For cities, green may be the only future

For cities, green may be the only future


by ROB McMANAMY | June 11, 2015

Speaking at BuiltWorlds on the eve of the United Nations' annual World Environment Day, architect Peter Ellis, FAIA, didn't hold back in his assessment of what U.S. cities must do to ward off the dangers of climate change, over-population, dwindling natural resources and fossil fuels, and repeating the mistakes of our industrial past. As a species, we have to return to the common sense lesson plan that Nature has been following since the dawn of time.

"We just forgot some very simple lessons of climate, like lining up buildings with the wind, and positioning them with the direction of sunlight in mind," said Ellis, founder of Chicago-based Peter Ellis New Cities, and the headliner at our June 4th program on Restructuring American Cities. "We just have to bring Nature back to the city, and connect it to the best technology... Cities can actually lead the way to win the battle with climate change, if we only have the will."

An award-winning, longtime urban planner with roots at design giant SOM, and more recently CannonDesign, Ellis is now one of three celebrated and accomplished advisors leading BuiltWorlds' new SmartWorlds Initiative. That ambitious, interdisciplinary effort was launched with this event. Ellis is joined on the advisory board by former Chicago CTO John Tolva, now president of PositivEnergy Paractice, and industry tech maverick Paul Doherty, CEO of The Digit Group Inc. (For more on the initiative, click here.) 

"A lot of great urban experiments are happening around the U.S. today, in places like Philadelphia and Portland, even New York, but we are doing this all piece-meal," said Ellis last week. "Over the next 50 years, we will have to replace everything we've got: water systems, sewers, roads, you name it. So this is a great opportunity, but we are at the tipping point. We need to get it right this time."

Once in a lifetime chance

Jaiprakash Gaur

Jaiprakash Gaur

In India six years ago, Ellis actually had the incredibly rare opportunity of trying to get a city right the first time. Billionaire Jaiprakash Gaur, then the 78-year-old patriarch of the Jaypee Group, a family-owned commercial giant with interests in construction, real estate, power generation, and transportation, had set his mind on building a Formula One racing stadium just west of India's chaotic capital, Delhi. That simple idea soon blossomed into a grand vision of a new metropolis, Jaypee Sports City, which would one day house 1.5 million residents.

Mr. Gaur set about finding an architect and urban planner who shared his sustainable vision, and Ellis emerged from an international field. "I was hired because I was the only person who talked about climate," said Ellis. "India is running out of water, so capturing rain and recycling water was essential. We needed to create an urban sponge, so the park system is the backbone of everything."

Today, Jaypee City's major roads and green spaces are in place, and a few neighborhoods have been built, but the grand, 30-year project has slowed, still recovering from the global financial crisis that scared away many of the initial investors not long after the project had started. But the vision remains, as do the lessons, according to Ellis.

By aggressively designing smartly with conservation as a goal, "we found that we could save 50% of the energy we used and 50% of the water," he said. Acting as a sponge, Jaypee City's parks and trees were designed to absorb the rain water and drive it straight down to the aquifer below. "We were able to do this because we designed every bush."

"If every city in the world recycled all of its water, that would save 10-20% in water use right there," Ellis added. "The current system we have in most places makes no sense, and it is the most unsustainable thing imaginable. Every drop of rain we get here in Chicago for instance eventually ends up in the Gulf of Mexico... And we can take all of our waste and generate energy from it. Every waste treatment plant produces methane, which can be used to fuel power plants.""

Now is the time to rethink all of these things that cities have been getting wrong for decades. We have to learn from errors and correct them. The present is so full of possibilities, and the spirit of  inventiveness and ingenuity is everywhere, from driverless vehicles and urban farming to downtown bioswales and advances in solar and wind energy.

"But right now, we're still tying our shoelaces, so we're not actually even in the race yet," explained Ellis. Eventually, every nation, every city, every citizen will need to make a full-on commitment if we are to achieve a sustainable future. "We'll never get there by trimming the edges."

For pictures of the event, which included a sustainably "insane" Tesla Test Drive, see below.

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