Looking for Utopia

This blog was originally posted on What's Next, a web magazine accompanying the International Architecture Biennial Rotterdam 2016.


We were looking for utopia. Our time in the IABR exhibit was almost up, but I had found my way to a display titled Utopia as an Option. I considered the images suspended in a mesh of wires that gave an impression of both structure and space and I was particularly struck by the suggestion that we look for utopia “without losing our naivety”.

I had come to the IABR exhibit on The Next Economy as part of a workshop field trip. A group of researchers, practitioners and artists had gathered in the Lorentz Center in Leiden Universityfor a workshop focused on how we might tell stories about low carbon futures. Radically reducing the entanglement of carbon in our economies requires not only action in the present, but also thinking about the future differently. And so we came to the IABR with burgeoning ideas about how we might narrate those potential futures.

The idea of utopia was particularly enticing to a group of the workshop participants. Utopia seemed to draw together shared interests in experimentation, better ways of being, and about the possibilities of positive story telling. At the same time, we were also curious about how easy it is to limit utopia. As we reflected on what we had seen in the exhibit, our group discussion developed along a key line of tension: utopian potential vs. limitations on utopia.

Utopian Potential

Across the exhibit, we saw nuggets of utopian potential. We saw that there were many stories told about the creation of spaces of encounter for people and the creative use of space in cities. These displays showed the possibilities of using encounters between people to solve other social and environmental problems at the same time. We also saw how many of the displays took an expansive view of infrastructure. Many showed us the ways that enhanced social systems, for example, can be thought of as infrastructure essential to the next economy.

But we also realized that looking for utopia was challenging. It is so easy to see the ways that ideas fail to reach our personal understanding of utopia. Can it be productive to suspend our criticism in order to offer utopian readings of ideas, even if it means working against the grain of the exhibit? Should we sometimes hold on to our naivety to fully unleash utopianism as a way of thinking?

Limitations on Utopia

In many ways, the exhibit also shed light on the ways that we limit ourselves when we tell stories about the future. The messiness of life becomes sanitized in computer renderings of the future, for example, so that there are no dirty utopias. We also found it hard to see utopian potential in cases where ownership and control was glossed over. The presence (though not exclusive) of top-down visions rather than those arising from the multitude limited what kinds of utopian visions were available across the exhibit. If we are looking for utopia, a key question is whose utopia are we seeing? What kinds of quality of life and what kinds of distributions of access are present in various utopias? Finally, by deciding on a primary goal, even an important one, we do shut down other approaches that might have centred on a different utopian ideal. The focus on productivity in some ways limits the things that can be accomplished by a utopia.

Practicing Utopia

Though we saw limitations on utopia in the exhibit, this tension in our group discussion showed how utopia might be a useful concept to exercise anyway. Maybe utopianism is a way of thinking that can be enabled or limited. Perhaps it is like a muscle that can be exercised and we can get better at flexing utopian thinking as we try to tell stories about low carbon futures.

Laura Tozer Comment
Cutting Edge Green Buildings in London, Stockholm and San Francisco
The first residents moved into Hammarby Sjostad in Stockholm in 2002, which was developed as a sustainable neighbourhood with a closed loop urban metabolism approach

The first residents moved into Hammarby Sjostad in Stockholm in 2002, which was developed as a sustainable neighbourhood with a closed loop urban metabolism approach

For my PhD research project, I'm visiting three cities with some of the most aggressive greenhouse gas emission reduction targets in the world. On my trips to London and Stockholm last fall, I asked policy makers, research organizations and industry about their efforts to transform urban built environments in order to achieve deep greenhouse gas emission cuts. I have just arrived in San Francisco to ask individuals here the same questions. But in all three places, I am also getting a chance to see decarbonization efforts in action in some of the most progressive sustainable buildings and communities.

In London last September, buildings across the city opened their doors to guests for Open House London. Some people waited in the huge line to try to get to the top of the Gherkin, but I followed the green building track. It led me back and forth across the city from homes to office blocks to district heating tunnels under the Thames.

London social housing unit built in 1870 that has achieved a 77% greenhouse gas emission reduction

London social housing unit built in 1870 that has achieved a 77% greenhouse gas emission reduction

This Victorian terrace is a pretty classic London building, but this one is a little different than its neighbours - it achieved a 77% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Originally built in 1870, it now boasts new insulation, thicker (but still heritage approved) windows, heat recovery units and a solar hot water system on the roof. I was guided through by the resident on a sunny afternoon with about 15 or 20 others, most of whom seemed interested in tackling their own terrace renovation for energy and greenhouse gas emission reduction. The renovation on this social housing unit was fully funded as a pilot project for the Superhomes scheme promoted by the local Camden Council.

