ABC&D

ABC&D ARTICLE: A digital revolution is needed to make our cities climate resilient

  • 18 Nov 2022

The ‘Hot Topic’ from November’s edition of ABC&D Magazine came courtesy of Håvard Haukeland, co-founder of Spacemaker and Senior Director at Autodesk…

“Today, half of the world’s population lives in cities, a figure that is steadily rising. The development of our cities is important for many reasons. We want more people to live and feel well in our cities, we want cities to contribute positively to the environment, and we want cities to be hubs for innovation and economic growth. At the same time, urban development involves many actors, each with their own specific design requirements. In this complexity, long-term sustainability is at risk when planning new urban areas.

Tackling urban heat islands

Unfortunately, our existing cities are not built to withstand climate change. