In this article, Jonas Törnblom discusses the unique way in which major urban development projects are governed in Sweden and calls for smarter approaches to planning and managing today’s cities using innovative waste policy functions, which replace traditional manual methods of collecting waste with sustainable fully automated waste collection systems that use an underground pipe network.
Sweden has produced some of the most renowned and visited examples of sustainable urban development in the world.
For example Hammarby Sjöstad, a flagship model for sustainable development located in Stockholm, has attracted worldwide attention for its innovate approach to sustainable planning. In fact, the Swedish government’s vision of a ‘perfect’ district now welcomes over 10,000 people each year including architects, politicians and urban developers, all looking to establish how the lessons learnt from Hammarby can be applied to their own individual developments and countries.
Similarly, Gothenburg’s Norra Älvstranden (Northern Riverside) has been transformed from a shipbuilding yard of the 1970s to an attractive modern urban district. Malmo’s Western Harbour is also heralded as a paragon of sustainable living and working.
Of course there are many other outstanding examples of sustainable communities throughout the world but none where the transition is so seamless or where its initial implementation is so warmly welcomed. So, why is Sweden still regarded as the hotbed – and arguably the test bed – of innovation within the sustainability realm in the 21st century?
From my perspective it is the unique way in which these major urban development projects are governed. This unique approach, known as eco governance, is characterised by working towards common goals and sharing data and resources in order to achieve those goals. It is also characterised by its ability to make room for new business models where both the public and private sectors can invest in, and therefore share the costs and the benefits of new technologies that minimise any negative impact on society. This concept now underpins sustainable development in Sweden and has proven to be a tried, tested and successful model.
Measurable Approaches, Declining Resources
Societies and cities are steadily growing in complexity. More and more functions such as transport, infrastructure and construction are now interdependent upon each other. In addition, new technology makes it possible to not only measure and document the impact of day-to-day activities in a way we have never experienced before but that also influence people’s behaviour. Unfortunately, this new measurable approach is being realised in tandem with a reduction in resources. However, the benefits of measurement and analysis means that we can see first-hand and accurately monitor how land, water and air are displaying signs of overexploitation and overuse.
Mass consumerism has already irrevocably impacted on the climate, the planet’s natural resources and countless habitats. India, for example, is home to 13 of the world’s 20 most populated cities according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). A report led by Michael Greenstone of the University of Chicago and involving environmental economists from Harvard and Yale universities estimate that 99.5 per cent of India’s 1.2 billion people are breathing in pollution levels above what the WHO deems as safe. According to the report, this issue is costing more than half of India’s population at least 3.2 years of their lives.
India’s predicament is fortunately something that most cities do not have to contend with and a world away from the cities of Scandinavia and other parts of the world. However, whilst India is an extreme example, more can still be done to improve the sustainability credentials of many cities across the world. So, how do we recalibrate our cities so that they become more sustainable, efficient and, more importantly, safe to those who inhabit them?
A Smarter Approach to Creating Sustainable Cities
In order to address this and make cities truly world-class we need to implement smarter approaches to planning and managing them. We can no longer afford to continue with the silo mentality that for years has supported the strict separation of interests and responsibilities. Businesses, governments and societies as a whole must be presented with and understand the bigger picture. Not only that but they must also be made aware of the role that they have in potentially improving it. Silo mentality must be phased out. Eco governance must be phased in, which means that a new and more flexible approach to old and familiar challenges is required.
Urban mobility is an area where holistic planning encompasses many stakeholders, from city planners and transport agencies to building designers, residents and commercial operators. More and more cities now see the benefits of limiting vehicular access in order to make the city more attractive and to provide more opportunities to those who choose to walk and bicycle through their parks and recreational areas. Yet most conventional logistical functions are built and operate around the streetscape of the traditional city. Take urban waste management, for example. Traditional manual methods of collecting waste are resource intensive, highly polluting, inhibit accessibility and pose a number of health and safety risks, particularly in relation to the countless waste collection vehicles on the road.