London office building that achieved sustainability performance in the top 1% of UK non-domestic new buildings

London office building that achieved sustainability performance in the top 1% of UK non-domestic new buildings

The Camden Council Building at 5 Pancras Square achieved a BREEAM rating of Outstanding, which is meant to signify sustainability performance in the top 1% of UK new non-domestic buildings. The design  for this building incorporates a number of passive design elements, like high levels of air-tightness and insulation in the external envelope, high levels of thermal mass, and windows that open to ventilate and purge heat. Our tour guide, a Camden Council employee that works in the building, didn't notice many of these features day-to-day since the building mostly feels like a regular office tower.

On my trip to Stockholm, I learned about efforts their to target the sustainability performance of whole new neighbourhoods within the city. In 1996, the city began redevelopment of Hammarby Sjostad on an urban brownfield site. The neighbourhood aimed to be twice as efficient as a typical one. The closed loop urban metabolism model that was developed through this experience is well-known in urban planning circles since Stockholm policy makers exported their experiences around the world to other sustainable communities. But this knowledge is also being applied a little closer to home in the Stockholm Royal Seaport development.

The Stockholm Royal Seaport neighbourhood has high standards for sustainability performance to push forward innovation

The Stockholm Royal Seaport neighbourhood has high standards for sustainability performance to push forward innovation

Stockholm urban planners and developers are now tackling a new sustainable neighbourhood redevelopment scheme called the Stockholm Royal Seaport or Norra Djurgårdsstaden. The land is owned by the City of Stockholm and they have set high standards for the new development. For new buildings, they are trying to achieve the very efficient standard of 55 kWh per square meter per year performance (the national standard was 90 kWh/m per year when they first started the redevelopment). The development also aims to meet city targets of greenhouse gas emissions below 1.5 ton per person by 2020 and fossil fuel free by 2030. Multiple developers and companies are working with the each other and with the city in collaborative processes to try to innovate to achieve these goals. Developers are motivated to participate not only because this is highly valuable urban land, but also because involvement in the innovation process creates cutting edge sustainable building capabilities within their operations that they can then offer to other clients.

The Järva project tackled the retrofit of these existing residential towers to achieve significantly improved energy efficiency performance

The Järva project tackled the retrofit of these existing residential towers to achieve significantly improved energy efficiency performance

The retrofit of existing buildings is also being tackled in Stockholm. About half an hour by transit from central station is a neighbourhood made up of older low to medium rise buildings. The buildings in this picture don't stand out much from their neighbours, but they've been overhauled to improve their energy performance. Solar photovoltaics were installed and insulation, the envelope, windows, doors, and the heating system were all replaced to improve energy efficiency.  The performance of the building was 137 kWh/m per year before retrofit and after retrofit it was measured at 89 kWh/m per year. Since many estimates suggest that 80% of existing urban buildings will still be in place in 2050, retrofits like these are clearly a key aspect of urban decarbonization.

The San Francisco City Hall has achieved LEED Platinum certification in the Existing Building Operations and Maintenance category

The San Francisco City Hall has achieved LEED Platinum certification in the Existing Building Operations and Maintenance category

Finally, I've just arrived in San Francisco but I've already taken a tour of the 101 year old City Hall. It just recently became the oldest building in the US to achieve LEED Platinum certification in the Existing Building Operations and Maintenance category. Like all municipal buildings in San Francisco, it is supplied by 100% carbon free power. To achieve certification, the heating and ventilation system was reconfigured and significant water-efficiency upgrades were installed. It is 90% more efficient than similar buildings in the US. Unfortunately, the tour doesn't yet include these details or bring visitors' attention to the LEED status, but hopefully it will be updated soon. I've just started my research in San Francisco and look forward to speaking with people working on urban decarbonization here. 

I've certainly seen some cutting edge sustainable urban buildings so far in my research travels. Looking across all three places, I hope to get a better sense of decarbonization as it rolls out on the ground and what the politics of transformative decarbonization look like in practice. 

Laura TozerComment
Dispatch from Paris: COP21 and the Transformation of Cities
Mayors Convene in Paris during COP21 For Landmark Climate Summit For Local Leaders ( photo by ICLEI )

Mayors Convene in Paris during COP21 For Landmark Climate Summit For Local Leaders (photo by ICLEI)

Not so long ago, city action on climate change was a topic discussed in obscure back corners of U.N. Climate Change Summits. This year in Paris, however, the action taken by cities to respond and adapt to climate change is playing a much more central role. 

