What can we learn from 9 metro projects?

A lot, particularly about successful planning of mega projects, argues Roger Allport.

Allport 2011

Not only did Allport complete a PhD on this topic, he published a book on it: Planning Major Projects.  Rather than undertake a review of the work, which is well-worth reading, I will highlight some of the concepts and quotes which particularly drew my attention and which help shed light on the wider role of planning and planners in today’s world.

The main argument of the book is that the planning and development of major projects urgently requires rethinking, to account for two increasingly-obvious realities: i) technical processes alone are not sufficient to arrive at a successful project, ii) the world we live in is hugely turbulent and ever-changing.  To address the first area, Allport calls for the integration of experience and imagination in the planning and delivery process.  For the second area, Allport’s solution is to approach project development with far more consciousness and acceptance of the inevitability of change, building in flexibility to address even strategic change when it occurs.

DLR station, London

Looking at the broader picture, Allport makes the point early on that cities (such as Singapore, Hong Kong, London, Barcelona, Munich) which have achieved considerable sustainable development outcomes have not done so by accident, but “by purposeful action over a sustained period“.  While there is no single ‘best practice’ formula, Allport argues that each city had to address three issues successfully: policy, management, and financing.  They each had proactive and technically informed leadership (policy), who ensure that policy and projects can be delivered efficiently through decision-making bodies (management), and are careful when committing to major projects (finance).

What does this mean for planning and planners?

Allport describes the purpose of planning as the search for a project which is technically and financially feasible (provides good value for money in socio-economic terms), politically supported, and viewed positively by the public.  He warns against the usual scenario of a planner’s role being restricted to that of a technocrat – i.e. over-emphasising technical analysis and ignoring the influence of political and public support.  Instead he calls for a planner to be “both an entrepreneur, persuasively engaging with stakeholders and shaping the project in response to their agendas, and a competent technocrat.”

In addition to the above ‘dual’ role of a planner, Allport calls for other substantial changes.  He draws attention to a point we all know but hardly implement: the critical importance of the early stages.  A strategic and holistic prefeasibility study is one of the most effective tools in meeting the objectives of a project sponsor.  Allport also stresses the importance of learning from successes and failures of mega projects around the world and proposes that public-sector planning be reality-checked.

Allport succinctly captures the central requirements of planning in three words: systematic, opportunistic, and realistic.  In order to be undertaken with integrity, planning needs to follow a logical and replicable process to identify successful projects (as defined above), out of an almost infinite number of possible projects, and usually in a context of uncertainty about stakeholder responses and funding.

In his conclusion, Allport draws attention to one defining characteristic of mega projects that has important implications for their planning and development and crystallises the challenge of delivering them: “much needs to go right during their long development history and a single poor decision at any stage can fatally undermine their viability.”  He acknowledges that the great majority of participants in major project development “do their best in difficult, and sometimes impossible, circumstances.”  He hopes that his analysis of the underlying cause of existing problems, based on evidence from projects around the world, will guide practitioners (politicians, planners, engineers…) to begin the process of change necessary to deliver successful projects.

 

 

Questions for the Urban Age

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A few weeks ago, a series of thought-provoking debates were held at LSE to celebrate 10 years of the Urban Age programme.  A beta website was also launched making available the research undertaken as part of the programme.  If you have a few spare minutes this holiday season I highly recommend watching the recorded presentations.  If not, keep reading for snippets of the insights shared.

Saskia Sassen: what is urban?

In the introduction to her talk, Sassen provided her view of what makes cities interesting today: they are complex, open systems which have outlived many other formal but closed systems (such as corporations); they are spaces where those without power can make a history, a culture, an economy; and they are frontier zones where actors from different worlds have an encounter without established rules of engagement.

In typical Sassen fashion, her talk was based on well-researched numerical data, which she went through to make her point about equity and ownership in cities, a salient topic for many major cities today.

The point which struck me the most was the story she told of a new major project in Brooklyn. A low-rise, mixed-use district is being developed into 14 luxury residential towers by foreign investors.  While the new development will certainly add density, Sassen argues that it will actually “de-urbanise” a deeply urban area by privatising land, creating a single-use area, and eliminating the fine urban tissue which exists today.

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Joan Clos: what makes “good urbanisation”?

Clos, the Executive Director of UN-HABITAT and ex-mayor of Barcelona shared his experience on how to make the most of urbanisation and steer the process towards value generation. Ten points were included on his slides and he diligently went through all of them during his talk (despite time warnings from the moderator!).

