Urban Sustainability in China

Andrew Platten, professor at the University of Salford’s School of Built Environment in the UK.

Hong Kong probably isn’t the first metropolis you think of when you hear “urban sustainability,” but it’s the place speakers from around the world convened yesterday to discuss how to tackle the environmental challenges of cities.

The International Conference on Urban Sustainability, known as ICONUS 2008, was held by the city’s College of Technology. This maiden day-long event featured architects, urban planners, and other design professionals from China, Japan, Spain, the UK, and the US.

Although the speakers hailed from different parts of the world, they all agree on a broader, holistic definition of sustainability. A truly sustainable development—whether it’s an apartment building, neighborhood, or new town—needs to be not only environmentally sound, but also economically and socio-culturally sustainable. Here are a few of the suggestions conference speakers made to attain these goals. 

British researchers Keith Alexander and Andrew Platten, both of the University of Salford, stressed the importance of engaging the local community in planning any development in order to make it sustainable. They believe local support and the creation of social capital through the empowering civic engagement process will help sustain any development long after the government has completed the project.

Platten used the UK government’s recently launched affordable housing initiative as an example of an all-around sustainable development. The initiative aims to provide an affordable flat anywhere anyone would want to live and work. In several redevelopment districts dotting the country, the British government has been renovating existing vacant housing by employing local residents. They fill as much as 70 percent of the construction jobs in some cases.

“Let’s be honest about it. When we look at sustainability, what is the most important is to look at the exiting housing stock,” says Platten.

Renovating housing can also reduce the construction waste, according to Herman Tso, a civil engineer who serves as technical advisor for the Asia Institute of Building in Hong Kong.

“It’s time to call for a major culture change in the construction industry and adopt a sustainable approach to construction practice,” says Tso. 

Construction often results in a range of waste, such as rubbles, earth, concrete, bitumen and debris. Construction professionals, Tso says, should adopt waste management strategies and sort the waste on-site for recycling. More training and education for construction workers is necessary to implement these efforts. Stepping up use of pre-cast and prefab elements for both the interior and the exterior of a building can also help cut down waste.

Spanish architect Belinda Tato Serrano stressed that buildings need not be permanent structures. This seems to run counter to the belief held dear by many architects – that their works should last forever. In designing the eco-boulevard in Madrid, Tato created a series of cylindrical structures made of recycled steel. Each is planted with an interior wall of vegetation – creating a microclimate that feels cool even in a hot Spanish summer. The structures enclose spaces for gathering, ball-playing, or any use residents see fit. Following her own mantra, the structures can be easily dismantled –and recycled – should the city decide to use the space for other purposes.

“Today’s problems are not going to be the same as those in the future. There are many things we can’t think of today, such as human life style changes,” Tato says.

Architecture writer Violet Law reports from Hong Kong.


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