Negotiators at the Paris summit are trying to develop a global deal between countries that would keep global average temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius. As nations work through the issues that remain unresolved in the negotiations, cities have played an active role at the Paris summit trying to galvanize momentum.

Cities are key players in the fight against climate change. Urban areas are responsible for a significant portion of global greenhouse gas emissions, but they are also an important source of climate solutions. In addition, they represent the frontline in the effort to protect citizens from the impacts of climate change. Deep transformation of urban areas will be necessary to limit global warming to 2 degrees and to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

There have been a few key themes at the Paris summit when it comes to discussions on local action on climate change:

1) Cities are acting, learn from them:

We can learn directly from cities as they work towards transformation. For example, sessions throughout the summit focused on Stockholm as it plots a path to zero fossil fuels by 2040, on Copenhagen’s rapid transformation to carbon neutrality by 2025, the experiences of cities like Vancouver as it strives for 100% renewable energy, and efforts to increase resilience to the impacts of climate change in Dhaka.

Cities have banded together in a number of networks to share their experiences around the globe and to develop the resources to scale up the implementation of solutions. The European Covenant of Mayors brings together 6300 municipalities under an agreement to strive for GHG reductions of at least 40% by 2030. Participants in COP21 also heard that the members of another city network called the Compact of Mayors can deliver half of the global urban potential greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions available by 2020

2) Cities are ambitious, nations should follow suit:

Two weeks of presentations at the Paris summit have highlighted how cities are trying to push ahead at the leading edge of climate action. The members of the C40 Cities network (a network of the world's megacities taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions) have taken 10,000 climate actions since the last major U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009 and they have committed to reduce their emissions by 3 Gt CO2 by 2030 (the same as the annual carbon output of India).

International city networks are using their joint power to try to influence countries to reach a global agreement. At one official U.N. side event, governors and mayors from North America, Latin America and Africa reinforced their commitment to limit greenhouse gas emissions to 2 tons per capita, or 80-95% below a 1990 benchmark by 2050. They called on national governments to follow their lead and come to a global agreement. The cities and regions that are members of an association called ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability also called on national governments to scale up their efforts to achieve low-carbon transitions. 

3) How can we finance local climate action:

Numerous sessions at the Paris summit have tried to tackle the question of how we can pay for climate action at the city scale. In one presentation, the Mayor of Johannesburg talked about the Green Bond the city offers on the stock exchange that funds local climate projects. Cities are also connecting directly to international climate finance. For example, the Global Environment Facility described their $1.5 billion Sustainable City program to fund local climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts and the Cities Climate Finance Leadership Alliance explained how to mobilize capital into climate proof cities.

It is clear that city officials can’t accomplish low-carbon transformations all on their own. A quiet undercurrent of the discussions touched on some of the limitations of cities, such as governance structures that limit action, constrained local government budgets, and regulatory barriers. Connecting back to Canada, Premier Wynne of Ontario recognized this need during the second week of the summit and asked Ontarian cities facing regulatory barriers to local climate action to open up a dialogue with the province about removing obstacles. National and regional governments should find ways to further enable local ambitions.

It is important to celebrate the work happening in urban areas to accelerate low-carbon and resilient transformation. But it is also critical that national and regional governments don’t leave the work to city officials. There are essential climate change responses that just can’t be achieved at the local scale and low-carbon transitions can be achieved much more effectively using coordinated action. As we move into the final days of the Paris climate change summit, national leaders should see the transformation of urban areas as a driving force for an ambitious deal.

Laura Tozer is PhD candidate from the University of Toronto whose research focuses on urban greenhouse gas mitigation policies. She is in Paris as an official observer at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties 21.

Laura TozerComment
Heading to the Field: the Urban Decarbonization Research Project
Westminster and Big Ben in London, UK by  Stefano Montagner .

Westminster and Big Ben in London, UK by Stefano Montagner.

As my PhD research season approaches, I'm preparing to head off to visit cities with some of the most aggressive greenhouse gas emission reduction targets in the world. Over the next eight months, I'll visit London, UK, Stockholm, Sweden, and San Francisco, USA to talk to policy makers about trying to transform each city's built environment in order to achieve deep greenhouse gas emission cuts. Governments from all three cities have signed up as members of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, which is a group of cities striving to achieve ambitious long-term GHG reduction goals approaching carbon neutrality. This is a group of cities that says it is aiming for transformative decarbonization, but what does that look like as it unfolds? What are the politics of striving for transformative decarbonization? What does striving for carbon neutrality really looks like on the ground? What can other cities learn about these experiences?

