Should the UK jump on the eco-city bandwagon?

The Engineer

It’s no longer enough to make eco-friendly buildings. Ecocities are on trend at the moment and the UK, a country that prides itself on engineering and innovation, should perhaps be thinking about creating a super-smart, super-green, city of its own. This would go some way towards offsetting the UK’s emissions. In 2010 alone, we released 582.4m tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere according to the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

These new cities are designed to create the smallest possible ecological footprint and produce the lowest quantity of pollution possible. They are healthy and efficient as a result of using renewable energy sources, cutting waste to a minimum and recycling that waste when possible.

There are plenty of demonstrator projects where the UK can look for inspiration. Imaginative ecocities are being developed in countries where economies are booming, such as the United Arab Emirates and China, but they are also finding their roots in countries that have seen their economies take a recent down turn, such as Portugal and the USA.

Masdar City, ironically positioned in the middle of the desert in the United Arab Emirates where the oil is abundant, first caught my eye when it was shown on the BBC’s Human Planet series earlier this year as a city of the future. The brand spanking new project, only 16km south of Abu Dhabi, is initially hoping to make use of the neighbouring city’s workforce, resources and expertise. 

The 6km2 smart city, which will house 40,000 residents and hundreds of businesses, will be supported by the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology – a high quality research university developed in cooperation with Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All buildings will be extremely energy efficient. The lack of water, given the city’s desert location, will be accounted for through rainwater harvesting and a scattering of dew catchers.

In tandem with the U.A.E’s idea to build an ecocity within close proximity to a well-established city, the Chinese have big plans for a 30km2 eco-city just 10 minutes away from the business and technology parks of Tianjin. They claim that 90% of transport will be public and an advanced light rail system will transport the 350,000 people expected to take up residence in this new part of the city when it is completed in 2020.

As reported by The Engineer earlier this week, the Portuguese city of Paredes is also gearing up to go green with the help of an ‘Urban Operating System’, designed by Living PlanIT. The developers say their operating system, which relies on sensors to provide vast amounts of data, will make cities more efficient and as a result reduce energy consumption.

Meanwhile, developers Pegasus in the US have come up with the crazy idea of building an entire city in New Mexico’s desert, imaginatively titled the Centre for Innovation, Testing and Evaluation,for absolutely no one to use. The test city has been dubbed a ‘ghost town’ and one has to ask whether or not it is a complete waste of time and money?

I haven’t heard anything in the UK about a smart city that compares to any of those just mentioned – not even a whisper. Yet we boast some of the best academic institutions and engineering companies in the world that would undoubtedly bring a great deal to developing a smart city.

If you were to put your money on an eco city being built anywhere in the UK then Scotland would be a reasonable punt given its current pledge to become 100% renewable by 2020. The country’s leading energy supplier, Scottish and Southern Energy, has also recently revealed that they are scrapping their nuclear projects. An ecocity around the technology-rich city of Edinburgh, home to Heriot Watt University and Edinburgh University, would arguably be an obvious choice.

Across the border, Coventry is at the centre of a high-tech hub of two universities – Warwick and Coventry – that boast impressive science parks and are usually only too keen to back local projects, as reported here.

Obviously, it’s a lot harder to build a smart city in the UK because of our creaking Victorian infrastructure and densely populated landmasses. We don’t have the vast deserts of the UAE or the relentless will of an autocratic regime like China, but we do have the desire to go green and be at the forefront of technology.

It would be unfair to say the UK isn’t doing anything. There are several large-scale developments sprouting up, from Swansea’s Urban Village to Bradford University’s new campus, ‘The Green’, but they’re still a long way off smart, green cities.