Searching for the cities of the future

A panel discussion about the future of sustainable cities was presented by Sustainable Development Goals Student Hub (SDG), ECOLE, and the Research and Sustainability Network on Feb. 12 and marked the close of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) week. SDG week ran from Feb. 8-12, featuring panel discussions and movie screenings open to all who were interested. The panel addressed the 11th and 12th of the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals, and the three panellists—Building, Civil, and Environmental Engineering professor Dr. Ursula Eiker, Urban planner Louis Mazerolle, and Geography PhD candidate Kerstin Schreiber—presented research to show how academics, planners, and city governments are working hard to meet these goals. 

Eiker, who teaches at Concordia University, opened with a presentation on creating cities with smaller energy demand and carbon footprints. Eiker argued that planners should build cities in a compact formation to lower energy consumption in buildings and reduce the amount of transit required for movement. Eiker works in the Next Generation Cities Institute at Concordia, where researchers use computers to model the impact of planning for sustainability on cities’ greenhouse gas outputs. Developed countries tend towards increasing levels of urban sprawl, and Eiker’s research argues why this sprawl is highly detrimental to the environment and health of people living in cities. 

“Cooperative or communal housing needs to see a renaissance,” Eiker said. “It is good for social interaction, and it is a good way to slow the rebound effect we see where people with money choose to spend their money on goods that are less sustainable.”

The rebound effect, also known as the Jevons paradox, is a widely discussed phenomenon in sustainability. It occurs when technological advancements introduced to reduce emissions fail to do so because of a rise in improved technology use. In developed countries with more resources, communal goods are a thing of the past because most people have their own products. The rebound effect will continue to strengthen as wealth builds and more people can purchase their own cars instead of taking public transit.

Next, Mazerolle argued that safe public spaces and large green areas are important for creating sustainable cities that benefit their residents. Currently, Mazerolle is working on a project in Laval to update development bylaws for environmental protection. Mazerolle’s approach to planning sustainable cities is similar to Eiker’s, in that it is better to build up than out. 

“It is always better to start building a new sustainable city on top of the older city,” Mazerolle said. “Green fields are easier to build off of, and there is less of a wait for permits, and the land is often cheaper. We need to flip the incentives so that it is easier to build on what is already there.”

The final speaker was Schreiber, who discussed the issues of food accessibility in high density cities. Since cities are not usually conducive to food production, city dwellers have always relied on others to procure their food. This is part of the reason for food deserts, areas where healthy food is not available, and other inefficiencies in the food system, such as food waste. Schreiber proposed several solutions to these problems, including the food waste ban that was piloted in French supermarkets. Urban agriculture has also seen a revival in the past 10 years, with rooftop farms and community gardens appearing across North America. This offers a sustainable way to close food cycles and serves as a short term antidote to food deserts. 

“We are still figuring out which is the most sustainable way to feed cities: Food supply coming from local food systems, or global trade of food,” Schreiber said. “Global trade keeps food affordable and accessible, but the emissions are also higher, so it is likely that neither of the two extremes will be the solution, but rather a combination of those and other ideas.” 

 

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