Sustainable building in the City

Sustainability Building and the City

KCS advice promotes sustainable building and sustainable building practices. We wonder how many of our readers are familiar with the concept of a ‘sustainable city’Sustainable building is more than just using a few re-cycled slates on a roof (although it all helps).

A ‘sustainable city’ or an ‘eco city’ is a sustainable building project writ large.  It’s a city designed around environmental considerations and inhabited by people with the same philosophy in mind. The first recorded use of the term ‘eco city’ was in 1987 by Richard Register and the term has been in the minds of sustainable building practitioners and environmental theorists since.  There isn’t much agreement to date however on what the definition of a sustainable city actually is, but it’s agreed that so comprehensive a sustainable building project should be focused on serving present needs without prejudicing the needs of future generations. That definition however applies to any sustainable building project The uncertainty however arises from the fact that there are differing ideas as to how cities can become self sustaining.  To satisfy sustainable building theorists’ wider criteria, a sustainable city has to be viewed as an holistic sustainable building project where the commitment to sustainability extends beyond just the buildings themselves. But that again is a false distinction ‘sustainable buildings’ on their own and in their own right are supposed to encompass all aspects of sustainability. A ‘sustainable city’ should at least be able to feed itself without relying on the surrounding lands. In essence it should be a sustainable building project which aims at complete self sufficiency and exist independently of the world around it leaving no ecological footprint


Over a half of the world’s population now live in urban areas and cities and these environments create challenges and opportunities for sustainable building practitioners. Human society over the most recent millennia has evolved on the basis of the village, small town and community. These are the environments in which people appear most content. But in addition, and in contrast to some common prejudice, urban living can be more environmentally sustainable than suburban and rural lifestyles 

Sustainable Building for Cities 

Building sustainable cities is one of the objectives of an holistic approach to ‘sustainable building’ and is achieved by a variety of means. Different types of agricultural plots are possible in cities, (including ‘farmscrapers’) and the economies of scale present in cities make for better use of sewage and communal renewable energy generation. But sustainable building practice takes other forms. Cities can be several degrees higher in temperature (the heat island effect) than non urban areas and so green spaces (ideally at least 20% of the city’s area) are required to ventilate it, Light surface colours can reflect heat. Integrated business, residential and industrial areas reduce the need for transport, and pedestrianisation, can reduce car emissions. Sustainable building experts look to optimise building density to allow for optimum use of public transport

Eco Industrial Parks are a feature of sustainable building projects and sustainable cities and urban farming areas are incorporated into holistic sustainable building design. Urban farming apart from being closer to the final consumer (literally on his doorstep) can be much more ecologically friendly than farming at a distance. Traditional farming grew alongside the communities on and around the farms. It is equally logical that as far as possible farming should move into the cities to which the communities have now moved. Urban farming can become as integrated a part of urban life as the farms were in the countryside and the same mutually dependent eco system that developed in the countryside can be transferred to the cities. Sustainable building practices take the holistic approach required to achieve these goals. There are however other ways in which urban living makes sustainable building objectives easier to achieve. Higher population density makes for more efficient use of infrastructure. As a rule suburban settings are inefficient and rural settings are the worst of all.  It is also a fact the urban environments have an historic stock of poorly maintained buildings so infrastructure can be located in rehabilitated disused buildings. From a sustainable building point of view rehabilitation is usually (although not always) better than new build.

A major focus of sustainable building projects in sustainable cities is transportation. Viable public transport is not just an option it is a necessity. Leaving aside their environmental effects cars are not practicable in a sustainable city owing to space constraints but the other side of the coin is that cars are not often necessary in a city constructed to holistic sustainable building practices. Regardless of how well they have been built, buildings which require cars to travel back and forth to them to are not sustainable buildings. Sustainable cities put the emphasis on proximity. Destinations close to one another open the way to reach to travel between them on foot or by cycling. Families have significantly more time to spend together by not travelling so far to work and more community based social interactions become possible. So sustainable building, builds sustainable communities

International Outlook

There’s no International policy in sustainable building in the context of sustainable cities but an organisation called UCLG (United Cities and Local Governments) is now established which has the stated objective of achieving common guidelines for sustainable building  in cities and large urban areas. At the time of writing UCLG has 60 members across the world and seeks to promote sustainable building in cities as part of the creation of more sustainable urban societies. The organisation says it takes into account regional variations in sustainable building demands in terms of different cultural contexts and has tried to make the best recommendations it can in the circumstances. How this organisation hopes to succeed remains to be seen. Only slightly more realistically the European Union has recognised that cities need to benefit from a more holistic approach to urban planning and the need to take account of sustainable building practices and objectives. The EU seeks to improve what it calls ‘dialogue between stakeholders in the cities’ and aims to produce ‘consensus based solutions’ to establish continuity between sustainable building objectives in the context of changes in local governments. This so far embryonic approach places environmental considerations as a principle consideration for cities and says it serves as a platform to develop new models of development, renewable energy and sustainable building in residential and commercial contexts in the cities. If KCS advice hears of any sustainable building, let alone any sustainable city emerging as a consequence of EU intervention we will report it within the week. In the meantime will be advising on how to achieve successful sustainable building projects that you can manage in your own back yard

Some Success

In truth however it is unfair to expect any sudden appearance of a sustainable city. The idea of a wholly sustainable city is a conceptual part of the general approach to sustainability. The test is whether cities that already exist become gradually more sustainable rather than expecting them to be transformed over night, and whether more sustainable building ideas and principles are incorporated into existing and future developments. In those terms the outlook is much better. Although recognition of success depends on expectations. Cities are as a whole becoming in general more sustainable in character and sustainable building is catching on