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The new urban dream

As the world’s population becomes increasingly urbanised, there is a growing struggle to ensure our cities remain decent, healthy and sustainable places to live. Antony Oliver reports on how the engineering community is responding to the challenge and speaks to those leading the way to a new urban future.

Since the 1950s the world’s urban population has grown from around 30% to over 50% of the global headcount.
This trend is expected to continue as the developing world moves away from agriculture-based economies so that by 2050, two thirds of the people on the planet will live in cities.

Given that the total world population has also grown from around 3bn in 1960 to 6.8bn today and is expected to rise to 9bn by 2050, there is enormous pressure on city planners to deliver the infrastructure that will cope with this change.

At the same time there is a need to meet carbon reduction targets by, for example, reducing the amount of power and water cities use, revamping transport systems and ensuring that housing and business accommodation is energy efficient.

The result is that governments around the world are wrestling with the tricky issue of how to plan the cities of the future and perhaps more importantly, how to adapt those that already exist to the challenges facing them.

GE Sustainable Cities

“One of the biggest challenge for cities is how to retrofit, not only because of the scale of this challenge but because buildings are all so different,” explains GE sustainable development director Tony Gale who leads the firm’s newly created London-based City Infrastructure team.

GE is one of the world’s biggest engineering technology companies working in sectors as diverse as power generation and distribution, aircraft engines, healthcare solutions and financial services.

Gale’s small cross-discipline group intends to draw on the company’s combined resources and work with clients to break down the barriers preventing truly sustainable development by helping to introduce vital new thinking, new technologies and new funding streams.

“Clients tend to be risk averse because they lack information so we are developing models around real life examples to help build confidence”

Tony Gale, GE

“Clients tend to be risk averse because they lack information so we are developing models around real life examples to help build confidence,” he explains.

“Our work is not necessarily about selling bits of kit but about solving problems.”

One of Gale’s most recent challenges has been to work with London 2012’s Olympic Delivery Authority to plan and deliver a range of sustainable projects for the Games.

These include the energy centre, smart grid, smart metering, solar power and water reuse systems for the Olympic Park. It is delivering energy efficient lighting and power distribution for the Velodrome and other venues, traffic signalling around London and healthcare provision within venues and within the Olympic Polyclinic and Homerton Hospital which is close to the Park.

This work, particularly the overriding need to leave a legacy beyond the Games, created a springboard for the establishment of his cross discipline team. While he will not rule out other cities in the UK as potential markets, London is seen as a key focus.

“It’s the right place to be at the right time,” explains Gale. “We had a team to deliver products into the Olympics and so we are now looking at major projects in London,” he says highlighting the fact that the team is not aligned to any of GE’s existing businesses.

“One of the biggest challenges for a company like GE is working out what we have actually got - it is just so big,” says Gale. With operations in over 100 countries and 300,000 staff, the firm has a mind-boggling wealth of highly specialised consulting, design, manufacturing and operation skills.

“We have an agnostic approach - perhaps renewables are not the right solution - perhaps the greatest effect could be on the demand side”

Tony Gale, GE

The new 12-strong GE team will, he says, draw on GE’s established track record in developing and applying environmental technologies and other innovations in the sustainable development area. This includes working with clients to update buildings and infrastructure and make them future proof. More importantly it will work with clients to establish strategies for creating sustainable cities.

They intend to work with clients to span the design and operation of the entire sustainable city need, from power supply and distribution, through to sustainable housing, transport, healthcare.

Clearly he sees the global downturn as an opportunity and says that he will be targeting the government’s continued need to spend effectively on low carbon and energy efficient infrastructure.

GE is also looking at nine other cities globally in which to roll out similar cross-discipline teams as part of its on-going “ecomagination strategy” which it hopes will make sustainable living a reality.

It has also just become the industry sponsor of EUCO2 80/50, a European wide cities initiative on climate change involving 15 major European cities with a combined population of 48M (see box).

Each city plans to come up with strategies for a 30% reducion in emissions by 2030 and for an 80% reduction by 2050, compared to 1990 levels. By getting involved, GE intends to put its technology and expertise at the heart of this challenge.