In his view, getting the density right is absolutely key.  To achieve ‘economies of agglomeration’ he recommended aiming for a density around 15,000 inhabitants per sqkm. To put this number into perspective, that’s around half the average density of Mumbai and five times the density of Dubai (based on 2007 data).

The other benchmark Clos offered is his formula for good city planning: 50% of city area for public space (30-35% streets, 15-20% open space) and 50% for buildings. He continued to point out that cities today have far less public space: the typical average is 30% with urban poor areas at 10%.

Suketha Mehta and Richard Sennett: who is included?

In his talk on inclusivity in the city, Mehta began by describing Coney Island, New York’s “capital of fun”.  He used this example to illustrate three principles for creating a Just City: don’t exclude anybody from the law, don’t exclude anybody from the conversation, and don’t exclude anybody from the celebration.  Mehta provided interesting examples from around the world (Rio, Istanbul, Mumbai,…) to expand on and illustrate these points.

During the second part of the evening, Sennett provided fascinating insights into borders and boundaries, and drew out the importance of “porosity” in natural and physical systems.  He showed examples of urban design interventions in Amsterdam which introduced porosity into the public realm, blurring the boundaries and edges between human and vehicle spaces.  His main point: we know how to make a porous city – one which draws in people, emphasises true mixed use,shifts in shape to accommodate change, and one which nurtures the complexity of identity.  In his view, the time has come to make it.

Mehta’s concluding argument is worth a special mention. He stressed the critical importance of urban planners as public intellectuals, generating excitement in the public sphere and thereby creating the necessary political will to implement change.

 

 

Air Pollution: Urban Myths and Realities

Note: I am honoured to be a contributor to the The Nature of Cities virtual magazine, and very pleased to shared excerpts from my first essay below.

As a start, let us remind ourselves of the figures published by WHO last year: air pollution is responsible for over 7 million deaths a year. Out of those, around 3.7 million are due to outdoor air pollution. So, ambient air pollution and its detrimental health impacts are a reality. And we are almost certainly underestimating the negative health impacts, as these figures are based on the impacts of only some of the known pollutants (e.g. PM2.5). Moreover, there are additional health impacts to consider beyond mortality, such as respiratory infections. While the majority of the deaths are in developing countries, air pollution is still a serious issue in the developed world. For example, in the U.K. it is estimated that early deaths from air pollution are higher than those from obesity and alcohol combined.

Let us also remind ourselves that, as a human race, we have previously won the battle against air pollution. In cities such as London and Dublin, where pollution was primarily linked to coal, banning the use of coal in cities has helped us get rid of the visible, short-term black carbon smog. Even in the case of non-coal-related (photochemical) smog in Los Angeles and the wider area of Southern California, improved emission standards and other policy interventions over the past two decades have significantly improved both the air quality and the health of residents. This collective experience has left us with a wealth of knowledge on managing air quality—it is a science that we understand well. At least, the scientists and experts do.

London buses

Today, some cities, such as Beijing and Krakow, are still struggling with air pollution impacts of coal burning. Other cities have the challenge of addressing air pollution from transport, industry, agriculture or natural dust. In the vast majority of instances, pollution results as a combination of these sources in varying proportions. Moreover, this pollution is often not generated within the city’s limit, or even within the country’s borders.

Where does this leave us?

  1. Measure: given the evidence on the serious health risks of air pollution and the technology and information available today, there is no excuse for not understanding a city’s air quality performance. Air quality experts can advise on the most suitable indicators to measure and the most appropriate analytical and modeling tools to utilize. With global-satellite modeling data becoming widely accessible through global ranking studies, there is little room for hiding our heads in the sand. Ground-based measurements are still needed to set context-specific standards and to monitor compliance with them.
  2. Address root causes: understanding the root causes will help us to develop and implement effective interventions at a national, regional and city level. In drastic situations, these may need to be equally drastic interventions, such as banning use of all or some vehicles in certain locations or at certain times. Particular focus should be placed on improving air quality where people live. Mitigation and compensation measures (e.g. planting trees, moving residents away from motorways) should be a last resort and not a primary strategy.
  3. Raise awareness: the World Resources Institute is campaigning for better access to environmental information for the general public They report that 53 percent of countries in the world do not report urban outdoor air pollution information. I strongly believe that people have a right to know when air quality conditions are unsafe in their neighbourhoods, to allow them to plan their activities accordingly and take the necessary precautions. Organizations such as Clean Air London have done a tremendous job of cutting through the myths and jargon to bring a clear and compelling argument for addressing air pollution to both the public and the politicians. One Atmosphere is a recent video they produced as part of these efforts, and it provides a good example of effective communication.

