How Low Carbon is Swansea Bay?
So the question was, how do we reduce the carbon footprint of any city and Swansea in particular?
The University of Wales, Trinity St David’s has recently completed a new library building in Swansea’s SA1 district. This is where I presented my thoughts on the subject.
In the audience were those focused on controlling the energy efficiency of their building systems or University campus. Others were involved in getting more green infrastructure into the city. But as an architect and urban designer I decided to take the broad perspective on low carbon reduction.
It seems inevitable that depending on what industry is being represented, the green agenda appears dominated by a single issue.
so for many, recycling is everything.
and to others it is renewable energy that dominates the agenda.
but yet for others, its more green infrastructure we need, at any cost.
Now, individually, each of these things is a vital contributor but most importantly sustainability must be a holistic pursuit. Besides, it must be an inclusive and diverse discussion that applies to every facet of public and private life.
The Natural Order
I began with examining the complex patterns of historic settlements beginning with Swansea. And so I insert here map snippet showing the High Street prior to the second world war bombing raid.
The natural order of human settlements is evident when viewing the maps of organic street patterns as depicted in this historic map of Swansea. But contrast this with what Jane Jacobs calls the ‘pretended order’ of rectilinear geometry on which town planning was based for much of the 20th century. It is an order still prevailing in many quarters, even whilst undergoing a slow death.
Such historic plan forms are based on connected streets and alleys set on a grid, deflected to take account of natural phenomena. Contributing to the deflection of the grid includes things like; movement patterns; topographical irregularity; ecological features and active centres. These elements resemble the arteries, veins, capillaries and the vital heart organ of the human body. This is because any blockage in the system has serious consequences for the human body and equally it does so for cities and neighbourhoods. But most of all, like blood cells continuously circulating, these streets are walkable, open systems.
I looked at the compact nature of the traditional city and the efficiencies that this brings automatically. Contrast this with the inefficiencies brought about by designing the car dependent, low density development model that now surrounds most historic centres.
Compact cities have the great ability to integrate multimode transit systems because of their relative density. This is demonstrated in cities as diverse as Strasbourg (The Strasbourg Report) and Portland Oregon when integrating light transit systems with cycling, walking, buses and rail. What could Swansea do to invest in the future of sustainable travel solutions? Have they lost the battle with out of town shopping centres or will there be a renaissance of the city centre? Places and properties along the recently built “East London Line” become quickly more desirable and active after years of neglect. This has increased the value of nearby properties by up to 25% since opening the line. It is also an indication of the impact that such decisions can have on value of the city.
And it goes on.
How much better is walking and cycling and the distribution of mixed uses throughout the movement network in a compact city or neighbourhood? Students at Trinity St Davids cannot be persuaded to come without a car and one of the excuses is that the walk from the station make them feel insecure across that part of town. Parts of this walk includes nice bits like the pedestrian bridge across the River Tawe, but the whole experience is not pleasant enough to get on the bike or walk. It is a positive sign that Swasnea City Council is now working on a program to connect and improve the green infrastructure. To be effective, this will need to be done in collaboration with improving the linkage of mixed uses across the city. Also, ensuring that active frontages and good natural surveillance is built in will also help.
Like the ingredients in a rich fruitcake, good sustainable urbanism admits of many components and influences that together can blend all the flavours into one. This could mean that cake may even rise to give that beautiful consistency of a mature city.
Architecture and Urban Design, should not be thought of as separate disciplines. They should be one and the same, seamlessly moving between the planning of walkable neighbourhoods and the design of a well proportioned window surround, eaves, gable or brickwork detail. To go further, low carbon building materials should favour natural products over synthetic ones, generally originating in fossil fuels. So this aught to be as much a consideration as the implementation of traffic calming measures through the design of road junctions and shared surfaces.
The revival of institutions
How can more citizens be involved in this conversation? Could institutions who already hold information charting the lives and culture of the people in the city, be places for citizen engagement? Would a perspective like this help reimagine the future of institutions like Swansea Museum and the Environment Centre?
Is there an opportunity for faith communities to encourage active participation in greening the city like the Eco-Church movement with Renew Wales and others to help engage wider participation through existing networks?
Changing the subject, what about ‘insulation’? Much insulation that is pumped out by the building industry is synthetic and has a high carbon footprint. Furthermore the toxins given off by such material ensures that internal air quality is unhealthy, not good for anyone, specially for those with asthma and other allergies. What materials are Swansea specifying for the raft of student accommodation coming on the market?
So here are just some of the ingredients that make up this rich tapestry of low carbon inducing activity: Walkability; biodiversity; green infrastructure; low carbon locally sourced building materials; recycling; community engagement; social inclusion; craftsmanship; insulation choices; culture; solar power; public transit; community energy supplies.
Only if this work is carried out collaboratively by us all, do we have any hope of reversing the production of the giga-tons of carbon being released into the atmosphere daily.
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