Eco-Friendly Cities: Arup Offers Models of Sustainable Planning

Andy Howard

The public and private sector entrepreneurs making the greatest strides in the fight against global warming are those that have recognized the need for holistic clean-tech innovation. Worldwide design and engineering-consulting firm Arup is one such company, applying advances in clean technology to usher in a new era of large eco-friendly, master-planned cities all over the world. In the following interview, Arup America Regional COO Andy Howard, discusses holistic innovation and the worldwide appeal of sustainable planning and engineering.


Representatives of 40 of the largest cities in the world are gathering in New York this month to learn about their respective urban sustainability efforts. How might cities best begin to wean themselves from carbon dependence?

Cities can do a huge amount, and that’s why they are taking action and starting to put pressure on state and federal government, which is a good thing. Cities can do a range of things, and many cities are already mandating that city property and public buildings will be developed according to some sort of sustainable or green agenda, achieving LEED ratings so on. There are high-performance building initiatives around, and some cities are converting vehicle fleets to cleaner and sometimes renewable fuels. All of these things are helpful in established cities. And many more things can be done to promote sustainability in its broader sense, rather than just climate change, though clearly, climate change is one of the most pressing needs we have to address. I think some of the best learning is going on in the new cities—where we have the freedom to do broader master planning—or in major infill projects in existing cities.

Elaborate on Arup’s projects Dongtan in China and Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay. What role is Arup playing in these two large-scale city planning and engineering projects?

Our role is in leading the master planning process. We are also providing a broad array of skills that feed into that master planning process, which, in this case, is a unique slant on how master plans have traditionally been conceived.

Dongtan is a great example because China, which has a population of 1.2 or 1.3 billion people, has massive challenges in terms of urbanization. They have more than 100 cities with over a million people, and then cities the size of Shanghai and Beijing are of phenomenal scale. An estimated 300 million people are moving from rural habitats into the cities in the next 10 to 20 years. That poses a massive challenge, particularly when urban life is supported by and large by fossil fuel-based energy and inefficient coal burning power stations. They face major problems with carbon emissions and pollution. There is an imperative to do something different and we have been lucky enough to be involved.

The site of Dongtan is on an island in the mouth of the Yangtze River near Shanghai. That makes it, in a way, an obvious extension of Shanghai for urban development. When it’s ultimately connected by a bridge/tunnel transportation link, it will be a short ride into downtown Shanghai, and yet it is an area almost the size of Manhattan available for development. When it is fully built out in 2020, Dongtan will have developed a fraction of the island and will be home to about a half-million people. The development is something that may become a blueprint for future development and the future organization of cities.

What planning processes and green technologies will Arup employ in Dongtan to achieve these holistic development goals you describe?

The task is to develop an urban habitat for people to live according to their lifestyle and cultural expectations but at the same time minimize the ecological footprint and carbon emissions of the city itself. There is a balancing act. That leads us to the somewhat unique approach to the master plan. The master plan incorporates a resource balance “map,” where we take into account the way we use resources and look to maximize the re-use, recycling, and regeneration of resources. The target is to be self-sufficient in terms of energy; and to incorporate maximum re-use of water and recycling of sewage for irrigation and fertilizers.

There will be no fossil fuel-based transportation within the city. There will be various systems that might rely on hydrogen or other clean fuels, and a canal system with photovoltaic-powered transportation is planned. There are many systems that contribute to the clean city. In terms of its reliance on the outside, most of the island is dedicated to farming, providing a local supply of perishable foods. Goods that are brought from the mainland will be distributed on the island using renewable and clean fuels. The plan is to generate energy by a combination wind power, solar, and biomass. Dongtan is expected to have an ecological footprint of less than 2 hectares per resident, which is sustainable globally for our current population.

How does Arup put its master plan teams together? How do you identify and combine the expertise necessary to conceive and build these large, complex, sustainable urban systems?

The important thing about the increased public awareness and growing understanding of sustainability is that it reinforces the inter-connectivity of everything. As an organization we design solutions in the built environment, and we have, for many years, understood that systems are complex and inter-related. Over the 60 years that we have been around, we’ve built increasingly diverse teams, now with hundreds of disciplines and specialties; with expertise in areas beyond the traditional planning and engineering disciplines. Today we have social scientists, economists, financial people—a myriad of different specialists.

