent on boosting the “ultra low emissions vehicle industry” between 2015 and 2020. One part of the funding will be allocated to “winning bids” from cities that the government suggests could, for example, incentivise people to drive green cars by letting them use bus lanes or allowing them to park for free. Additional funding of £50M will also be available for local areas to invest in cleaner taxis and buses.

All the same, there seems a gap in the market for widespread development of clever engineering to complement the changes. What kind of roads, if they are called roads at all, will be needed by 2030, or 2050, or beyond, to accommodate our low carbon transport? And should the emphasis from building resilience into infrastructure be shifted toward making it work with water – floating bridges, pipelines?

Today these questions may seem far-fetched and the answers not urgently needed. But as the world gets more and more urbanised that urgency for answers is surely bound to increase. 

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