Here you will find the latest episode of Green Talking, all about sustainable cities!
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All the useful bits to help you get the most out of Green Talking available on this page:
The case for … making low-tech ‘dumb’ cities instead of ‘smart’ ones, The Guardian, January 2020
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Jennifer: Hi I’m Jennifer
Cassie: And I’m Cassie
Jennifer: And you are listening to Green Talking, the podcast helping you learn English for good.
Cassie: Today we are talking about town planning, smart cities, and our urban areas of tomorrow. This session links to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal Eleven – Sustainable Cities and Communities. The goal is to make cities more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
Jennifer: It is an interesting time to talk about sustainable cities as we are seeing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a positive sense, during lockdown or confinement, we saw the absence of cars on our streets, and a lot of people felt like our cities could ‘breathe’ for the first time. I found it incredible to walk on the roads and be aware of all the sounds and even smells that are usually masked by the traffic.
Cassie: Yeah it was surreal but so nice to see your local community in a totally different way. It was just so quiet. Even now the city is still quiet. Fewer people on the bus going by my house and more people walking and cycling. I was actually in the countryside for the formal lockdown and it was so nice seeing families out together enjoying the fresh air.
Jennifer: Totally. And as a result, during lockdown, air pollution in some cities was the lowest it has been in thirty years. 7 million people die each year globally from air pollution, so having a complete lockdown in many large cities potentially saved tens of thousands of lives.
But, let’s not forget that COVID-19 will have a huge negative impact on those who are living in densely-populated areas, poorly built housing and informal or temporary housing, often known as slums. We need to take this opportunity to rethink how we design our living areas, for those who consume the most, and those who are most disadvantaged, so both ends of the scale.
So, before we get started, should we have some statistics?
Cassie: Of course we should! It’s time for fun facts with Cassie.
Fact number one: Almost 70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas in the year 2050.
Jennifer: And that’s up from 55% at the moment, right, that’s an increase of 15% in the next thirty years.
Cassie: Yeah it’s really incredible how much that will increase.
Ok Fact number two: Cities contribute more than 70% of global CO2 emissions.
Jennifer: Ouch! So just 55% of the population living in cities but contributing more than 70% of global CO2 emissions. Not good!
Cassie: Not good at all, especially when people think of cities as quite sustainable in terms of cycling, public transportation and that sort of thing.
Ok fact number three: 828 million people currently live in slums worldwide.
Jennifer: So that’s potentially no access to clean water, no permanent home, poor hygiene and almost a billion people live in those conditions.
Cassie: Yeah it’s really sad.
Fact number four: 90% of the world’s urban areasare on the coast which means cities are at particularly high risk from some of the impacts of climate change, such as rising sea levels.
Jennifer: 90% live on the coast. Ok so we need to act now!
So, you live in London Cassie, what’s it like living there, would you say it is a sustainable city?
Cassie: Yep, I’ve been here for 10 years. Well London has actually been named the most sustainable city in the world! Also did you know that London is technically a forest
Jennifer: That’s so cool. The most sustainable city in the world. I do always wonder how reliable those lists are, if it’s just politicians inventing things?
Cassie: Yeah sustainability is so difficult to define. But if we define it as economic, social and environmental security, London performs very well in all three areas It is a financial centre, it has a great quality of life, and it has a very high proportion of green spaces.
Jennifer: And so from your perspective as a citizen do you agree with that? What’s your perspective?
Cassie: Yeah. I think every city has room for improvement, of course, and if we are to meet our goals of reducing emissions in the future then we need to do more but I think London has come a long way and deserves the title of sustainable city. This year we are actually celebrating 10 years of the shared bike service and, as a result of COVID-19, the Mayor of London is accelerating plans to create more cycle lanes and pedestrian only areas. These are very welcome changes and I’ve actually bought a bike to take advantage of this!
Jennifer: Oh cool
Cassie: London really encourages innovation and exciting architecture, and there are some very green buildings right in the city centre. For example, there is the Bloomberg building which was called the most sustainable office building in the world in 2018.
Jennifer: You guys are winning all the awards! So what makes this building special?
Cassie: So the building uses all the traditional sustainability solutions, such as a water collection system on the roof and vacuum-drainage toilets—like the ones found on passenger jets—that dramatically reduces water usage.
But the real innovation comes in the design of the structure. The ceilings have been designed to help the building’s heating, cooling, lighting and acoustic functions, reducing energy usage by over 40%.