Envac, however, is a fully automated waste collection system, which uses an underground pipe network to suck waste from strategically placed inlets to a central waste collection station, typically located on the periphery of the development or where there is unrestricted vehicular access.
Waste inlets are placed at various points throughout the city or site and a fan system sucks the waste through underground tubes to a central waste station at high speed and distances as long as 3km. Different inlets, depending on the type of waste or user such as households or commercial users, ensure that different types of waste do not mix and that each waste type is directed into its correct container in the collection station. The waste generated by each individual can even be monitored by type, quantity and the time of day it is deposited. The results can then be directly fed back to the user in order to change behaviour and play a role in reducing their waste output.
Envac is ideal for new build developments, which begin with a blank canvas and where everything is built from the ground up, as the underground pipe network can be installed as part of the initial build phase. From a retrofitting perspective the groundwork required to install Envac becomes more complicated, mainly due to the downtime and the complexities involved in the delicate handling of other underground services such as telecommunications, power and sewerage.
It is here where eco governance comes in. In order to be able to assess the value of eliminating traditional waste handling and its negative consequences, a holistic approach that considers all stakeholders of urban waste management is required. For example, the obvious benefits of replacing manual waste collection with automated waste collection are that waste trucks can be taken off the roads at the same time as making the collection process cheaper and more sustainable. However, the less obvious benefits are that it improves the accessibility of an area, it enables space traditionally reserved for bin rooms to the reallocated for other uses, it reduces pollution levels and makes areas safer and more pleasant to live in.
A business model that sees the beneficiaries of infrastructure-led projects, such as the installation of Envac, spanning both the public and private sectors must be developed. This innovative and ‘smart’ model would see Envac ‘co-installing’ with major utility providers, which would not only share costs and improve the efficiency of major maintenance and installation projects, but also reduce any negative impact on the environment and minimise disruption.
It seems that other countries are beginning to realise the potential of eco-governance. The UK government has called for joined up thinking in the Waste Policy Review and the National Infrastructure Plan and a more strategic outlook when it comes to developing and maintaining sustainable communities. Indeed, the London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB), a £20 million fund for waste infrastructure developments to fill London’s gap in existing waste and recycling infrastructure, is spearheading the change.
Recent work commissioned by LWARB seeks to ensure that new developments built in London are designed with recycling and sustainable solutions in mind. From exploring smarter approaches to conventional waste management to looking at underground refuse systems as a way in which to free up increasingly valuable aboveground space, LWARB has committed to support London’s ongoing development by helping to create a dialogue that, to date, hasn’t existed and by enabling big planning decisions to be made with a strategic overview. What looks like a perfect example of eco governance in the UK is still in its infancy. However, if successful it could radically change the face of development in the UK’s capital.
There is a common misconception that technology will provide the panacea to the problems facing cities and societies throughout the world. The reality is that even with the most ground-breaking technology and the most advanced solutions, it can all still fall apart without good governance; governance that balances maximising profits with upholding, if not improving, societal values and that develops new and innovative business models for the mutual benefit of all parties.
By identifying synergies and embracing an open and collaborative approach, we will all achieve much more. However, this needs to be driven by the governments across the world through the implementation of legal mechanisms that place greater sustainability responsibilities on everyone involved in a project’s supply chain, from the masterplanner and developer through to the contractor and the homeowner. Whilst the city is set to be the long-term beneficiary of eco governance, it’s also the city that needs to instigate the process, lay the foundations for new ways of thinking and be ready to invest in the technology required to make it a reality. Ultimately there needs to be cultural change, which I accept is easier said than done. However Sweden’s portfolio of successful projects, where eco governance has played an overarching role, is testament not only to the fact that it works but that it is also worthwhile.
Jonas Törnblom is Senior Vice President at Envac AB, where he has been since 2001. An environmental industry innovator, thought leader and driver for change, Jonas has built a reputation as a champion of sustainability within the built environment. Jonas has chaired the Swedish Environmental Technology Network’s steering committee, helped to develop the SymbioCity concept, and recently initiated the Sweden China GreenTech Alliance.