The recent trend towards healthy, liveable cities has helped bring air pollution back to the spotlight in many regions around the world. It is a global issue with many local flavours—one which we have successfully addressed before and which we cannot afford to ignore now.

Full article published on The Nature of Cities.

 

TheGreenUrbanista goes to London

Rather than searching for the cultural nucleus of planning practice in each nation, we need to understand how changes occur in planning practice in all nations, including our own.  Lacking such a comparative and dynamic understanding of social change, which is a central objective of planning, we may inadvertently legitimize both the stereotypes we hold of others and those they hold of us.

Comparative Planning Cultures, Sanyal, B., 2005

That’s right! I’m in London, for the next 12 months that is, to complete the MSc International Planning programme at the Bartlett, UCL.  Just finished the first week of class and I’m very excited about what lies ahead!

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Why International Planning?  The quote above might give you an idea.  What I’m after is a deeper and broader understanding of how nations, regions, cities, and neighbourhoods around the world have been and are being planned, developed, and run.  Given that urban planning is a relatively nascent discipline in most parts of the Middle East (at least as far as I can tell), I felt there was a lot to learn from others regions.

I believe that the many of the key battles of our time, those against climate change, inequality, and poverty for example, will be won or lost in cities and urban settlements around the world.  Spending a year reading and debating urban planning in one of the world’s most global cities (let’s not get into rankings) sounded like a worthwhile investment and a fun adventure…so here I am!

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As expected, the first week of classes included many attempts at capturing the essence of this discipline called ‘planning’.  Surprisingly, the starting point was that planning, whether related to social policy, physical infrastructure or anything in between, was not a neat technical discipline, but rather a quirky and very political activity.  And these were the academics speaking!

The first class of the Mega Infrastructure Planning course was particularly interesting.  The pace of this rapidly-evolving field means that nobody really has the answers, stressed the professor.  He did; however, share a lot of questions with us.  How do we plan large scale projects in this century or risk and uncertainty?  Who are the winners and losers (and yes, there are always losers)?  Do cities today build infrastructure to connect and collaborate or compete? How innovative can mega projects really be? What is success for a mega infrastructure project?

Of course, one of London’s delights is the incredible diversity on offer – diversity of people, place, and activity.  Out of a cohort of 24 students, there are no more than two people from the same country.  I look forward to sharing a classroom with peers from across the globe – literally.

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I also look forward to sharing more of my learning journey on this blog, and to your valuable comments, feedback, thoughts and insights…I’ll take anything I can get!

First question for my dear readers then: if you had to write 9,000 words on the social, political, environmental, and economic planning issues of one Arab city – which city would you pick?

Advice to frustrated champions

Earlier this week I gave a talk in Dubai around the concept of One Planet Consumption and how built-environment professionals can and are ‘fixing’ the planet. After thirty minutes of listening to me talk about cities taking actionthe questions from the audience seemed to all point in one direction: how do we translate this momentum to more sustainable outcomes on the individual projects we are working on today?

Excellent question.  Despite trying, I do not think I did the question justice during the event. So, with the benefit of time to reflect, below is my humble advice on taking sustainability action at the ‘micro’ project level.

Get in early – as a member of the project team, one’s ability to influence a project towards more sustainable outcomes decreases exponentially as the project progresses.  The decisions which have the biggest impact on a project’s sustainability performance are typically taken at the early (visioning / concept / schematic) stages of a project.  These are decision on key aspects such as site selection, land use, orientation, phasing, project goals…etc.  If your involvement starts in the detailed design or delivery stage, be realistic about the level of change you can influence and focus your action and attention accordingly.

Know your client – every client and project are different.  Before proposing, let alone progressing, any sustainability solutions make sure you have a clear understanding of your client’s drivers and desires.  What are they willing to spend on?  How long of a return period are they willing to accept?  How does their brand (or their project’s brand) relate to sustainability?  What is their appetite for risk on new technology and innovation?  How interested are they in future-proofing their project? Do they have a remit to benefit the wider city beyond the footprint of their project?  How ambitious are they when it comes to sustainability performance? Will business-as-usual do?