Special ceiling panels use aluminium in the shape of 3D petals. These petals can absorb and retain energy because they have a much bigger surface area than a simple flat concrete ceiling.
Jennifer: Wow so aluminium in the shape of petals, like a flower?
Jennifer: Amazing! We don’t usually hear much about ceilings in sustainable building design, it’s normally the walls talking about insulation and so on.
Cassie: The walls are actually pretty special in this building too. Sustainability really has to be a whole-systems approach, so that we don’t just think about part of a project and forget another. The Bloomberg building has living walls which means that plants are growing vertically on the walls inside, and outside there are big bronze sheets which can open and close to help the building ‘breathe’, like the gills of a fish. The idea behind the building was to work with nature, and not against it.
Jennifer: Ah I love that as an idea. So to work with nature and not against it. That sounds pretty cool. Have you seen the building?
Cassie: Yeah I have. Next time you are in London we should take a cycle into the city and we can have a look around.
Jennifer: On your new bike.
Cassie: On my new bike.
Jennifer: Do you think future cities will see more and more buildings like this?
Cassie: I really hope so but it isn’t all good news in terms of building and sustainable buildings. The building needed 600 tonnes of bronze imported from Japan to create those gills on the side of the building and a quarry-full of granite from India.
Jennifer: Yeah that’s not great. It’s good if the annual energy consumption is low, but we have to think of the construction costs in energy terms.
Cassie: Exactly. It’s all about looking at it as a system and not in isolation.
Jennifer: Whole systems approach, definitely. And like many things in sustainability, the most sustainable building is one which is not built. Maybe we need to go even further in our thinking and consider how necessary these office buildings are. We need to think about the purpose of each building, not just the way it is constructed. For example, currently, we are seeing that a huge number of workers are actually more productive working from home, and maybe our future city designs will begin to reflect that.
For example, Paris recently committed to designing the city based on 15 minute neighbourhoods where everything that you need is in your local community – it’s based around the idea of having lots of small local hubs, transport by foot or bicycle, accessing local businesses, really creating that strong local community feeling.
Cassie: Sounds like such a nice idea! But do you think it is possible?
Jennifer: Anything is possible but I think what will be really important is having solid frameworks and really clear strong leadership. If we want to see real change we are going to need to have innovative policies. For example in Oslo where all new public buildings must not only be zero-emission but actually be “energy-plus,” which means they are generating clean energy. That kind of thinking can really change the way we think about our buildings and our cities.
And energy particularly is one of the biggest challenges facing society, and with the good leadership, urban settings have a real opportunity to link thousands or even millions of consumers in a system which acts intelligently.
Cassie: A system which acts intelligently? What exactly do you mean by that?
Jennifer: So this is what we call a smart city A smart city uses technology to improve efficiency, share information with the public and improve both the quality of services and quality of life for the citizens.
Cassie: Right. So what does that actually mean?
Jennifer: Would it be easiest if I gave some examples?
Cassie: Yeah I think that would definitely help.
Jennifer: So keep in mind we are thinking about using technology, increasing efficiency, improving services and improving quality of life.
Cassie: Ok yup.
Jennifer: So, for example, let’s think of street lighting. Normally you have a lamppost which is a big stick with a light on it. And it lights up at sunset, and it turns off at sunrise. Simple, effective, pretty much the same in every single city. But what if we rethought their purpose? That’s what the city of Glasgow is doing, in Scotland. They have an intelligent lighting programme, which is using lampposts as a smart network, the lights are less bright when there is nobody nearby, and they actually track air pollution, noise and activity to inform the city about movement and even identify crime. And they act as WiFi routers to provide internet!
Cassie: That’s pretty awesome. It’s true that lighting is an existing network that we don’t even think about normally, but it is actually a brilliant infrastructure which could serve multiple purposes. I guess smart cities is thinking about using these infrastructures and rethinking their purposes.
Jennifer: Yeah exactly and electric cars and charging systems is another great example, particularly as energy storage is a big issue for our future, and we can actually think of parked cars as batteries storing energy. So, for example, if we have renewable energy supply when the wind in blowing or the sun is shining, people can charge up their cars, and then the car stores that energy for when they need it and when they want to drive. There are a few cities exploring how to develop that idea. Rotterdam in Holland is currently developing a project where parked cars act as batteries that can actually feed electricity back into the system when the city needs more energy.
