From Green-washing to Carbon-washing: True Smart and Green Cities?

I’d like to share here some thoughts among us, in the light of the recent agreement reached in Paris at the COP21, and respect to some emerging issues when framing the agenda for building the future green and smart cities. In particular, I’m interested in raising some questions about the social implications of these overall global concerns and emerging solutions (or promises). AESOP YA Blog already hosted different contributions on climate change adaptation and mitigation (mainly from Carolina Collaro and Tiziana Susca) and I’d like to further contribute by linking urban sustainability (design & technology) and communities’ resilience to this research track and discussions.

After decades of climate political nimbyism, in which nobody ever committed to take home their responsibilities and actions reducing carbon emissions in order to fix the causes (not only adapting the consequences) of climate change, it seems we are starting to frame a deal. New York People’s Climate March and others worldwide events supported the scientific communities through a global mobilization pressing policy makers in Paris for a binding agreement for being carbon neutral in future. How we will get there, and what will this implies, nobody knows, still. But the evidences, proxy for the path to be followed, are out there and are pretty clear.

The planet is rapidly urbanizing and we need cities and societies to go green. Aware that something like the 60% of Asian Urban built environment has still to be built, from here to 2050, the nowadays evidences are that more than 200 new eco city projects can be found only in China. It is interesting that such trend, and preoccupation for greening, occurs in key coastal cities (places that are undergoing rapid economic development), while the four provinces which do not have any plans for eco-cities (Tibet, Gansu, Qinghai and Ningxia) are amongst the poorest. Pow Choon Piew and Harvey Neo argue that “the enduring legacy of Deng Xiaoping’s ‘growth-first’ philosophy has been overhauled and imbued with ‘shades of green’ as the state rolls forward various ‘green civilisation’ campaigns nationwide”. Indeed, as they point out, environmental pollution in Asian cities has become a real issue, not only threatening public health, but urban social stability. First launched from R. Register’s definition (1987 within the book Eco-City Berkeley) and fostered through his non-profit Eco-City Builders association, the concept of eco-cities has only in the past years been fully exploited through outstanding projects, supported from massive investments from global corporations and public institutions. The World Bank recently launched the Eco2 Cities Program to “provide practical and scalable, analytical and operational support for cities in developing countries to achieve ecological and economic sustainability”, while CISCO declared “we’re trying to replicate cities” in developing its “Cisco Global Center for Intelligent Urbanization” in Songdo (the Korean first Smart Eco-city, hosting half a million inhabitants and built on sea reclaimed lands within the Seoul Free Trade Zone, see fig 1). While CISCO “control room” will be the brain of the new cities, allowing an efficient urban metabolism management, and China “is changing from been the factory of the world to the clean-tech laboratory of the word” (Friedman, 2010), why we see this increasing literature on the fallacy of urban sustainability and Eco-cities (see for example Sze’s Fantasy Island just released book)?

Fig 5

Figure 1: New Songdo City in Incheon, project map and pictures of its state of the art at June 2015. Source: Schuetze, T.; Chelleri, L. Urban Sustainability Versus Green-Washing—Fallacy and Reality of Urban Regeneration in Downtown Seoul. Sustainability 2016, 8, 33

In June 2015 I’ve been involved in the organization of the 8th International Forum of Urbanism Conference, titled “True smart & green city?”. The aim was to grasp the “true” meaning of green and smart, whatever “true” could mean. The conference has been organized in Incheon, in the hearth of the New Songdo City, the eco-topia driven from a tecno-feticism, which remembered to me the emergence of green-washing and eco-pornography of the ‘70s. Indeed, while green-washing has been defined as a “form of marketing aimed at increasing a company’s profits by deceptively portraying a company’s products and policies as environment friendly” (Green-peace), why the nowadays players (or builders) of the new Eco/Smart/Carbon Neutral cities should not be representing the evolution of Green-washing into “Carbon-washing”?

It is clear that the environmental pollution issues rose in the ‘70s, which brought to the definition of “sustainability”, have now evolved raising the issue of climate change, bringing into light the definition of “resilience” and “carbon reduction” (or adaptation and mitigation, respectively). It is not surprising therefore to see big global players (as Morgan Stanley, who first supported the financial platform for Songdo, or global leading engineering groups like ARUP and AECOM, or high tech industry as IBM, Siemens and CISCO, to name but a few of hundreds) advocating those “Carbon Neutral” future cities. The market opportunities are there. Finding and test “the model” (its design and management principles) to be scaled-up and replicated worldwide is the challenge. To this respect, the Global Carbon Project (GCP), in collaboration with RMIT University, the Urbanization and Global Environmental Change Project, the Urban Climate Change Research (UCCRN) Network and IR3S, have organizing a workshop on “tools and indicators for assessing urban resilience”, on December 7-10, 2015 at the University of Tokyo. Advancing that by “resilience” we refer to both the adaptation and mitigation related capacities (so the eco-smart city is to be considered as feature of a resilient city), the most interesting thing, to me, out of this event, has been a large session debating on the relationship between the urban form and the (urban) community resilience. Think about that. It is but nothing easy to frame. From one side you have lot of literature describing how urban forms (streets shapes, buildings, spaces, green-blue infrastructures nested within the built environment etc) contribute to enhance resilience (responsive – recovery – mitigating capacities) to determined risks. But a part from that, to my view, the issue is very much deeper, and looking into how from social sciences the definition of community (of emerging urban communities) resilience can articulate a dialog with the engineering design of the new cities, and their resilience (looking to the forms and technocratic management of urban structures and related functions).

The concept of “community resilience” becomes key once, in a context of an increasingly urbanizing planet, we ask: who’s part of the “urban community”? And why? How resilience articulates which capacities to whom within such communities? And then, are those communities, becoming urban, losing or gaining capacities and opportunities? In other words, are they increasing, or reducing their personal and social resilience, by becoming urban?

Thinking about social resilience and urbanization processes, a recent article in the Guardian, titled who owns our cities by S. Sassen, came to my mind. She described how “the huge post-credit crunch buying up of urban buildings by corporations has significant implications for equity, democracy and rights” since “if the current buying continues, we will lose the type of making that has given our cities their cosmopolitanism”. Nowadays cities are the places where the most divide among rich and poor come to light. At the same time, the global urbanization process drivers are not always people per se willing to move to cities. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has recently emphasized that urbanization is the focus of China’s economic growth strategy. By adding up to 400 million more people to the current Chinese urban population in the next decade the country can became a wealthy world power with economic growth generated by an affluent consumer class. Displaced from rural lands, most of the people could be seen as urban refugees. Driven from job opportunities, or because of environmental crises, or because being forced, emerging urban communities should express their resilience in a world threatened by climate and environmental challenges, in which cities are asking how should the built environment be resilient, in line with those community resilience?

Very tricky question. The only easy answer is that maybe communities now have to start being resilient to “carbon washing” too.


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