Eco-Cities and the Potential Golden Age for Sustainable Engineering Part 2
In Part 2 of this series, Christianne details how sustainable engineering could be the key to saving the planet.
By Christianne Taylor
December 1, 2020

Reminder: What is an Ecocity?

Ecocities are ecologically healthy cities modeled on the sustainable, resilient structure of natural ecosystems. The ecocity supplies a wealth of renewable resources to its inhabitants but never over-consumes the resources it produces. It never creates more waste than it can assimilate. Its inhabitants reflect planet-friendly lifestyles. Each city is unique and thus, follows a different path towards becoming an ecocity. Cities that implement emission-reducing measures— from cycle-friendly streets to net-zero buildings— are constructing resilience and leading the charge towards a global golden age of sustainable engineering. 

Who initiated sustainable architecture in the United States? 

Buildings are typically responsible for around 50% of a city’s total carbon emissions. They  account for over 70% of emissions in the megacities of Los Angeles, Paris, and London, generating air pollution that provokes hundreds of thousands of premature deaths each year. The primary culprits of energy usage in buildings are heating, cooling, hot water, and lighting. Sustainable architecture is a relatively recent phenomenon that aims to slash emissions and save millions of lives in the process. 

We can thank Kansas City architect Bob Berkebile for pleading with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1989 to enforce more conscientious building practices. Him and other revolutionary architects helped spark the creation of the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE). COTE collaborated with the Environmental Protection Agency to produce new guidelines for architectural design. Green architecture became a national objective. 

Fast forward to 1998, and COTE piloted the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification system. The LEED rating system is the most widely used green-building certification in the world today, with around 90,000 commercial buildings holding LEED status. LEED-certified buildings are recognized for their sustainability achievements and leadership, saving millions of dollars in energy, water, maintenance, and waste costs. Or so they claim...

Critics point out biased data, unreliable number-crunching, and prediction-based data reporting as reasons to take LEED reports with a grain of salt. In other words, LEED-certifications may not always indicate the low-carbon construction we’d like to believe. Without making perfect the enemy of good, we can acknowledge that there is work to do. This is where commitments to dramatically lowering new buildings’ emissions arise. 

Mayors to enforce net zero emissions for new buildings

In August 2018, mayors of 19 cities including the likes of New York City, Paris, London, Los Angeles, and Tokyo, pledged to make new buildings net zero carbon by 2050 with the support of C40 Cities

Net zero carbon buildings boast net zero energy consumption, meaning the total amount of energy used by the building is roughly equal to the amount of renewable energy created on the site or from nearby sources. The 19 cities involved in the pledge are sprawling, populated, and densely organized cities which may require the help of off-site renewable energy generation. Win-win partnerships between city centers and surrounding rural communities will be essential; rural communities host solar and wind farms for adjacent cities, then the cities provide financial and technological compensation.

C40 Cities is also supporting a COVID-19 Economic Recovery Task Force, chaired by the mayor of Milan, which is intended to provide mayors from 40 cities with knowledge and tools for “designing an economic recovery that improves public health, reduces inequality and addresses the climate crisis.” Each of the 40 mayors believe prioritizing climate action will advance sustainable new industries and jobs that boost the resilience of urban communities.

The future of sustainable engineering

The Unisphere is currently the largest site-powered net zero commercial building in the United States. It was completed in 2018 in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, and employs a multitude of strategies to achieve net zero status, including 3,000 solar panels on the building, an underground concrete labyrinth that moderates temperatures, geo-exchange wells drilled 500 feet into the earth to provide energy storage, an atrium pool serving as a heat sink, daylight harvesting that dims the artificial light system during the day, and more. The company’s real estate director suggested that the building’s cost was not much more than the company’s past, non-net-zero projects. 

A stone’s throw from the north shore of Lake Union in Seattle sits a translucent glass and concrete structure that could easily be mistaken for a high-tech production facility. Inside these handsome walls of deceit lies a trash-processing facility— the North Transfer Station. It processes up to 750 tons of waste per day to accommodate Seattle’s dense, growing population and helps the city reach its zero-waste goal. The building produces 68% fewer CO2 emissions than similar buildings and its rooftops are populated with photovoltaic arrays and greenery, concealing the building’s purpose to neighboring communities. If every city had a North Transfer Station, millions of tons of urban waste could be diverted to recycling and composting.

In Austin, Texas, the Austin Central Library offers a healthy, naturally lit, LEED Platinum certified environment for learning and community engagement. The public library has a 373,000-gallon rainwater harvesting system with features that attract pollinators to the rooftop. The six-story atrium invites in natural light while outdoor dining and reading porches connect visitors with the natural world. Austin residents adore the green building that doubles as a community hub.

These designs may not yet dominate cityscapes, but they do represent a vision for the sustainable engineering revolution to come. Cities that implement similarly robust solutions while prioritizing sustainability and low environmental impacts will thrive relative to the cities that ignore the climate’s call to action. Then someday, our kids will wonder why we ever built anything without sustainability in mind.

A corner shot of the Austin Public Library.

Austin Public Library— Photo by Austin Public Library via CC.

How can I contribute to my ecocity, ecosuburb, or eco-rural community?

There’s tons of ways to make individual contributions that come together to create substantial positive change. Through our Who’s Saving the Planet podcast, we’ve gotten to know some incredible entrepreneurs whose inventions are making society more sustainable. Check out some of their products that might complement your sustainable lifestyle.

1. Limit wastewater… through your very own ecosystem!

Have you ever wondered what to do with wastewater? Want to create a thriving, compact ecosystem in your backyard or house? NuLeaf Technologies designed NuTree— a wastewater-converting invention—  that makes it possible “to foster an ecosystem where microbes and plants work together to treat and recycle wastewater.” Their products are designed to promote everything from sustainable off-grid water systems to eco-warrior gardening lifestyles. NuLeaf was created to give everyday citizens and businesses the tools they need to be water-smart. Lex and Tony spoke with NuLeaf’s CEO and co-founder, Rachel Major, about her passion for biomimicry and what inspired her to create NuLeaf. Their range of products and custom services can help any interested nature-lover find the home garden, aquaponics system, or sustainable water feature of their dreams.

2. Seek sustainable packaging… on soaps!

Soapply is a soap company that replenishes clients’ soap stock through a “modern milkman system”— delivering all-natural lather in glass recycled bottles rather than more conventional plastic containers. Every 8 oz. of Soapply purchased is tied to a $1 donation that funds water, sanitation, and hygiene initiatives for the millions of people suffering from diseases that could be prevented with access to soap and hand washing. Learn about the dangers of synthetic detergents and the origin of the word ‘soap’ on Episode 9 of our podcast, featuring Soapply CEO and founder Mera McGrew.

3. Outdoor recreation is greener with BioLite technologies

Almost half of the planet lacks clean, affordable household energy. BioLite focuses on two distinct customer segments— off-grid households in emerging markets and outdoor recreation users seeking fuel-independent cooking and charging— and develops core energy technologies that are applicable to both. They aim to reduce the millions of deaths caused by open fire cooking and diminish its black carbon emissions while replacing dirty, expensive kerosene lamps with clean electricity. BioLite has stoves, lights, solar panels, and power sources for sale with each purchase helping bring safe energy to households across sub-saharan Africa. Naturally, we had to get to know BioLite’s CEO and founder, Jonathan Cedar, on the podcast


Grab our free sustainable living E-book! Go check it out now.