The ultimate aim of EUCO280/50 will be to enable Europe’s 100 metropolitan regions to devise and adopt integrated greenhouse gas emission mitigation strategies and, in their own interests, secure their carbon light energy futures.

According to Gale, GE has a strong track record of working with cities around Europe. At the recent COP15 summit in Copenhagen, four of its projects in Dunkirk, Verona, Motril and Budapest were also among the first to receive a Benchmark of Excellence Award from the European Commission’s Covenant of Mayors cities initiative.

In Dunkirk and Verona, GE has helped deliver ultra efficient combined heat and power, in the Spanish city of Motril its innovative work to retrofit outdoor lighting has produced savings of 25% while in Budapest the”Schools’ Illumination Programme” has cut 40% from the city’s school lighting bill.

“We are putting together case studies based on real projects,” says Gale. “We have a number of demonstration projects and if we get the model to work then we know that we have a market (to extend to new cities). We fully appreciate that we have to prove this concept.”

Gale says the strength of his team is its ability to draw on experience and expertise from across a wide range of past projects.

Gale points out that although certain renewable technologies such as solar photo-voltaic generators is now very attractive to clients, his role is to ensure that this is the right solution to their problem.

“We have a very agnostic approach - it may be that renewables is not the right solution - it may be that the greatest effect could be on the demand side,” he explains pointing out that meeting overall carbon reduction targets might be more important than simply generating cheap electricity.

“One of the biggest challenges will be how to change procurement policies,” he explains pointing out that this is often a block to the introduction of new, sustainable ideas. Clients, he says, must find ways to enable suppliers to be more collaborative when introducing new sustainable technologies while also being competitive.

Of course, investment in low carbon solutions often has a high up-front cost. For many clients, particularly in an economic environment of budget cuts, finding the funding required to kick-start projects can be the limiting factor.

Solving these critical funding issues, is he says, core to the whole process of defining sustainable development strategies, be they replacing traditional traffic lights with LEDs, putting solar power into schools, developing low carbon public transport schemes or working with hospitals to reduce their running costs.

“GE Capital has a small fund available for my team to test the market,” says Gale stressing that this is usually only to pump prime projects on a small scale. “If we can’t find the right funding model within GE we will act as a middle man to go to the open market - we have to be open-minded or it won’t happen.”

C40 Large Cities

Arup is advising the C40 Large Cities Climate Leadership Group on the development of sustainable cities. Leading the work is Mark Watts.

In the current economic climate, the idea of an engineering consultant committing to working pro-bono on six, demanding three to four month long strategic advice contracts around the world is rare indeed. But it is what Arup is doing for the influential C40 Large Cities Climate Leadership Group.

“It’s a pretty forward looking initiative for the company,” says the Arup director in charge of the project, Mark Watts.

He accepts that while it requires considerable up-front investment, it puts Arup in a very strong position when it comes to winning the paid consultancy work downstream.

“Tackling sustainability will be one of the main drivers for urban development.”

Watts joined Arup as a director in its energy consulting division in 2009 and is clearly one of the key players in developing the firm’s business around sustainable cities.

Before joining Arup he worked with the Greater London Authority and was an advisor to previous London mayor Ken Livingstone. In this role he was handed the task of hosting a London summit of the world leading cities in 2005 as a means to set up and implement what is now known as the C40.

This originally involved 18 world cities and was known as the Large Cities Climate Leadership Group but the programme has since grown to have 40 main members plus a number of other affiliates and gained a major boost in 2006 when it formed a partnership with the Clinton Foundation.

“We come up with soft proposals and then hold workshops to get the city officials involved and engaged”

Mark Watts, Arup


This partnership was signed officially by Livingstone and former US President Bill Clinton and spawned the new C40 name. However the rationale behind the grouping remains rooted in the 2005 ideal - simply to help cities work together to share information and expertise and thus help them to collectively tackle climate change.

