Monday, December 31, 2012

Research Ideas - Urban Resource Indices

Closer ties between practice and good research are critical to advancing sustainability in the built environment. The professions have, for too long, been divorced from cutting edge thinking and urban research (social and technical) has typically been distant from those practicing in design and implementation fields.

Professionals (and sustainability consultants in particular) have too often promised “research” and delivered internet search results and conference presentation summaries – the quality of research in this field is often poor.

In a March 2012 post (here) I proposed two gaps in our urban analysis processes, relating to urban infrastructure and ecology, which could provide a valuable insight into urban design and urban infrastructure decision-making. I have subsequently given some thought to more specific areas of research - the development of useful indices against which to measure urban- and infrastructure design.

In many fields (in economics is perhaps it is most evident), there are a myriad of different indices against which to try and measure performance – so many in fact that their impact is often diminished. However economists in particular bring a highly analytical approach to complex systems – something lacking in the built environment. In fact, in the built environment we have very few measures aside from the financial performance of property funds and, in the case of sustainability, green building rating tools (which are not especially useful in dealing with the urban scale).

One of the reasons for this, I believe, is that the researchers responsible for developing indices are often unfamiliar with the design thinking that shapes cities. The complexity of cities means that useful urban research is unlikely to fall within a single field or discipline and the on-the-ground realities of development (where more emphasis is placed on buildability than theory) means that it must be framed by practice. So we need a trans-disciplinary approach (a post on trans-disciplinary design here) with collaboration from practitioners.

The indices I would like to access in my role as a designer respond to the key urban systems of energy, water, waste, smart cities, mobility, ecology and food security (I explored some of the connections between water, sewer, power and food in a TEDx talk here). These could potentially be drawn together in an integrated urban resource index for sustainable design. I would also like to see an urban resilience index, which might be linked in many ways to the food security and resource scarcity, as well as social and economic factors.

The Siemens Green Cities Index - here – is an excellent example and was developed in collaboration with The Economist Intelligence Unit; however it is aimed at measuring current cities against each other and is not (yet) a design tools for new cities or precincts. We need indices that facilitate design decision-making – informing choices for urban infrastructure and land-use planning.

I’ve shared some brief ideas on factors which I believe would be useful in framing urban indices for design purposes; however I would like to explore the collaborative potential for urban research units and future cities designers to develop something far more robust.

1.    Distance

In each of the main resource sectors, we take global (food), national (energy) or regional (water) grids for granted. The distance between infrastructure and users is seldom counted, yet it has a profound effect on the ability to optimise waste streams and build resilience.

For example, local energy generation provides opportunities for waste-heat recovery and improved resilience in the face of central systemic failures (as evidenced in New York during Hurricane Sandy). Local water-treatment provides opportunities for water re-use and the development of ecological hotspots in urban centres. Local food production provides the opportunity to close nutrient loops, especially when combined with waste-water treatment. The distance between nodes is one of the key factors in the success of multi-modal mobility systems.
Distance in urban infrastructure is one of the critical factors that must be researched in far greater detail to build meaningful indices for urban infrastructure. We need to know what the relationships are between decentralised urban infrastructure and resource use/urban resilience. How do wide, central grids perform against mesh-like local girds under different urban growth and climate change scenarios?

2. Resource Intensity

Rather obviously, the resource intensity of urban spaces (amount of resources per capita, per unit area of per unit economic production) is a critical element of urban sustainability. This has typically been quite well addressed by analysts for buildings and has been the focus of most urban-scale analysis to date.

However it is closely linked to density, and there remain key issues in how density is addressed as a driver of urban form.

3. Density

Densification is a hot topic for new urbanists – sold as the key to breaking our reliance on personal motor vehicles and changing the form of our cities to allow more sustainable, low-carbon growth.  But just how much density, and by what measure...?

Population density (ppl/ha) seems to be the preferred metric, but when considering commercial development (particularly in CBD’s), where rental is per square meter and residential rates are low, the floor area ratio (FAR) dominates. Furthermore, when looking at socio-economic issues, the area per person becomes a core consideration.

These are three different metrics for density, which each tell different stories. They have different relevance when considering resource intensity – where the floor area of commercial buildings is more important than the number of occupants – while population density is critical when assessing the viability of mass transit systems.

Urban indices must provide a more nuanced approach to density, with key research into the different measures and descriptions for densification and its relevance to each key resource sector.

Good urban designers have an intuitive feel for this relationship between distance, density and resource intensity, but there is a need for better, high quality research to provide a more robust framework to these from a design perspective. Design thinking and a willingness to engage across both professional/academic and conventional disciplinary boundaries are important elements in answering some of these questions. 

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