We try to bring the team together in an environment that promotes a holistic review of the challenges and how we might find solutions. This is somewhat different to the more common approach to planning and design, which can feel like a “divide and conquer” framework with each individual discipline seeking the best solution in its own, narrow field. A holistic approach is key to solving the challenges posed by sustainable development because of the complex inter-connectedness of the issues.

We try to get as many thinkers as possible around the table during the early conceptualization, breaking the challenges down into first principles. In the initial planning, we’ll look at the resources of the site and surrounding environment. That includes: What is the natural climate like? What is the condition of the land? What is available in the community around the project? And all of these things feed into something that is more sustainable.

Given the pace of innovation, how does Arup stay on the cutting edge of green technology and systems planning?

As a firm, we constantly need to re-invest and stay on the cutting edge; we’re fortunate enough to be arranged a bit differently than other firms in that we’re privately held in trust—employee-owned in effect—and we re-invest a huge amount of our revenue into staying fresh. We have a large research and development group—which is somewhat unique for a design and business-consulting firm—and we have a group specifically tasked with “foresight and innovation.”

Led by our foresight team, one of the major projects we have been involved in across the firm for the last two or three years, has been analyzing global “drivers of change.” These are significant things that will change the paradigm for future development, business, and living. We’ve looked at social, technological, environmental, economic, and political drivers. We have spent time exploring how these things might change in the next 5–50 years and how this might impact the way we develop the built environment. We spread this knowledge across our leadership and all of our staff—through debate, not just one-way teaching—so everyone is prepared to think in detail about the drivers of future development.

Are your clients as educated as Arup’s management is, given the firm’s investment in foresight and innovation?

That’s a good point. Our foresight and innovation leader spends much of his time traveling around the world visiting existing and potential clients to take them through a similar process—discussing the drivers of change through workshops, presentations, and so on. We try to help a broader audience debate these issues and acknowledge them in their planning. We often bring this process to the beginning of projects so that we’re thinking with our clients about the future context as we design. It is impossible to be certain about how these things will change, but it’s very important that we are cognizant of possible future scenarios as we design for our future. The pace of change is accelerating and continuing to plan and design in today’s context will lead to developments that are irrelevant in the short term.

How is Arup applying sustainability in the to the master plan of Treasure Island in the United States? Treasure Island Master Plan Rendering

Treasure Island is a man-made island, originally built for the World Fair, subsequently it became a Navy base, and has since gone through a number of different development plan attempts. We seem now to have a plan that has broad acceptance, dealing with the clean-up of the contamination on the island and delivering a model for sustainable living. The island will be developed with about 13,500 residents.

There are lessons in a number of the things we have done in terms of planning. The orientation of the streets and the orientation and design of the buildings minimizes the energy used in heating and cooling and maximizes the capture of solar radiance on photovoltaic panels integrated into the buildings. The site plan and building orientations have been informed by the natural environment, and in times of maximum solar energy the development will export renewable power to the grid. This gives a 60 percent expected reduction on carbon emissions.

On the transportation side, there is a ferry terminal into San Francisco that will be within a 15 minute walk of all homes. It’s likely that many of the families won’t need to own a vehicle. In terms of water, the site is being designed to catch as much rainwater runoff as possible and to recycle gray water and use it in limited irrigation. We anticipate that the development will use less potable water than falls on the site from rainfall, so it works within its own water budget.

For a site of its size, it’s quite unique. When you think of it, an island on the Bay doesn’t strike you as a significant urban infill project, but it is a piece of the city, and it’s being developed along sustainable principles to about twice the density of the nearby Marina District. The majority of the island is given up to organic farming that will supply produce to the local community.

You used the word “holistic” earlier. The development world has for a long time operated in a fragmented culture, where each specialty, cost analyst, and agency has had his or her own responsibilities. How challenging is it for clients to think and act holistically on sustainability?