Cassie: That’s so cool. I love the idea of cars being a solution and not a problem.
Jennifer: I know, right? However there is a bit of a debate around smart cities versus more traditional so called ‘dumb cities’ – do we want to be living in a linked digital community, where all of our data is shared and used and bought and sold, where we are constantly connected, or can we use some more traditional, or even ancient techniques?
There are so many questions about our data, security, and of course where all that electricity would come from for smart cities. Technology has the potential to respond to so many of our current global issues, but we sometimes need to look back in time to be able to look forward. There are many ancient techniques to deal with flooding, for example, again we come back to that idea of working with nature and not against it. So instead of blocking rivers and trying to stop flooding, we are seeing more and more cities building parks that are specifically designed to accept flooding. And it’s an ancient technique that many traditional communities used. And there’s actually a park built with this purpose in Rennes, where I live, which is pretty cool.
Cassie: But Rennes not the most sustainable city in the world though are you.
Jennifer: Yeah not yet, not yet!
Well that brings us towards the end of our episode today. So, what are your takeaway thoughts from today?
Cassie: I think for me it’s about using existing infrastructure to do something different, like the lampposts in Glasgow. Taking something that was already in place and repurposing it. It makes me think about the lamps on my street and what else they could be doing.
Jennifer: Yeah definitely, for me that’s one of the most exciting areas of development and I love reading about those kinds of projects. It feels like something so futuristic and out of a film. But it is super important to think as well not just about shiny buildings and clever apps that do clever things, but also to take a step back and think about purpose. Thinking about safety, inclusivity, access to services. I think technology should be a potential solution and not the objective. It shouldn’t be the goal of what we are trying to achieve. Technology should just be a way that we can achieve our goals. But there is so much potential to see real change in our urban areas over the next few decades and I am really excited to see what happens!
Cassie: Thanks for joining this episode of Green Talking, the podcast helping you learn English for Good. We’ll link to all of the topics discussed today in the podcast notes but we’re really keen to hear from you! How have you made a change after today’s podcast? What have you learned? What would you like us to talk about next? You can join the conversation social media. You can find us on all platforms at @greentalkfr . And we look forward to you joining us next week!
Jennifer: Thanks for listening! And my catchphrase of the week today is: Environmental destruction is shocking, let’s get Green Talking.
Cassie: Ok you still need to keep brainstorming that one!
Jennifer: See you next time.
resilient => recover easily from difficult situation
pandemic => epidemic over a wide geographical area; noun an epidemic that is geographically widespread; occurring throughout a region or even throughout the world
lockdown => confining people to a space
confinement => the act of restraining of a person’s liberty by confining them
absence => not present
masked => true character is hidden
surreal => like a dream
cycling => the sport of traveling on a bicycle or motorcycle
countryside => rural regions
lowest => smallest in importance
informal => a warm or friendly and not formal atmosphere
disadvantaged => marked by deprivation especially of the necessities of life or healthful environmental influences
worldwide – adj. spanning or extending throughout the entire world; of worldwide scope or applicability; involving the entire earth; not limited or provincial in scope
hygiene => a condition promoting sanitary practices
yep => yes, yeah
reliable => trustworthy, can depend on
perspective => a way of regarding situations or topics etc.
pedestrian => a person who travels by foot
innovation => starting something for the first time
passenger => a traveller riding in a vehicle
dramatically => in a very impressive manner
aluminium – noun a silvery ductile metallic element found primarily in bauxite
petal => coloured segments of a flower.
retain => for possible future use or application
wow => expression of surprise
insulation => protecting something by surrounding it with material that reduces or prevents the transmission of sound or heat or electricity
vertically – adv. in a vertical direction
bronze => an alloy of copper and tin and sometimes other elements
gills => how fish breathe – the respiratory organ of fish
quarry => site for mining stone and other materials
frameworks => structure or approach which can be used to think about and deal with an issue
intelligently – adv. in an intelligent manner
yup => yeah, yes
lamppost => streetlight – a metal post supporting an outdoor lamp
sunrise => the first light of day
sunset => nightfall
flooding => overfull with water
takeaway => a key fact, point, or idea to be remembered, typically one emerging from a discussion or meeting
repurposing => adapt for use in a different purpose.
destruction => the termination of something by causing so much damage to it that it cannot be repaired or no longer exists