I'll be reaching out to interview policy makers and other people involved in carbon management through buildings in each of the three cities to help me develop answers. As I describe in the summary of this research project below, this research project will build what we know about policies that have the best change reducing greenhouse gas emissions long-term.


Urban Decarbonization: Practices and Politics of Urban Carbon Neutrality

Cities are increasingly adopting ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, such as 80% reductions by 2050. To make that ambition a reality, people in cities are trying out new initiatives ranging from local government’s financial incentives for solar energy to community group’s efforts to develop alternative, low-carbon economies using sharing. However, research has shown that these attempts are experimental and uncertain in their long-term impact. We don't know if these efforts are getting at systemic decarbonization of social, economic and technical systems, as opposed to approaches that slightly decrease emissions without tackling the drivers of carbon pollution. 

With the growing role of city action on climate change, we need more information about city-scale policies that have the best chance of long-term greenhouse gas abatement, especially understandings that take both technical and political potential into account. To fill this gap, this research project focuses on cities where people are trying to tackle deep greenhouse gas emission cuts. The project focuses on London, Stockholm and San Francisco because they are known as members of a small group of cities called the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance with relatively aggressive greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.

More specifically, this project seeks to understand how people are changing urban buildings to achieve decarbonization. It asks what kinds of low-carbon built environment initiatives are working to fundamentally shift society and the economy away from fossil fuels. The research will collect information about both the physical ways people are changing buildings and the politics of making those changes. This combination of technical changes and political processes will allow us to develop an understanding of the direction that the city is headed, as well as whether or not decarbonization policies are likely to keep scaling up and become more durable over time.

Laura Tozer Comment
What do you mean, 'Decarbonization'?
Copenhagen plans to be carbon neutral by 2025. Photo credit:  John Anes

Copenhagen plans to be carbon neutral by 2025. Photo credit: John Anes

All of the sudden, the idea of decarbonization is all over the news. 

Industrialized countries are no longer talking about merely making carbon reductions, they are finally admitting that in order to solve the climate crisis they must cut fossil fuel use entirely.

At last week's G7 summit, Germany's Angela Merkel leaned on the other G7 leaders to commit to a goal to decarbonize their economies by 2050.  Canada and Japan fought hard to water down that target, but even still Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper eventually agreed to deep greenhouse gas emission cuts by 2050 and a commitment to decarbonization by 2100. The targets may be weak, but decarbonization is officially on the table.

The concept of decarbonization is big in climate policy circles, but in practice what does it really mean?

It sounds deceptively simple: decarbonization means no more fossil fuels. But reframing the discussion to talk about zero carbon emissions and ending our dependence on fossil fuels is incredibly significant.

Modern society has evolved with fossil fuels intricately embedded into every facet of our daily lives. Decarbonization is about untangling that dependence to build a world that is fossil fuel free. To so many of us, this is a shocking idea. Fossil fuels are so bound up in our lives that overcoming the addiction sounds as likely as a providing unicorn for every household, but many countries and cities around the world are already blazing that trail.

It's significant that we're talking about decarbonization because that's what a real response to climate change has to look like. Zero carbon emissions has to be our goal. This hadn't penetrated very deeply into political discussions about climate change response until recently. Now, we are starting to see decarbonization written into international political statements and embraced as a practical goal by jurisdictions ranging from European countries to groups of mega-cities.

Decarbonization changes how we think about solutions to climate change. Instead of end-of-pipe solutions that try to tinker with minor reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, we're talking about restructuring society and the economy to end fossil fuel dependence. 

This approach has real practical implications on decisions being made today. Instead of making short term decisions that incrementally reduce greenhouse gas emissions while further entrenching fossil fuels (like building natural gas plants to replace coal), a focus on decarbonization requires investments in zero carbon solutions now.

We're talking about divorcing fossil fuels from our lives and meeting our needs with other sources of energy. We're talking about evolving our economies so they depend on modern energy sources. We're talking about societal transformation.

So keep trying to wrap your head around it - the 'D' word is on the rise.

Laura TozerComment
Community Energy Planning: From Visioning to Implementation
Image credit:  Jose Pedro Costa

Image credit: Jose Pedro Costa

Originally published in ReNew Canada: The Infrastructure Magazine.

Communities across Canada are grappling with concerns about energy security, global warming, and environmental impacts of energy. In the search for ways to plan for their energy future, more and more municipalities are turning to community energy planning. It is no small effort since communities account for almost 60 percent of Canada’s energy consumption. Community energy planning can be a very useful tool to address energy issues and global warming, but there is a lot to learn from Canadian municipalities that have already moved past the visioning stage into the implementation of community energy plans.

