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Infrastructural Evolution

Stories of Climate Resilience

The impacts of climate change in recent years have largely shown the vulnerabilities of cities globally. More extreme weather events present challenges to the urban infrastructures, the citizens, and overall health and well-being. Over the past few months, headlines have been flooded with reports such as “Record-Breaking High Temperatures” or “Warnings of Increased Flooding,” all as an outcome of climate change. To overcome these challenges, multiple organizations, cities, and countries are implementing innovative thinking to transform the urban environment that is experiencing enormous pressure. To achieve a climate-adaptive and sustainable environment, the United Nations presented multiple ways of dealing with economic, social, and environmental challenges through its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goal 11, “Sustainable Cities and Communities,” primarily emphasizes sustainable urban development. To reduce the environmental impact on cities, Goal 11 urges multiple mitigation and adaptation tactics, such as promoting sustainable transportation, fostering energy efficiency, improving water management, implementing green buildings and green infrastructure, and preserving and creating green spaces, among several others. All of these tactics have one thing in common: transforming urban infrastructures, which are essential elements in all functioning cities.

Examples of such practices can be seen worldwide, and even though some might see these tactics as one of many wicked problems, they represent efforts for present and future generations. To paint a better picture, delving into some unique and inspiring effects of reducing environmental impact and transforming the urban environment is crucial.

Transportation infrastructure, stories of Bogotá, Colombia

Bogotá offers such a unique perspective and experience in turning to sustainable transportation. Dating back to 1974, “Ciclovía” closes major roads every Sunday to motorized vehicles and offers the space for recreational use. Roads of Bogotá are filled on Sundays with citizens cycling, skateboarding, jogging, or just strolling around, which promotes a vision of a healthier lifestyle, reduces air pollution, and encourages sustainable transportation alternatives.

Bogotá’s former mayor, Enrique Peñalosa, had transformative thinking in promoting sustainable transportation, which helped Bogotá in its adaptive status. Peñalosa’s work was oriented on social integration and equality within the spaces in Bogotá by implementing bike lanes and improving public parks, schools, and healthcare facilities. His implementation of car-free days, license lotteries, and sustainable urban planning contributed to reduced traffic deaths and environmental impact, all in line with UN Sustainable Goals. Peñalosa clearly envisioned Bogotá’s future when stating, “Sustainable transport is not an option; it is a necessity” and “An advanced city is not one where the poor own cars, but one where the rich use public transport.” There are, of course, other cities and countries pioneering sustainable transportation, such as the Netherlands or Denmark’s Copenhagen, but a lesson for the implementation can be much more appreciated from cities where there is no cultural association or infrastructural readiness with such practices. Bogotá showcases a turn to sustainable transportation and mobility despite profound challenges to many other cities.

Energy-efficient built infrastructure, stories of Germany and the USA

The significance of buildings in climate change is their large footprint that currently contributes up to one-third of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Germany has been a pioneer in energy-efficient building design by implementing the Passive House (Passivhaus) standard. Passive House focuses on reducing energy consumption in buildings, contributing to lower carbon emissions and increased sustainability in urban development. Passive House standards create exceptionally insulated buildings, including walls, roofs, and floors, that are heavily insulated to minimize heat loss in the winter and heat gain in the summer. This helps maintain a comfortable indoor temperature without relying on excessive heating or cooling. A high-quality air barrier controls ventilation, ensuring that fresh air is supplied efficiently while minimizing energy loss. High-performance windows and doors with multiple layers of glazing are used to reduce thermal bridging and enhance insulation and are designed to maximize natural light while minimizing heat transfer. Well-placed windows and shading devices also highly contribute to passive solar gain in the winter and minimize it in the summer. Controlled mechanical ventilation systems with heat recovery are a unique characteristic of Passive Houses. These systems bring fresh air from the outside, extract heat from the outgoing stale air, and transfer it to the incoming air. The thermal bridge-reduced design ensures a continuous and effective thermal barrier to eliminate thermal bridges, which are areas that allow heat to bypass insulation.