It has been difficult. We have been involved in sustainable design for many years. It used to be characterized by low-energy design. Until recently, we found it extremely difficult, particularly in the U.S. market—where clients do like to get the best deal out of each individual skill or discipline in their construction or design project. Our challenge has been in convincing clients of the value of integrated planning and design and the resultant holistic solutions. Just recently a broader public understanding of sustainability and inter-connectivity has changed the context and made people realize how important holistic thinking is. As you were saying, mayors are coming together for a common cause, and people are eager to learn from each other, coming together in teams that contribute much more to the whole. The mechanics associated with the concept we now call sustainability have been around for a long time, but the recent global warming debate has increased public understanding that one action impacts others, potentially a long distance away. This has created an environment where people are much more willing to accept the importance of sustainability in its broadest terms and to agree that complex interrelated problems need holistic solutions.

If we do this interview five years from now, what will we be talking about? How different will the landscape for sustainability, urban design, and large-scale projects be?

At some point it will become a way of life, but not in five years. In five years, we will just be starting to close the feedback loop on some of these recent master planning examples. We’ll start to gather sensible feedback and understand what the value of the proposition really is: Where is the best bang for the buck? Where is public opinion on the new things that have been done?

Many of these things—if not all of them—will require a change in behavior. Some of them will require what may seem to be a lifestyle sacrifice. Progress toward a sustainable future will only be sustainable itself if there is a balance, if the business economics make sense, and if people’s lifestyles can stand the rate of change. In five years we’ll have a much better understanding of these dynamics and I expect the rate of change to be much quicker than it is now.

I think the industries and technologies that support sustainable living will be much more established. In the last five years in the United States, we have progressed significantly from the natural human resistance to sustainability on the basis of expense and untried new technologies; to a point where sustainable design has become mainstream in the building development market.

The USGBC LEED program, has helped to generate industries dealing in technologies that can support sustainable development objectives. The adoption of LEED standards by local governments has helped create this industry, and my feeling is that in the next five years it will get to critical mass where there is no longer a financial first cost burden to developing sustainable buildings.

At the same time, I think the political landscape will change significantly, such that activism and actions will move from local and state government to federal government, and we’ll have global agreement and engagement on many key sustainable issues. I think people already realize for example that there is no longer a reason to debate the scientific evidence for or against global warming. The implications of being wrong about global warming are just too great not to do something about it.

LEED has, as you say, helped move the industry forward on sustainable design and architecture. But LEED standards are simplistic and often hinder cost-conscious project developers. Do we need an update—a “LEED 3.0”?

The success of the LEED system is a two-edged sword. The success is, in a way, in its simplicity. Though some people would argue that it is quite complex, it’s essentially summarized on a checklist that covers a wide range of sustainable issues generally relating to the building and the site. LEED really covers resource usage, human comfort, and pollution, whereas sustainable development needs consideration of the broader social and economic issues as well. Unless we deal with all of these things holistically, we won’t be completely successful, but I’m not sure that LEED is necessarily the tool to help us do this.

Having said that, LEED has been tremendously successful by being easy to understand, allowing people to become proficient in developing buildings around a sustainability template. Another upside is that the simplicity makes it easy for the leaders of public and private bodies to use it as a benchmark to mandate. It makes it easy for masses of people to understand and follow. The downside is that as a template it doesn’t suit every single circumstance, so you will rarely get the very best in terms of sustainable development if you use it as an approach to design. It is really an evaluation tool as opposed to a design tool and there is an important difference there.

How do emerging professionals and technologies specializing in sustainability find their way into the database and resources of Arup? How do you pick them to be your partners?

We’re networked deeply into the industry, and we’re aware of most of the sustainability work that is going on around the world. We keep each other informed on people who seem to have a broad vision, have an aptitude for holistic work, and share the same values as do we. That is how we find our business partners, and we often work with people again and again.

In terms of the technologies, it’s a push-pull, where people who are promoting the technologies do so through the usual channels—trade shows, conferences, and journals. We put in a lot of time for receiving people with these technologies, demonstrating them and testing them in their offices and so on. We may also be involved in reviewing some of the technology. Not only are the designers integrated and thinking holistically, but so too are the manufacturers, contractors, and the clients as well.