The answers to these questions are not always obvious, even to the clients themselves.  Often, it takes a sustainability-themed workshop with the client (early on) to tease out, explore, and challenge the answers to these questions.  It is an exercise well-worth doing as it can provide clarity to the whole team and avoid wasted effort down the line.

Focus on the priorities – when it comes to a topic as broad as ‘sustainability’, it is easy to get lost or side-tracked.  This is why setting project-specific sustainability objectives, informed by client drivers and the sustainability hierarchies, is vitally important.  The objectives need to be informed by a materiality discussion that highlights the most significant opportunities, challenges, and impacts facing the project.

Of course, the objectives must be agreed by the client and project team, otherwise they will be ignored when the time comes to take difficult decisions.  An independent sustainability professional (i.e. someone who maintains an overarching remit) can help keep the project team focused on meeting the agreed objectives and avoid the project chasing unrealistic solutions.

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Look on the bright side – The industry definitely has real challenges in the Middle East when it comes to implementing sustainability: from low (or non-existent) utility tariffs to the short-term interests of many developers.  Nevertheless, it is a region which is quickly catching up and one where everyone wants to be a market leader, in some form.

I have had the pleasure and satisfaction of working on a number of projects where, by following the above steps and integrating with the wider team, I have been able to influence the project direction towards a more sustainable outcome.  In some instances it has been subtle yet important wins (e.g. improving comfort for pedestrians or reducing the need for irrigation), and in others more headline ones (e.g. integrating innovative energy and waste technology).  There have of course been situations where I have not been able to influence key decisions, and I have learnt from those when and how to present sustainability ideas.

Personally, I am most satisfied when my work is able to forever change the perspective of even one individual on sustainability.

 

 

A values-based call for climate action

Over 20 scholars, academics and activists from across the Muslims world came together earlier this month to issue a Declaration on Global Climate Change.  I was genuinely impressed with the content of the declaration and believe it has the potential to be a powerful call for action.

Besides the fact that it speaks to one of the largest audiences on the planet, the declaration encompasses key messages and principles which are too often forgotten.  It addresses everyone from national leaders and their people to the business community, and does not shy away from specifically calling on ‘well-off nations and oil-producing states’.

The Declaration begins with a preamble that draws on the recent scientific reports by the UNEP (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment) and the UNFCCC.  It moves on to affirm the creation of Earth in perfect equilibrium and the human-caused catastrophe resulting from the disruption of the balance.  It recognises both mankind’s abilities and limitations, as well as our accountability for our actions.  Finally it calls on people, organisations, and countries to take meaningful, far-sighted, and immediate action.

I have included my favourite five quotes below.

1 – Fundamental flaw

We note with alarm the combined impacts of rising per capita consumption combined with the rising human population.

Similar to the World Environment Day slogan I mentioned in a previous post, this statement highlights perhaps the most fundamental flaw in our current way of life: over-consumption.  Coupled with a 7+ billion population, the flaw turns into a catastrophe.

2 – Yes we can

We recognize that we are but a miniscule part of the divine order, yet within that order, we are exceptionally powerful beings, and have the responsibility to establish good and avert evil in every way we can.

If that is not empowering, then I don’t know what is!  Even better, it is both humbling and empowering.

Islamic Declaration_participants

Participants in the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium

 

3 – With great power comes great responsibility

Intelligence and conscience behoove us, as our faith commands, to treat all things with care and awe (taqwa) of their Creator, compassion (rahmah) and utmost good (ihsan).

Imagine if we held this statement in mind every time we came to make a decision, whether it was what food to eat, what shirt to buy, what holiday to book or what business to run.  How different would our choices be?  How different would our Earth be?

4 – Enough is enough

We call upon the Conference of the Parties (COP)…to bring their discussions to an equitable and binding conclusion.

Do you know that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) held it’s first session in November 1988…that’s right, 27 years ago.

5 – Fresh solutions

We call on the people of all nations and their leaders to…set in motion a fresh model of wellbeing, based on an alternative to the current financial model which depletes resources, degrades the environment, and deepens inequality.

Let us not kid ourselves, addressing a fundamental flaw requires a fundamental change in the way we run our economies and our lives. The good news is that if we do manage to get out of the box of the current ‘growth forever’ financial / consumption model, we can address economic, environmental, and social challenges all at the same time.

While it might seem like a daunting mission, I truly believe that we are beginning to make progress towards a more balanced existence, and that we have the ability to get there in the coming few decades.