Another similar concept of sustainable and eco-friendly housing is the Earthship pioneered in the ‘70s in the USA, which aimed to create sustainable, off-the-grid living spaces that reduce reliance on traditional utilities and promote a more environmentally conscious lifestyle. Even though this energy-efficient building style faces many challenges, it has inspired discussions around alternative and eco-friendly housing solutions. Transforming energy infrastructure is a critical component of a more extensive strategy to combat climate change by tackling the underlying sources of emissions.

Water infrastructure, stories of Singapore; Seoul, South Korea; and San Francisco, USA

Water infrastructure faces numerous challenges due to climate change impacting global availability, quality, and distribution of water resources. Climate change alters precipitation patterns, leading to more intense and unpredictable rainfall or extended periods of drought. Coastal water infrastructure faces increased vulnerability, with the potential for saltwater intrusion into freshwater sources, threatening both drinking water supplies and agricultural irrigation. Increased temperatures can enhance harmful algal bloom growth and increase evaporation rates. Handling this long list of threads sounds overwhelming, but not so much to several visionary cities.

If you ever heard the phrase “Reduce, reuse, and recycle,” you might have heard Singapore’s vast effort in water management speak. Not only is Singapore integrating intelligent technologies into its massive sustainable water management efforts, but it also stands out for its groundbreaking initiative, NEWater. NEWater is a solution to water scarcity by purifying wastewater. Through microfiltration, reverse osmosis, and ultraviolet disinfection, wastewater is treated and recycled back to consumers. Currently, NEWater is meeting approximately 40% of Singapore’s total water demand and aims to reach up to 55% by 2060. While not initially intended for direct consumption, NEWater surpasses the drinking water standards set by the World Health Organization and Singapore’s national water authority and is available for consumption. However, it is mainly used in industries, for cooling purposes, in the manufacturing sector, or to top up public reservoirs. Singapore stands in many aspects as an innovative city, demonstrating the potential for innovative and sustainable solutions on a global scale.

Water bodies have been an important city-forming aspect for ages, but they also have a significant environmental aspect. Revitalizing water bodies can play an essential role in reestablishing biodiversity, improving air and water quality, and, above all, quality of life. Seoul’s prominent project on revitalizing the river Cheonggyecheon’s stream shows outstanding efforts in shifting the priorities in planning practices, overturning robust concrete jungles, and bringing nature back.

A story of the historic stream: Cheonggyecheon, covered by an elevated freeway, was brought back to life as a part of a broader vision for urban redevelopment in Seoul. Additionally, due to the safety risks, the freeway was in need of repair or even demolition, which inspired rethinking about the area’s future and land use. After the freeway demolition, the stream was reclaimed by a pumping system since there was no natural consistent flow to restore the stream. Along the 5.84km section of the redeveloped former freeway, the Cheonggyecheon project introduced green spaces, walking paths, and bridges, creating a more aesthetically pleasing and pedestrian-friendly environment and successfully linking only vital transportation connections. This brought new recreational opportunities, which, with implemented greenery, not only improved the environmental state of the area but also directly improved the health and well-being of citizens using this green corridor. The Cheonggyecheon Stream Restoration Project stands as a successful example of how urban planning and environmental restoration can go hand in hand.

A different example of water infrastructure in need of revitalization is those around coastal cities. Coastal cities, which represent around 40% of the world’s population according to the UN, are in danger and uncertain of future disaster events. The Bay Area of San Francisco put into effect an experimental project, “Living Shorelines,” using natural ecosystems like wetlands and oyster reefs to protect against sea-level rise and storm surges. The aim is to control coastal erosion and flooding by nature-based solutions, in contrast to the traditional “hard” measures such as wave breakers or concrete seawalls. Living Shorelines reports multiple environmental benefits, such as a reduction of 30-50% of wave energy, restoration of ecosystems, and increased biodiversity. San Francisco’s method proved to be a possible adaptation approach, shifting from “hard” engineering to nature-based and essentially experimental practice.

