IDEAS | VEGAS2015 – Brisbane Retrofit

Posted on 24/08/2009

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In my previous post, I sang the praises of nimble and small consultancies that can pool their capabilities and passions to create opportunities for urban and cultural change. However, to state the often overlooked, large companies can do good too and are able to mobilise their resources to research and formulate responses to all manner of issues if they want to. As part of my postgraduate studies, this semester I am studying corporate social responsibility (CSR). It’s an area I’ve only nodded to in the past with some degree of apprehension and without any direct involvement except some workshops. Having now spent some time with the literature and advocates, and also studying some of the companies, I’ve noted that CSR is motivating some corporations to take action that results in both internal and external sustainability. Arup, a global consulting company, features large on the landscape of companies in the development industry taking their responsibilities seriously enough to reconsider the way they do business and research business. (Note another earlier post about Architectus’ Retrofitting Think Tank.) It also carves out an area of future consulting activity where clients are, understandably, concerned about investments. As a scan through Arup’s various websites and Twitter feeds reveals, the company is obviously committed to making connections between the global and the local, the big and the small.

In terms of CSR, there is some need for companies to be looking to responsible social innovation where companies can enter into dynamic partnerships to address social and environmental issues and impacts. So, it’s through this frame that I am looking at Arup’s VEGAS2015 – the Brisbane Retrofit project as a strategic response to climate change. As part of the 2009 Innovation Festival in May this year, a mini-conference was held where the challenges of large scale urban retrofitting was discussed. Arup Consultant Adam Beck convened the event, which I was unable to attend, and is coordinating the Brisbane project. In a brief phone chat, it’s hard to miss Beck’s own sense of urgency about the looming crises resulting from climate change. He stresses there is only a small window of opportunity – until 2015– to drastically reduce carbon emissions. This raises a raft of questions about the future of the built environment and Arup is endeavouring to provide some leadership by introducing multiple approaches to development and place.

Beck explained that VEGAS2015 has arisen from several years of research through the company’s Drivers of Change initiative. Underpinning the work is research conducted by Peter Head who delivered the 2008-9 Brunel lecture in which the transition into an ecological age was foregrounded. Head explains that “human development is now following a dangerously unsustainable path globally. Waves of investment in low and middle income countries are accelerating this problem because they are following an unsustainable model. Our urban areas and methods of food production consume land and non-renewable resources inefficiently. But we can do something to turn the situation around: we can move towards an ecological age.” The project also has the support of the C40 cities and the world’s largest cities that have pledged to help arrest climate change. VEGAS2015 is one of many localised responses intended to prepare cities (and urban communities) for the ecological age. The thrust of Head’s lecture is to find a way to begin to make the transition towards an ecological age of civilisation.

One of the corollaries of this proposition that I find particularly poignant, almost as a twist of fate, is that as human existence is ever more urbanised (removed from ‘nature’), by necessity it must also be more ecologically aware. The proposition is that that the environments we create must also find the appropriate balance in order to abate not just climate change, but the ensuing disparities that will result (e.g. waste, hunger, thirst, poverty etc). As Beck explained, in this transition to the ecological age, there is a need to be attentive to three core metrics:

  • Reduction of carbon emissions
  • Reduction ecological footprints
  • World human development index

He stressed that “we can save the planet and be socially and economically vibrant.” One of the most efficient ways of achieving this, Beck explained, is through retrofitting the whole city not just single buildings and spaces. Arup has developed strategies for realising this goal by addressing the ‘carbon layers’ in a city and are also investigating policy interventions and funding models (such as pension funds). The citywide carbon layers to which Beck refers (and built environment professionals do tend to talk about layers – or striations – rather than flows) include land use, finance and clean technology, food, informatics, water, waste and energy. Beck rightfully points out that federal government has a very important leadership role to play in this process, particularly in the development of interleaved urban and climate policies (areas that the federal government has not sufficiently addressed). It’s here that Arup’s CSR commitment is perhaps potentially powerful. Corporations are stepping up where government has failed to take sufficient responsibility and in embracing these challenges will, potentially, also exert influence on policy. If the thrust of CSR is to do more than comply with regulations, then the power of CSR may be in the creation of causal loops that put pressure on regulations to change, especially where government has failed to act appropriately.

The citywide approach is what I find particularly compelling about this project, partly because I tend to think that we do not imagine and consider the city in its entirety. I see the design and discussion concentrated in urban and inner city communities with the suburbs seemingly festering in their increasing corpulence, housing excesses and car dependence. While I continue to feel a rift between the urban and the suburban, I was somewhat relieved to see Arup’s video about suburban retrofit on their Resilient Futures website. As technological and engineering marvels are brought to bear on the sustainability of our cities, there are also other needs bubbling away: cultural and social change as well as the harnessing of human ingenuity. One of my pivots in Placing is the need for cultural change to redress the fraught complexity of ‘how we live’; as something textured and granular in how our identities are constructed in time, space and place. In response, Beck says that human interface is vital because all of these carbon layers are the result of our own behaviour and choices. The indignities and hardships that may befall us as a result of climate change are not inevitable. They will, however, be inevitable if we continue to prop up the carbon economy with our buildings, our industry, our consumption and our cities. Ultimately, this may mean pursuing other kinds of conversations and mobilising in other ways – tinkering with the stuff of social or cultural capital – that provide spaces for citizens to not only imagine and create other ways of living, but also come to understand the intricate connectedness of the one and the many.

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