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Sustainable Cities Interview

Unique visions

According to the academic Susan Krumdieck, sunrise in our future cities won’t dazzle with the reflection of solar panels – and technology alone won’t win the battle against climate change. She tells Katie Coyne why meaningful change has to come from the grass roots – and how each city will need its own plan


usan Krumdieck laughs out loud at the idea that solar panels will have any major impact on the looming energy

crisis. The associate professor – department of mechanical engineering – at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, also scoffs at wind farms. The idea that tech- nology will somehow rapidly advance and solve all our problems from climate change to energy shortages, she argues, is bogus. But the academic knows the idea is deeply

alluring – the sheer volume of futuristic eco projects that have received funding from edu- cational establishments around the world is testament to that. Krumdieck and a colleague have been recently sifting through articles about such science projects in old back issues of National Geographic and Time magazine, which again has caused much mirth. “I’m not saying don’t use a solar panel in a village in Fiji if it means they can work a phone and communicate with the outside world, or generate electricity so that they can see in the evening,” she says. In a Western property, Krumdieck points out, insulating your walls is more sustainable – and cheaper – than shelling out for a solar panel. At first it’s difficult to get a handle on exact- ly what alternative Krumdieck is offering and this is precisely because she is not blowing a trumpet for all humanity to follow. She argues that any meaningful change has to come from the grass roots and that each village, town and city will need its own plan, its own vision – which can take borrowed parts from other places but will be unique to its own history, geography and past town planning. “It’s about the existing structure and figur- ing out how it can be pruned back – analogous

to a tree in a plant pot.” However, she is clear that a definite plan needs to be made, by those affected, after a sincere dialogue.

Krumdieck adds that we already have the

basic structure for our cities in our minds, which we always go back to and which is why they generally all look the same; it’s about making them work sustainably.

In fact, the foray into the future that Krumdieck has experimented with sounds more like the world described in William Morris’s News from Nowhere with her emphasis on quality products that last and reconnecting and strengthening human rela- tionships. (A society that is all about consum- ing makes a fetish out of the credit card, which has well defined boundaries). The Silke pro- ject is based on housing in a 4km2 area called Burnside in Christchurch and is a theoretical vision of how land, energy and other resources could be used more efficiently.

For a start, the gas guzzling car would be banned and a tramline installed, most garden fences would be removed – unless they were providing shade for plants – making it easier to walk around the development. Based on existing population density the area would have around 9,000 inhabitants – enough to build a ‘village centre’ providing healthcare, goods and services for inhabitants. This would mean that each householder would not need to walk further than 2km to get to it and with no cars on the road it would be an ideal place to bicycle. Sounds idyllic? Well, there’s more.

Master gardeners would be employed to make use of the freed up land in between the houses to grow fruit and vegetables. Each household would be able to choose a basketful

6 | Sustainable Business | Sustainable Cities | February 2011

or so for themselves a week and the rest would go to the development’s industrial kitchen where it would be processed and bottled for the inhabitants. This food would not only have cut down on food miles, and pesticide use but would also be cheaper to buy. Contracts would be drawn up with larger local grocery suppliers to provide goods in jars without the sticky labels so that they can be more easily recycled. The village centre stores would display these goods with signage so that the labels were not needed and the development would return the jars so they can be reused in a closed loop. These goods and services would create jobs in the area, cutting down on the distances and road miles that people travel.

Sounds a bit too good to be true? Well Krumdieck has worked out this plan accord- ing to a business model that actually makes money – savings are made on no longer need- ing council rubbish collections (organic waste is composted on site) and the council would actually pay the development for providing land that soaks up run-off storm water. All the houses on the site would be remod- elled, as they would need to be periodi- cally anyway as these properties have a much shorter lifespan than those in the UK. This work would include insulating the property properly (most New Zealand homes are not insulated at all, resulting in poor health for the young and elderly), saving on energy bills and improving health. This would all result in the property values on the development rising. Periodically, Krumdieck presents the results to conferences and is always met with a crowd of eager faces at the end asking ‘when and where’. Ever the optimist she says, “at

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