Green infrastructure, stories of past and present

The implication of green infrastructures in cities is gaining popularity for its multifaced benefits. Green infrastructures present features like green roofs, urban forests, and permeable pavements, which all play into sustainable urban development by mitigating the urban heat island effect, improving air quality, and promoting biodiversity. This shift towards green infrastructure addresses climate uncertainties and urban water challenges through multiple urban water management systems such as Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems and Water Sensitive Urban Design, Sponge City, and Water Drain by Infiltration (WADI), which rethinks the interconnectedness of water supply, drainage, and ecosystems.

The concept of green roofs has roots in ancient practices, even though the practice was initially inspired by Ireland’s sod roofs, which act as insulation in cold weather. A long time before the sod roofs, in regions like the Middle East, ancient civilizations built homes with flat roofs covered in vegetation, providing natural insulation and cooling. Today, green roofs not only contribute to energy efficiency but also mitigate the urban heat island effect by creating a layer of natural insulation that absorbs and reflects sunlight. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are the first known case of the architectural ability to incorporate lush greenery into urban landscapes for its cooling effect. Implementing green roofs with the green infrastructure approach can be seen in numerous cities nowadays, such as Melbourne, Seoul, and Tokyo, which also incorporate rooftop farming, contributing to sustainable agriculture.

Cooling the city, stories from ancient civilizations to Seville, Spain

Looking into the history of urban planning and architecture techniques, multiple cases of green infrastructure are being implemented as a nature-based source of cooling the city. Ancient cities have various ways of engineering the cooling down process that might experience rebirth as green infrastructure. Many ancient civilizations living in hot climates developed adapting elements in built environments to bring the temperature down. The reflectivity of surfaces, wind, and water were, and still are, crucial elements in lowering the temperature.

Mediterranean region countries realized the effectiveness of painting the buildings with highly-refective, light-colored paint. This is a way to increase the albedo effect, which measures how much sunlight is reflected from the surface back into the space. Surfaces with high albedo reflect more sunlight and absorb less heat, while surfaces with low albedo absorb more sunlight and retain heat. The emphasis on reflective surfaces remains relevant in achieving energy-efficient and climate-adaptive practices to this day.

In Persian civilization, wind catchers called badgirs were designed to capture and direct prevailing winds into buildings. In Islamic architecture, buildings were often designed with central courtyards, facilitating natural ventilation and cooling through air circulation. Roman aqueducts were beneficial for water transportation and had a cooling effect. The flow of water in aqueducts helped moderate temperatures in urban areas. Similarly, the qanats of ancient Persia were underground water supply channels, and the water evaporative cooling effect helped drop the urban temperature. This cooling benefit of qanats inspired one of the hottest European cities to develop a new approach and technology to cool the city down.

Seville, grappling with unbearable heat even in April, introduced an innovative engineering project called CartujaQanat. Working on a small-scale section on the street, this pilot initiative targets a significant reduction of average temperatures on a specific street by an impressive 10°C. The first step was to revitalize Seville’s qanats system, shifting from outdated fossil fuel to renewable energy sources. This qanats system promises to bring cooled water to the surface and strategically channel it through designated buildings, delivering a refreshing and effective cooling effect to the surrounding environment. It works by excavating two water-filled channels, submerging a series of pipes into the water, and drawing warm air inside these pipes, which is then cooled by the surrounding water and distributed to the built conference center through several spaces. As this project awaits completion and the unveiling of results, it holds the potential to assist in innovative approaches to decreasing urban heat, potentially inspiring more experimental projects in the future.

Closing word

The visible changes associated with climate change to the urban environment are causing drastic stress to the urban infrastructures, ecosystems, and citizens. Even with multiple showcases of climate-adaptive practice, the threads continuously hit our cities globally. As the climate changes, so must our thinking and priorities about urban planning. The journey toward sustainability is ongoing, with each innovative project and visionary city contributing to the broader picture of a climate-resilient and sustainable future.

Nina Zrubáková
Nina Zrubáková
I am Spatial Planning and Design student at RUG, a media enthusiast interested in urbanism-related topics. I am also working on designing layouts for the issues with the design team.
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