How our cities are creating a sustainable and healthy human environment.
Posted on 28 Nov 2022
If you want to see the sunshine, you have to weather the storm. - Frank Lane
Our cities have always been in a constant state of transition. The recent environmental and climate challenges have given a new impetus to examine the urban infrastructure and environment from a human perspective. The city dweller’s health, both mental and physical, is being placed at the forefront of city design and adaptation. In our previous article we looked at how our cities are becoming more sustainable, we now turn our focus to the human aspects of urban dwelling.
The green spaces of a city have been recognized as being an essential part of urban planning for many years. Not only do the urban green spaces provide recreational areas for the population to improve their physical health, they have been shown to be of benefit to the mental health of the population as well. However incorporating a green area into a city has its own challenges. New York’s Central Park, opened in 1858 has been a blueprint for urban park design worldwide, incorporating transport and utilities invisibly into its landscaping.
However in Japan, the phenomena of the ‘vertical forest’ where trees and plants are actually grown on buildings, has proved to be a solution to incorporating greenery into a highly concrete environment.
Dr Akira Miyawaki from Japan who was the recipient of the 2006 ‘Blue Planet Prize’, the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for ecology, developed a technique to create a native urban forest. This is a micro-forest that grows ten times faster than a traditional one, exhibits 20 times more biodiversity, is 30 times denser, is local, and most important of all, is collaborative. These micro-forests can be incorporated into existing urban planning, and even be self-funding.
Green architecture has built on the global goal of carbon neutrality, taking it as the metaphoric foundation stones of new building design, and extrapolated its notion to create spaces that respect the balance between people, and the environment that they live and work in. Carbon neutrality is seen as being just one element in the creation of new buildings. The respect for other elements of the human environment go hand-in-hand with the reduction in greenhouse emissions - reducing waste, creating more natural and green spaces, and creating a comfortable and safe place for the population overall.
Architects were one of the first groups to embrace the opportunities that the adaptation to a carbon-neutral thinking presented.
For example, back in 1994, architects Wong Mun Summ and Richard Hassell started a practice that has created world renowned green buildings worldwide. Their stunning Park Royal Hotel Pickering in Singapore boasts 15,000 square meters of four-storey tall sky-gardens, reflecting pools, waterfalls, planter terraces and cascading vertical greenery; it is the epitome of Singapore's garden-city reputation.
New building design can incorporate solar panels and natural building materials to improve ventilation and insulation, and ultimately to create a net carbon-neutral building that does not compromise the human environment.
We have discussed the use of solar panels to create electricity, but architects are developing other ways to make maximum use of solar energy by combining solar cells with natural light and wind. Architects in Australia have built an ‘eco-house’ with estimated bills of just £300 a year. The sustainable design embraces passive solar design techniques to minimize both energy bills and the environmental impact of the building. The building was designed to work with nature, rather than against it. The space is long and narrow, stretching from east to west to maximize the opportunity to capture the southern hemisphere light. The windows are on opposite sides of the space to capture naturally cooling breezes. This keeps the interior naturally warmer in winter and cooler in summer.
Paris was one of the first cities in 2007 to adopt a climate action plan, converting an old train yard into a climate-sensitive development that surrounds an urban park with residential buildings that home up to 7,500 people, creating an estimated 12,000 new job opportunities.
From a technical perspective, the practice of Business Information Modeling (BIM) takes a holistic approach to creating and managing information around the construction of a new building. This enables the fine-tuning of a building’s infrastructure, and gaining a deep understanding of the characteristics of the building, and its energy efficiency.
Improving the quality of air in high density urban environments is a global challenge that is being addressed with a number of initiatives.
Cities often face multiple pollution sources. For example, Hong Kong is looking at ways to tackle both the local street level pollution as well as the regional smog. Commercial vehicles are the main source of street level pollution while smog is caused by a combination of pollutants from motor vehicles, marine vessels, industry and power plants in both Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta (PRD) region. One study in the Hong Kong 2006 Civic Exchange Report found that air pollution was responsible for 6.8 million family doctor visits related to respiratory problems.
