How To Build A Sustainable City

What is sustainability? How can it be measured? What is a sustainable city? Berlin architect Vanessa Miriam Carlow addressed these questions and more in a well attended talk this evening at the National Galery of Art in Ottawa. 

Visiting Ottawa as a juror for the Governor General’s Award for Architecure, Ms. Carlow is a professor at Technische Universitat Braunschweig, and principle at the firm COBE Berlin. She is an architect that has focussed on urban design and public buildings. Surprisingly, given the unreliability of design competitions as a business model, most of her firm’s work comes from her many successes in winning urban design and architecture projects through entering competitions. 

In the Architecure school’s studio at TU Braunschweig, along with her students, she has chosen take on collaborative projects tackling real life urban problems. 

Ms. Carlow began her talk by highlighting the increasing importance of cities. In 2006, 2.6 billion people lived on earth. It continues to grow, and in 2100, population projections figure a global population of 11.2 billion. Vanessa is convinced that a result of this population increase will be that cities of 2 billion people will emerge. In Guy Lefebre’s book, The Urban Revolution he suggests looking at how people use space rather than looking exclusively at built form, an unfortunate tendency of contemporary urban design that Ms. Carlow stands strongly against. She predicts two types of cities will emerge in coming years. In high population growth countries, in Africa, for example, cities will notfocus on creating new urban areas (rather than slums). 

While European cities are considered by some, given population projections, to be “95% complete”, issues facing European cities are multiple. They include climate change, diversity, and the right to a livable and sustainable city 

Vanessa’s work seeks to address cultural issues in Northern Europe. She showed a library in Copenhagen where immigrant communities gather to enjoy books. 
Interkultur, a book by Mark Terkessidis is influential to COBE’s work, and documents Germany’s struggle to become an inclusive society.

Vanessa’s firm designed a new harbourfront development for Copenhagen. IPCC, Denmark’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has identified a future where sea levels will rise 2 m. The project creates a sustainable, public oriented development. 

By the end of the decade, Copenhagen predicts 50% of all trips will be made by bike.

Vanessa’s quite proud of having reducing the amount of road used for cars in favour of trees, bike lanes, and wider sidewalks.

‘The 5-minute City’ is basis of much of Vanessa’s design work. Individuals 

DGNB – German LEED type standard. Applied in many cities and countries. 

In Senegal, Vanessa worked on a city for 125, 000 houses. The average Senegalese family has 8 people, so in effect the goal was a city of 1 million inhabitants. Similar sustainability principles were applied to this project as were applied in Berlin. Creating a city where most things people need are within 5 minutes’ walk. Creating a ‘blue, green, and healthy city’ was a goal; with access created between water and green space. Agriculture is planned for a ‘green’ band around the city. Streets are designed to channel water into the lake. No storm water pipes are proposed; saving time and money.

A city for 125,000 houses near Dakar, Senegal. Image from COBE.  
While there were many sustainability proposals seem viable, the type of community consultation that Vanessa was involved with in Europe seems to be lacking with this project. Interestingly Vanessa said that her lecture recieved a comment in Toronto that the street trees she showed in the project didn’t provide shade. She says they are changing to deciduous trees for the project. 

An excellent lecture, really enjoyed it. More at

Berlin is a Model City Where The Public Realm Is Valued

Germany, especially Berlin, has discovered the value of public space and architecture. Berlin gives the public realm an importance that few other cities have.

When, in the mid 1990’s I interned as a young architecture student in the former office of Matthias Bjornsen and his partners, it was a city on the mend. The buzz shaping places like Potsdamer Platz was exciting. There was a definite feeling that city building meant more here than in other cities.

David Chipperfield confirms these suspicions in his recent Guardian UK article where he illuminates some of the differences between Berlin where he has a thriving office, and his native London where he says he private sector has completely won out in shaping the city. IMG_0703.PNG

A Comparison of Berlin and London, credit to Guardian UK:

Population: 3.4 million
Notable modern buildings: Reichstag dome by Norman Foster (1999), Jewish Museum by Daniel Libeskind (2001), Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Centre by Max Dudler (2009)
Cultural treasures: Brandenburg Gate (1791), Neue Nationalgalerie New National Gallery by Mies van der Rohe (1968), Tempelhof airport (1923)
Star architects based there: Max Dudler, Helmut Jahn, Kuehn Malvezzi, Hans Kollhoff, David Chipperfield (also in London)
Tallest building: Fernsehturm TV tower (368 metres)
Skyscrapers over 200 metres: 3
Planning law: The absence of skyscrapers in the German capital has less to do with planning regulation than lack of political will and historically low property prices. A masterplan to build a group of 10 towers with a “recommended” maximum height of 150 metres around Alexanderplatz was approved by the senate in 1993 but not acted on for more than 20 years. One tower of 150 metres is now set to be built by 2018, while the Neukölln district has approved plans for the 175-metre Estrel Tower, Germany’s tallest hotel.

Population: 8.4 million
Notable buildings: 30 St Mary Axe – the Gherkin (2004), London Aquatics Centre, Olympic Park (2011), 20 Fenchurch Street – the walkie-talkie(2014)
Cultural treasures: St Paul’s Cathedral, Tower of London, Lloyd’s of London (all Grade I listed)
Star architects: Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers, Terry Farrell, David Chipperfield
Tallest building: Shard (306 metres)
Number of skyscrapers higher than 200 metres: 7
Planning laws: No buildings must interrupt 13 viewing corridors to St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Palace and the Tower of London. The London mayor can overrule councils on major projects but the secretary of state for communities has the final say. Boroughs have separate planning policies but they must fit in with the wider London Plan.



Berlin’s Stunning Pool Proposal

Picture, if you will, a new 750 m long swimming facility in the river at the heart of Germany’s capital, Berlin, alongside its famous museum island, a UNESCO World heritage site. This project called Flussbad is a bold public space proposal, reminiscent of Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York that will greatly enhance the public realm in the German city.


Berlin From Space

Berlin from space. Photo: Chris Hadfields

Berlin from space. Photo: Chris Hadfields

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield has captured this image of Berlin from space that is both fascinating from geopolitical and from sustainability issues points of view. In this photo, the boundary of former east and west Berlin is clearly visible delineated by the fact that the city hasn’t yet updated the yellow coloured sodium vapour street lights on the east side.

The struggle to unify the city, ongoing for twenty years now is clearly in evidence. The west favoured the whiter coloured lights basted on cost, maintenance and improved carbon emissions and the city’s 43,000 sodium lights are slated to disappear as the city targets carbon neutrality by 2050.

Guardian: Berlin from Space