The missing hierarchy

If you’ve engaged in the thinking around sustainability even from afar, then you’ve probably come across the energy hierarchy, water hierarchy, and waste hierarchy.  These are simple models (often illustrated as pyramids or inverted pyramids) which help designers, planners, policy makers and the rest of us make sensible decisions about managing energy, water, and waste.  They do so by helping us focus on the most effective solutions first, from both a technical and cost perspective.

In the case of waste, for example, the hierarchy prioritises reducing waste (i.e. avoiding it to begin with), reusing it if we cannot avoid creating it, and then finally recycling it if we cannot reuse it any more.

While recycling might be the first thing that comes to one’s mind on the topic of waste, the hierarchy reminds us that there are a number of topics to address first before we even begin to think of recycling. Energy and water hierarchies are similar: they focus first on reducing (or eliminating) demand, and only once demand is optimised do they consider supply options, conventional or otherwise.

It’s about time we start thinking about Transport in the same way.

While it does not have a wikipedia entry like the other sustainability hierarchies do (superficial yet telling evidence of its novelty), the transport hierarchy does in fact exist as a concept. The Institute of Mechanical Engineers does a good job of describing it in their policy paper published in 2013.

Similar to the other hierarchies, a sustainable transport hierarchy focuses first on reducing (or eliminating) demand, and then on shifting the demand to more sustainable options.  Only then does it address optimising system efficiency and increasing capacity.

Source: Transport Hierarchy, Institute of Mechanical Engineers: http://www.imeche.org/docs/default-source/position-statements-transport/imeche-transport-hierarchy-ps-v5.pdf?sfvrsn=0

Why is a Transport Hierarchy helpful?

Transport is a topic which is always present is sustainable planning and development discussions, due to its significant impacts, but only in a limited way.

For example, sustainability rating systems generally focus on a few aspects mostly related to enabling modal shift to walking, cycling or public transport [priority 2].  Increasing the number of public transport stops, providing bike racks, and allowing for comfortable pedestrian paths initiatives which are generally promoted by rating schemes.

There are typically sustainability credits which address providing amenities (e.g. grocery, ATMs, clinics,…etc.) in the vicinity of residential or commercial buildings.  However, these tend to be either very easy or very difficult wins as often the land-use decisions have already been made.

From the other perspective, transport planners and engineers generally have limited involvement on sustainability discussions.  Even worse, many of them have been appointed to make sure the roads are big enough to take all the cars, period.

My experience of masterplanning in the Middle East is that transport discussions generally start (not end) at increasing capacity [priority 4].  In some instances, optimising system efficiency [priority 3] is partly considered.  Minimising transport demand and enabling modal shift [priorities 1 and 2] are usually entirely overlooked.

Even when developments are intended to be places for ‘live, work, and play’, this philosophy often does not get fully implemented and does not make its way into traffic models.

The result: ‘sustainable’ car-dependent developments with bicycle racks and electric chargers, and cities with ever-expanding highways.

Is it that simple?

Of course not…

Sustainable transport is about a lot more than just carbon or even air emissions (which could potentially be covered under optimising system efficiency).  There are other environmental aspects to be considered such as noise and visual impact.

More importantly, there are salient social and economic factors involved such as accessibility, social inclusion, employment creation, maintenance costs and land valuation.

This is probably why sustainable transport has managed to escape the hierarchy model.  It is also probably why sustainability professionals have generally stayed away from delving into holistic transport planning and instead touched on specific transport aspects – increasing the number of bus stops or promoting low-carbon fuels.

Nevertheless, a sustainable transport hierarchy can add a great deal of clarity to planning and design discussions, along with the other sustainability hierarchies, even if only as a starting point.

Resilience…the new sustainability?

A couple of years ago, I was introduced to the concept of City Resilience by some of my colleagues at Arup.  Initially, I considered ‘resilience’ to be the likely next step for the ‘sustainability’ movement.

However, as I look more into it, I am changing my view and realising that resilience is its own field, with potentially a lot of new and exciting thinking to bring to the sphere of city planning and public policy.

What is it about?

Although a bit long, I often revert to this definition:

Urban Resilience is the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.

Amman - a complex capital city and one of the 100 Resilient Cities

Amman – a capital city of complex systems and one of the 100 Resilient Cities

 

I like it because it brings together many of the key concepts:

Systems – our cities have become an intricate web of complex systems.  This is precisely why the concept of resilience which originates in the field of ecology (i.e. resilient ecosystems) has great relevance to the urban context today.