Since 2009 Arup - and Watts - have been hugely involved with the C40 programme as the C40 strategic advisor. This pro-bono role in essence will see Arup providing consultancy advice to initially six major C40 cities - one in each continent - to help them form strategies around specific local climate change challenges.

“We come up with soft proposals and then hold workshops at which the key is to get the city officials involved and engaged. We find that is the best way to get buy-in - to help them to work up projects that they have a stake in and can then pitch to the City mayor.”

The cities currently receiving Arup’s assistance are:

  • Toronto, where it is testing the mayor’s sustainable development strategy
  • Melbourne, where it is developing a major IT strategy
  • Sãu Paulo where they are working up a new waste management strategy;
  • Ho Chi Minh where the strategy is to help the city adapt to climate change and introduce a flood and water resilience plan.
  • Addis Ababa, which is establishing an overarching sustainable development programme.

There are also plans to work on a project in a sixth city based in Europe.

Each project lasts up to four months and is specifically designed to engage the local politicians, officials and planners to ensure that they are deeply involved and capable of taking it forward toward implementation

Watts points out that it is very often a difficult job to achieve the required buy in from over-stretched local city officials, particularly since many only come to meetings because the mayor has told them to be there.

However, the challenge, he says, is to get them coming back because they want to.

However, Watts highlights the fact that, based on his experience of working with international cities, the sustainable cities movement is growing and is rising up local and national political agendas.

“We are moving away from the phase of just building big new eco-cities. The vast majority of carbon reduction in future will come from first retrofitting buildings and then from improving transport,” he says.

The resurgence of cycling in cities is, he points out, critical as a simple but very effective solution to the need for sustainable transport.

Watts highlights, by way of example, the major shift in attitude over the last few years in Beijing, a city that 10 years ago celebrated its move from bicycle to car travel as a sign of economic success. Now it is attempting to reverse the trend.What is claimed to be the world’s first office building to meet the BREEAM “Outstanding” sustainability accreditation will start construction in November.

Wuhan Energy Flower

The Wuhan Energy Flower in Wuhan, China was designed by Grontmij, in collaboration with Soeters Van Eldonk Architects. Standing 140m high, surrounded with leaf-shaped laboratories, the building will use zero carbon. As the public research platform of Wuhan University, it will become a major research and development centre.


The flower boasts several energy saving features, which, it is claimed, make the building unique. The roof is mainly solar panels, and rainwater is collected in the roof bowl and used as a water supply for the building. The 120m high central chimney building is designed to ventilate the offices. The flower pistil is not just a feature - it houses vertical wind turbines for generating wind energy to power the building and the edge of the bowl works as a sun roof to cool and heat the building.

It is hoped the building will contribute significantly to making Wuhan, with its 9M citizens, the most sustainable city development in China.
Elena Glynn

Remember you need water

An eco city needs to focus on four things, says Mott MacDonald’s leader on sustainable cities, Anne Kerr.

“Number one, you have to have a clear set of targets. And not targets that are country targets but your own whether they be for water, energy or biodiversity.

And they have to be targets that stretch you,” she says. “And monitor your progress against benchmarks.

“Then you need to have a concept plan and design that draws on the benefits of the local climate,” she continues.

“A lot of ‘eco cities’ are in the wrong place - where there is no water, for instance. Find a place where you have water, and wind say, for energy and then plan.

“Third, you need to understand that creating a sustainable city requires behavioural change, and that’s a very complex aspect of what you are trying to do.

“Do you want to create only an eco-enclave for the rich or do you want a more representative social demographic. Defining the social mix is one of the biggest challenges for new cities. People living there will take time to adapt. You can’t just build an eco city and off you go.

“The fourth thing you need to consider is you have to plan in to your eco-city the ability for it to grow. I don’t like the phrase carbon neutral. What do you do when you hit that? I prefer the idea of low carbon or low intensity city.

“Water and energy are the two key things you need to consider right at the start of any eco city plan. The masterplan for the buildings and the roads should come after you know where your clean water is coming from and where the energy to treat the dirty water will come from.




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