When sustainability saved the city

Copenhagen and Vancouver are among the world’s most environmentally friendly, low-carbon cities, but it wasn’t always this way. City officials tell delegates at IGBC 2017 how a focus on sustainability revived their cities.

Leadership plenary at the International Green Building Conference 2017 held in Singapore
Speakers discuss how becoming sustainable makes a city more livable and economically resilient on the leadership plenary session at the International Green Building Conference 2017 in Singapore. Image: Eco-Business

Making a city more sustainable is not just about protecting the environment. It’s also about transforming the local economy so that it’s more resilient, said city leaders yesterday at a conference on green buildings in Singapore. 

Copenhagen was on the verge of bankruptcy and “handing the keys of the city back to the national government” some 13 years ago, but turned its fortunes around by rolling out a host of sustainable initiatives, shared Morten Kabell, Mayor of technical and environmental affairs of Copenhagen.

The capital of Denmark chose to invest heavily in walking and cycling paths, green buildings and renewable energy, and is today known for being one of the most liveable cities in the world, where 41 per cent of people cycle to work or school.

A London School of Economics study had found that Copenhagen would have been hit by the global recession a lot harder if it had not started making its economy and society more sustainable, said Kabell. “Let’s bust the myth that going green is expensive; it’s the opposite - not going green is expensive.”

Kabell was speaking on a panel discussion at the International Green Building Conference 2017, which is themed “Build green: Be the change”.

Another city that has benefitted economically from a sustainable transformation is Vancouver, which is aiming to become the world’s greenest city by 2020 under an ambitious plan that was implemented in 2009.

The plan was drawn up after extensively consulting local residents, businesses and groups, according to Andrea Reimer, a councillor from the Canadian city and a fellow panellist at the session. She commented that cities in North America have meagre political power - less than provincial governments, federal governments, businesses and even the United Nations - and so have limited ability to make change. 

“We can sit around and do nothing, or ignore a climate change denying leader and decide to be the greenest city in the world in 12 years, and that’s what we decided to do,” she told the audience.

Vancouver’s efforts have paid off and it has seen “massive results”, said Reimer. This includes a 27 per cent drop in waste production in the last eight years, a 49 per cent increase in the number of green jobs, and an 18 per cent drop in water consumption.

Adding to the impressive list of figures, Reimer said the city’s per capita emissions have since fallen 22 per cent, and now stand at 3.9 tonnes per capita per year. This is almost half of Toronto’s 7.2 tonnes and a quarter of Calgary’s 17.9 tonnes, where people burn coal at the breakfast table every morning, she joked.

On top of that, the vancouver economy grew three times faster than the national average.

Green buildings, healthy buildings

Both cases represented local level efforts to become more sustainable, but panellists were unanimous that top-down or bottom-up efforts alone would not be enough to create far-reaching change in the construction industry.

Since the first green building council was launched in 1993, 40 per cent of buildings in the United States are now sustainable despite little direction from the authorities. This is “because it was a better decision to build green”, said John Mandyck, chief sustainability officer of United Technologies Corporation, an American multinational in the aerospace, defence and building business.

Agreeing with Mandyck’s comments was Hugh Lim, the newly minted chief executive of the Building and Construction Authority of SIngapore (BCA). “One realisation we had is that you can attack a building’s energy consumption potential by about half, through regulations and building design.”

The other half of a building’s potential energy savings come from the actions of users, said Lim. While data and technology can help us reduce energy consumpton, there is a need to cultivate an intrinsic sense of why we need to save electricity among tenants, he added.  

But Mandyck pointed out that the value trifecta for green buildings was now complete, referring to how there is now a sound business proposition for all stakeholders involved. Investors are putting more money into green buildings than ever before, while studies have shown that green buildings earn their owners higher rental and sale prices.

The last piece of the puzzle, he said, is that green buildings tend to be healthier places to work and live in than traditionally constructed buildings. This theory is supported by a new study from BCA and the National University of Singapore, released at the event yesterday. 

He said: “The last 20 years of the green building movement has been about how to reduce the impact of the built environment on the natural environment, and we have to continue to do that. But the next 20 years will be about how we reduce the impact of the built environment on people.”

Eco-Business is producing a special e-newsletter featuring stories on the proceedings at IGBC 2017, kindly supported by City Developments Ltd and the Building and Construction Authority. Sign up to receive the newsletter here.

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