Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Heavy conscience and Ghost cities

By now, we've been to several lectures about sustainability and read many pages on the subject, from different perspectives. And we should all understand that oil is really bad, and dude, never get a car, because I already have one and it's not going to work out if you get one too.
It seems easy to forget that sustainable development is three dimensional. Some people think about the environment. Some about making money. A few might think about the society in which they live. However sustainability is about all of this, economics, ecology and society. Every change in one of them will somehow affect the other two. It is easy to understand that, without our planet, there will be no economy and no people. But we must not forget about the other parts as well, for it is the economy that drives us selfish humans and our society forward.

As a Swede living in Stockholm, I somehow feel that my impact on the environment is of little importance. Let me explain what I mean by talking about cities, how we live and how we transport ourselves around in them.

USA - They started it

The American suburbs are a good starting point for our trip. Because of the cheap oil for fuel, cities were designed with residential suburbs with large comfortable houses, far away from the office buildings in the city.

Even though Qatar is in first place 2013, the USA is (beaten by Australia in 2009) still in the top 12 when it comes to CO2 per capita. Does it really matter though? If we look at emissions per country instead, it is only second to China.

The United States has huge unpaid bills coming due for its infrastructure. There are plenty of pot holes to fill. Considering the national debt and high costs of investments in infrastructure, it seems unlikely that the US government would in any near future encourage a scrapping of highways in favor for public transportation like high speed trains. We shouldn't forget that the New York City Subway is the world's largest rapid transit though, however I don't see any new upcoming investments for the long distances. And who pays the bill for the current infrastructure then? Probably private-sector capital and revenue sources like tolls.

When I think about the future of America, I can't help to think about the post apocalyptic settings from the game Fallout 3. Somehow, they've done their part in history.

Sweden - Development hibernation

Stockholm. I feel like time is standing still. Sure, there is always some small development going on. But if we compare this city to other places in the world, nothing much is really happening regarding construction work of infrastructure and buildings.
It is estimated that the population growth in Stockholm will be about 20,000 people per year (figures vary from starting below 10,000 up to 30,000) . Still, in my opinion, the city lacks adequate development planning for future residential areas and communication.
In the 1940's, there were grand plans for the city. satellite towns were built and along with them came more infrastructure.  

The first metro line in Stockholm opened in 1950, and the latest in 1975.
Last time a large road was constructed was in 1966 when the Essingeleden  road was inaugurated. Since then, not much has happened regarding road or rail constructions in Stockholm, with the exception of a small addition called the Southern Link in 2004 and the the Tvärbanan tram in 2000. There are also plans on another major road Förbifart Stockholm, but the completion of that is at least 8 years away from now.
From the ecological perspective, lack of development is probably a good thing. With hope to stir up a discussion, I would argue that this has been bad for the economical and social development of the city of Stockholm.

However, just as I like to lighten my conscience about the environment by comparing myself and my home city to other places I find far worse regarding emissions and sustainable development, It is easy to understand that there are a number of aware people in the US with a heavy conscience for their wasteful culture. Maybe that's why the idea of Tiny Homes has been conceived, a compact living concept.
In Sweden we've have the concept Friggebod for a while. It's basically a small house that can be built without any special building permit. Most commonly used as a guest house or storage. It is rather out of context, I just mention it as a comparison to the Tiny Homes idea. Or maybe I chose the Friggebod as an unconscious comparison as to how insignificant we are as a nation in the global sustainability issue.  Anyway, here's an example of a Friggebod if you don't know what it is.

A housing trend has apparently hit America. They call it Tiny Homes. Check out the video and listen to Jay Shafer's talk about American housing.
Will this idea attract enough people to matter at all?

There is a consensus among national governments in favour of densely populated cities as a way to improve the ecological performance of the transport system. This is considered  true because the commuting length becomes shorter if homes and businesses are located in tall buildings close to each other. However as land rents in the city centre rise, people move to suburbs and in return this generates more pollution from transportation. And the concept of compact living and urbanization leads us on to talk about what is going on in China.

China - Focus on GDP growth

In the past 30 years, China's urban population has increased to 700 million from less than 200 million. The aim is to have 60% of the 1.4 billion population as urban residents by 2020.
Some of China's economical goals for 2013:

  • GDP 7.5%
  • Add more than 9 million urban jobs (Like Sweden's total population)
  • Keep registered urban unemployment rate at or below 4.6%

To reach these goals, the government is constructing whole new cities to speed up urbanization. And the strangest thing of it all, estimated figures say that there might be as many as 64 million empty apartments as a result of this construction boom! The problem is that the people that are supposed to move there, don't have the money to do so.

After having watched this video, perhaps your focus will be somewhere else as well. Do you think this development can be considered sustainable from an environmental, social or in the long run economical perspective? What can we do about this?

If you feel that you don't have enough to read already, you could have a look at this interesting article about how China's focus is on GDP growth and not climate change. It also mentions China's Climate Change Policy.

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