OpenWeather’s Global Weather Alerts can be used to receive push notifications of weather alerts in a uniform and useful view. These alerts are generated by national meteorological agencies and, for example, can be used by app developers to send susceptible people with health warnings, such as with the recent record breaking 40-degree Celsius temperatures in the UK.
Both regulatory and incentive based initiatives are being used to phase out Hong Kong’s estimated 80,000 commercial vehicles. Tighter emission standards, along with a green pilot transport fund that subsidizes the testing of both public and commercial green transport technologies. Industry is also being targeted by the new requirement for the use of ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel, as well as the moving away from the use of coal as a source of energy.
Hong Kong’s approach can also be seen to have been mirrored in other cities. London has recently expanded its Ultra Low Emission Zone, which requires most vehicles to meet the ULEZ emissions standards, or pay a £12.50 daily fee. This fee is in addition to the minimum £15 that all vehicles need to pay when entering an ever expanding ‘congestion zone’.
Understanding the weather to help our cities
The quality of the air and presence of pollutants in the urban environment is as much linked to the weather as with human activities. Some types of pollution are worse in the summer, while others are made worse by colder winter conditions.The same atmospheric conditions that create weather such as air pressure, temperature, and humidity, also affect air quality.
As air is almost always moving, industrial and natural pollutants from hundreds of miles away can affect the quality of air in cities. The process of convection can also have a natural cleansing effect on our cities. When heavier, warmer air rises and the cooler lighter air in the troposphere falls, pollutants are not destroyed, but moved to another part of the atmosphere. There are even cases when Saharan dust was found scattered around the city of London.
Sunshine and high summer temperatures can cause chemical changes to some pollutants, creating smog. However during the colder winter months, high pressure areas can cause wind stagnation, increasing the likelihood that the resulting higher fossil-fueled power consumption can increase urban pollutants.
Rain however can have a cleansing effect on our urban areas, lower pressure areas tend to create rain and wind, dispersing pollutants from urban environments.
In certain cities such as Denver and Mexico City, the local geography means that cold air is trapped in mountain basins, meaning the pollutants tend to remain at ground level, especially during the winter months.
Having an understanding of these variable and unavoidable weather conditions can help city planners introduce measures to create a healthier urban environment. For example, London’s Low Emission Zone scheme aims to reduce pollution generated by vehicles entering central London.
The OpenWeather Air Quality API provides current, forecast and historical air pollution data for any coordinates on the globe. This can help gauge the effectiveness of city anti-pollution schemes, as well as giving warnings to other organizations, such as the health services of potential risks to the population, especially those most at risk.
The financial climate can have as much an influence on urban sustainability as the natural one. Interest rates impact the borrowing that a city can potentially afford. In 2020, London raised £10million to tackle climate change and a ‘just and fair’ recovery as part of the Mayor of London’s Green New Deal Fund. In the same year, Toronto secured 100 million Canadian dollars in social bonds.
A fiscal framework, known as the Urban Finance Preconditions Framework has been created to help cities achieve the necessary fiscal, regulatory, policy, institutional, investment and credit environments to attract financing.
Cities are leveraging a variety of financial structures, including issuing sustainability bonds and crowd funding for community level projects. For example in Memphis, crowdfunding contributed a small but vital portion of funds for a cycle track linking a community to nearby parks and trails, with the remainder delivered by city grants and foundations.
The transition that cities are experiencing is dramatic. The populations are being asked to weather a storm of change, with the sunny reward of cleaner air, more pleasant living and working spaces, and lower fuel costs almost within touching distance.
At OpenWeather, we create highly recognisable weather products, aimed at the needs of our customers, that make working with weather data effective and straightforward.
The wide variety of these products work across a multitude of enterprises, and include a vast range of forecasts including minute forecast, observation and historic information for any global location. Our industry-standard, fast, reliable APIs streamline flexible integration with enterprise systems. Our pricing and licensing is transparent.
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In our next article on sustainability, we will look deeper into how the weather itself impacts air quality, and how it is such a vital element in understanding the most effective way climate change can be addressed.