Community Energy Planning

Community energy plans are long-term plans made by local governments to try to improve local energy management by increasing energy conservation and sustainable energy generation as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They are about strategically planning for a community’s energy use now and in the future. Community energy plans are frequently used as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but municipalities also choose to think proactively about energy because of benefits like increased community liveability and improved air quality. Some communities put energy goals into broader environmental plans, while others create dedicated energy plans.

From Plans to Implementation

Municipalities that have pioneered the implementation of community energy plans in Canada have encountered some common barriers and reasons for success. Barriers such as lack of jurisdiction, cost of energy measures, lack of capacity and experience related to energy in municipal staff, as well as difficulties in inspiring behavioural change in the absence of regulatory tools have all been experienced by the pioneers. Key reasons for success include political support from the city council and the mayor, and it has also been helpful to integrate of community energy planning principles directly into the municipality’s decision-making processes. Extended experience and capacity beyond a city’s municipal staff has been important for success, as well as an emphasis on inter-department communication across the municipal corporation. For municipalities just starting down the path, the short payback time of many of the projects that can be tackled early also helps in the beginning of implementation, but actions that fall into this category will only take a community so far.

Early adopters of community energy plans in Canada varied in their continued commitment to the original community energy plans when moving into the implementation stage. One method that early pioneers used was to take an approach where the principles outlined in the community energy plan were developed into a broader policy that took advantage of opportunities that arose rather than following a strict menu of activities. Others ended up not using the community energy plan as a day-to-day guiding document, instead using a series of plans that build off of one another and moved the municipal corporation towards a decision-making mentality that incorporated community energy planning principles. Nonetheless, some municipalities did use their original community energy plans as touchstone plans that guided day-to-day implementation and shaped activities in both short-term energy management and long-term transformation of local energy systems.

The implementation path is often reflective of how long the energy topic has been on the table. If a municipality has been tackling energy and global warming issues already, the development and implementation of a community energy plan is less of a learning experience than when energy issues are being considered for the first time. Though the plans and implementation experiences vary, early adopters of community energy planning in Canada have learned lessons that are important for municipalities just starting down the road.

Learning from Pioneering Communities

Municipal Operations vs. Community 

The early adopters of community energy planning principles in Canada have implemented projects that affect energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in municipal operations, but implementation hasn’t been as successful in the community at large. So far, many communities are working on incremental changes rather than re-thinking their energy system in ways that would result in a transformation of the local energy system. Nonetheless, there is a clear appetite for improved local energy management among municipalities in Canada.

Integrated Approach

Community energy planning in the early adopters moved away from the identification of specific projects at the outset and more toward an integrated approach that recognized unanticipated opportunities, affected all decision-making, and made all municipal expenditures reflective of the community energy plan principles. When the goals of the community energy plan are broadly integrated into decision-making and municipal expenditures instead of being considered extra expenses above and beyond the budget, community energy plan implementation is more successful. In particular, an integrated approach establishes a base for long-term transformation of the energy system.

Jurisdictional Challenges

Jurisdictional challenges are a significant barrier in energy planning. Community energy pioneers often had to rethink the methods with which they achieved aspects of their community energy plans since many of their original ideas were outside of their jurisdictional reach. It is important to note that although there are significant energy actions that a municipality can tackle, there are issues that are beyond the jurisdictional control of municipalities in Canada. Aggressive federal and provincial greenhouse gas reduction and energy policies are necessary to achieve swift and extensive change, and municipalities may be influential in asking other levels of government for this support.

Transformative Change

Pioneering communities discovered a distinction between efforts to implement activities that are financially cost-effective in the short-term and efforts to make long-term transformational changes to the local energy system. Not all of the pioneers had reached a stage where they considered both incremental and transformative energy planning. Transformational change incorporating major infrastructure investments will shape local energy systems for decades into the future, but these efforts have only just begun. Municipalities just starting out in community energy planning that want to lay the groundwork for significant change should keep both short-term and long-term energy planning in mind.

Looking Ahead

Municipalities in Canada that want to meet the challenges of global warming and energy security concerns can use community energy planning as a tool. The implementation of community energy plans will encounter barriers, but municipalities can find ways to circumvent obstructions, often with the help of strong political leadership.

Community energy planning will not be effective in Canada if municipalities only focus on municipal operations and quick payback actions.  While some pioneering municipalities made strides in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from municipal operations, there was less of an emphasis on the broader community. If community energy planning is to have a major effect on greenhouse gas emissions and energy use, it will be essential that municipalities take a community wide focus that builds toward transformational change to local energy systems.

For a full report on community energy planning in Canadian communities from Decarbon Strategies, please click here.

Laura TozerComment