Survive, adapt, grow – resilience is not just about ‘bouncing back’ after an event, it is also about building flexibility into the city systems such they can adapt to the change and thus do not need to ‘bounce back’.

Chronic and acute – resilience is not just about reacting to sudden catastrophic events such as earthquakes and terror attacks.  It is also about dealing with long-term challenges such as poverty and climate change.

How is it different?

Resilience widens discussions and debates such that they are about the entire population, particularly the vulnerable.  It brings a recognition that a city is only as strong as its weakest link (system, demographic group, or neighbourhood).  This becomes obvious as soon as system-thinking is applied to a city.

Planning for resilience also brings a realisation that good planning is not about predicting the future and designing to accommodate or mitigate it.  Rather, it is about holistic, responsible strategic planning and implementation that results in a strong city that can flourish regardless of circumstances, many of which are beyond our control.

Finally, resilience is not about the triple bottom line.  While it encompasses all three aspects (environmental, social, economic) and more, it does so in a different paradigm – one which relates more to complex realities and outcomes than to individual disciplines.  Only once I stopped looking for the environmental / social / economic tags, did I begin to grasp what resilience could be about.

What are cities in the Middle East doing about Resilience?

Amman, Byblos and Ramallah have already been chosen to be part of the 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) challenge, and are developing strategies related to their specific challenges (including energy security, rapid expansion, and climate risks).

The recently released Dubai Plan 2021 explicitly references resilience in a number of places, and implicitly refers to it in others.

A number of other countries in the region (e.g. Qatar, Oman) are looking into climate change adaptation strategies, which could be a way of beginning the wider discussion around resilience.

Want to find out more?

Resilience is a concept here to stay.  I don’t think it will generate its own industry of consultants, advisors and analysts like the sustainability movement has.  Rather, I believe it will be a term city planners and built-environment professionals will help to define and refine in the coming 5 – 10 years.

Global research and development initiatives, like the 100RC, will play an important part in applying the concepts to real-life situations.

If you’re interested in exploring the concept further and integrating the thinking it into your own work, below are a few suggested links:

ICLEI Resilience Library

ResilientCity.org

City Resilience Framework

One Planet Consumption Challenge

I love this year’s World Environment Day slogan:

Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care.

I love it because it captures so well what I believe is this century’s biggest challenge: providing for the wellbeing of up to 9 billion people within the finite resources of our planet.  We are currently consuming at 1.5 times Earth’s capacity, according to 2014 Living Planet Report.  And that is with only 7 billion people on the planet, 1.3 billion of which live in extreme poverty and thus are not particularly well and consume far less than their share of Earth’s capacity.

So, for those of us who have the luxury of making lifestyle choices – what can we do?

Buy less

This might not be on the first ‘eco action’ that comes to our mind as we are usually bombarded with messages about buying eco-friendly / recycled / local / organic / fair-trade products.  But what about not buying at all?  Do you really need that new shirt / watch / phone / house?

I am a great believer in the ingenuity of the human race.  Nevertheless, I am not convinced that we can maintain our current levels of consumption and just innovate ourselves out of the One Planet consumption challenge.  The sooner we accept that we have to reduce our consumption, the sooner we can get to a One Planet lifestyle.  Of course, we are unlikely to hear this message from our favourite corporate brands or politicians.

If you are not one of the 4 million people who have watched The Story of Stuff, then I highly recommend you take a few minutes (21 to be exact) to do that:

The video is delivered in a  simple way but don’t let that fool you: its message is extremely powerful.  In fact, a whole movement has started on the back of this movie.  It illustrates why a product (or service) costs significantly more than the figure on the price tag.  Just because we are not currently paying the full price of ‘stuff’, does not mean the real cost will magically disappear.

Buying less (or minimalism as some choose to call it) will not only help us save the planet, but will also save us money and perhaps even allow us to work less and rest more.

If you really must buy, then please do look into eco-friendly / recycled / local / organic / fair-trade products and services.  If you are having a problem finding such goods, then the way around that is to clearly (and politely) request them from your favourite stores.  Or start a business and provide them to yourselves and others!

Waste less

That is, waste less electricity, food, water, materials…even waste!  The resources to help us do this are all around us.

Heroes of the UAE is an award-winning campaign providing tips on energy and water efficiency for individuals, schools, and corporations.  I am sure we can each think of a few lifestyle changes we can make to be more efficient with energy and water, whether it is turning the A/C a few degrees up or not washing our cars every day.

