The Key to Green Cities and Mindsets: Densification

By Amy Leung

Amy S. P. Leung is Deputy Director General of ADB’s East Asia Department covering ADB’s operation in the People’s Republic of China and Mongolia. She is as an urban planner with expertise in urban development, water resources management, project design and monitoring, and public-private partnerships.

If there was any doubt in your mind about the onslaught of climate change to our survival on this planet, the Paris Agreement of 2015 provides strong consensus that the problem is very real. It demands the immediate and collective action of governments, the private sector, you, and me.

Keep in mind that while climate change is seen mostly as an environmental problem, it is more accurately a social problem that needs to be addressed. With careful planning, greening cities leads to the efficient use and conservation of finite resources, protects the environment, and effects change in the mentality of its residents towards more responsible, sustainable choices.

Cities now produce about 80% of Asia’s gross domestic product. They are the economic engine rooms of the region. But, both directly and indirectly, they make a similar contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. The economic cost of pollution is huge. It is estimated that air pollution alone can negatively affect GDP by about 2% to 4%. With urban populations expected to grow at an exponential rate in the coming years, Asian cities will be the main contributors to pollution costs over the next 20 years if nothing is done.

Cities are also land, energy, and water intensive. How can these cities manage to sustain rapidly growing populations without further wreaking havoc on the environment and depleting resources, while still ensuring that they maintain their competitive edge and remain a great place to live?

Urban densification, or increasing the number of dwelling units and mixed-use spaces per acre, is the key to tapping into the potential of cities to become part of the solution to climate change because it encourages efficiency and conservation. It is a critical aspect of making a city more sustainable and environmentally friendly. By being more organized and filling in vacant lots with shared spaces, cities can efficiently deliver water, electricity, and other municipal services to more people in a small amount of space using fewer resources and less energy.

For example, in a well-designed, dense neighborhood, not only will water utilities be able to deliver water to more people in a small area, but they will also require less energy and resources to deliver the water to more people. Conserving energy, in turn, conserves water. It takes 100,000 gallons of water to produce one megawatt hour of electricity—unless you are using wind or solar energy, which requires much less.[1] So, the more energy we conserve, the less water we use. As another example, in a mixed-use space, whenever a building produces unwanted heat or coolness, there’s wasted energy that could be used to improve a building’s energy efficiency. Waste heat from a supermarket’s freezers on a ground floor, for example, can be harvested and piped to heat residences above.

In carefully planned urban densification, places where people live, work, play, shop, and learn are within convenient distances from each other. This encourages other means of transportation, such as walking, biking, and public transportation. Since the need for private cars and petrol is reduced or, for some, eliminated, the city becomes a better place to live because now we have a city rightfully built for people, not cars. The air is cleaner and people are generally healthier.

While densification helps build greener cities through more sustainabile infrastructure, it also connects communities and promotes social cohesion. Let’s not forget that in the midst of shared spaces, walkable neighborhoods, and green buildings are the city’s raison d’etre: its people. Social psychology suggests that building a greener city leads to greener mindsets in its citizens for two reasons:

First, it underscores the consensus about climate change that gets more individuals to act on the problem. A change of behavior ensues. When leaders in Paris came to an agreement with very ambitious targets to tackle climate change together, the consensus eliminated what social psychologists refer to as the “bystander effect”.[2] The bystander effect is such that if no one acts, onlookers may believe there is no need to act, and may therefore themselves refrain from acting.[3] In this case, when we see few individuals doing anything about climate change or when we hear political opponents argue over whether climate change is a real threat, it’s easy to plead ignorance for inaction.

The Paris Agreement and the response of countries to the call for greener, more sustainable cities, sends a strong signal to people that there is indeed a problem—an emergency, if you will—and that everyone must address it immediately. This consequently leads individuals to make more responsible, sustainable choices because now they are confident that their actions are surely part of a shared effort large enough to actually make a difference—and it would.

Second, while the greener city jumpstarts its citizens’ awareness on the need for more sustainable living, its attention to densification fosters a sense of community. The city now has an agglomeration of citizens with greener mindsets that catapults it towards its sustainability goals. People, start making better choices that help combat climate change, leading to an increase in demand for products and services that are environmentally friendly.

Each city has a vision of what it wants to look like in 20 to 30 years. Typically, the approach is to become more energy efficient, less carbon intensive and to aspire towards zero waste, which is why much attention should be given to a city’s density. The goals of the Paris Agreement may seem, to some, ambitious and difficult to achieve, yet they are not impossible. Vital to our efforts to save ourselves from ourselves is a revolution, which really begins with a collective change of mindset that leads to a change in behavior. The people have to want it. And greening cities with carefully planned densification is one of the social catalysts towards such end.


 

[1] http://www.renewableenergyfocus.com/blog/2012/9/19/water-use-in-electricity-generation-the-sobering-facts-that-make-a-case-for-wind-and-solar-power/651.aspx

[2] Clayton, Susan. The Psychological Triumph of the Paris Talks (http://www.triplepundit.com/2015/12/psychological-triumph-paris-talks/) and

[3] Darley, J. M. & Latané, B. (1968). “Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: 377–383 (http://www.wadsworth.com/psychology_d/templates/student_resources/0155060678_rathus/ps/ps19.html)

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