Almost every major city in the region has a recycling program.  It might not be the most convenient or efficient, but that is not an excuse to ignore it.  There are also many charities which will accept used items, from clothes and books to furniture and electronics.  Who needs recycling when someone else can reuse?

Food waste is a big issue in the Gulf; it is typically around 40 – 50% of household waste, which is a much higher percentage than the global average.  For example, food waste forms less than 15% of municipal solid waste in the US.  As a refence  Given that agriculture globally accounts for 92% of the global water footprint, throwing food away is wasting both food and water.

Ramadan challenge

A friend of mine came up with this challenge a few years ago: a “Buy-nothing Ramadan”.  Check it out and if you decide to take it up please let me know how it goes.

May this Ramadan be a time of reflection, moderation, and consciousness for all – Ramadan Kareem!

On sustainable infrastructure

The first time I came across the topic, I was part of a team developing a sustainability framework for a mega transport project in the UAE.  While there were a number emerging local guidelines relating to sustainable buildings and neighbourhoods, there was a void when it came to local guidance on sustainability for infrastructure projects.  Nevertheless, the client had the foresight of introducing the requirement for a comprehensive sustainability framework from the early planning stages. I love a challenge and this was one I learnt a great deal from and thoroughly enjoyed.

Having gone through that project and a few more since then, below are some thoughts on ‘must-haves’ for sustainability frameworks related to infrastructure planning.  I have focused on areas that are of particular relevance to major infrastructure projects, and thus may be overlooked by professionals coming from other backgrounds.  However, that is not to say that the list is exhaustive or that other sustainability topics (e.g. energy, water, waste, materials) are not applicable to the infrastructure scope and scale.

Climate Change Adaptation

Unlike buildings, infrastructure projects are planned to have lifetimes of 50+ years (often 100+ years). Given that time frame, climate change adaptation is a topic which cannot be ignored, even from a pure risk management perspective.

The Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia (ISCA) recognised this and took the bold step of including a credit on climate change adaptation in their IS rating tool released in 2012.

For the Middle East, and particularly the Gulf region, sea level rise, temperature rise, and drought-related water shortages are all risk-drivers to be considered carefully.  Once project-specific climate change risks have been identified, they can be addressed through introducing adaptation measures in the design, construction, and operational stages.  As usual, the key is starting early and planning for change from the outset.

Community impact

Due to their scale, infrastructure projects can be significantly disruptive to their surroundings, during both the construction and operational stages.  It is therefore essential to plan the project on the basis of avoiding and mitigating negative impacts on aspects such as the acoustic and visual environment, traffic, and connectivity.

It is critical to have a strict internal mechanism for checking compliance against sustainability goals and objectives, throughout the project lifetime.  For community impact, this can be undertaken through gathering live feedback from the neighbouring areas and taking action to address any issues which arise.  An environmental assessment at the planning stage can only go so far in predicting impacts, a reality check during construction and operation is necessary.

The CEEQUAL rating scheme includes a whole section focusing on People and Communities, providing useful guidance on aspects to be considered.

Road AD

Articulating the wider benefits

Major infrastructure projects are generally built to fulfil a social purpose, be it providing access to water and electricity or facilitating efficient movement of people and goods.  As such, infrastructure projects will likely have wide socio-economic benefits, many of which could be difficult to capture in a traditional cost-benefit analysis.

Nevertheless, it is important to at least identify these wider benefits, since they will be what justify the project when budgets are scrutinised, as they inevitably will be.

Social Return on Investment (SROI) is a methodology that has gained much attention over the past few years, and has helped organisations and projects assess value in its broadest sense.

Whether your infrastructure project is providing access to employment opportunities, improving health, saving time, reducing pollution, or promoting safety, these are all huge positive impacts that need to be clearly captured and then quantified if possible.

Final thoughts

Just because there does not yet exist a ‘ready-to-use’ infrastructure rating scheme for the Middle East does not mean we can afford to ignore sustainability on infrastructure projects.  I am aware of a few rating schemes being developed, and until they are released there is a growing body of international guidance and best practice from which to draw.

Major infrastructure projects cost a few orders of magnitude more than a typical building, and are built to last twice as long at least.  As such, it seems absurd not to invest some time and effort early on developing meaningful sustainability targets and embedding them into the project.  The returns are definitely worth it.

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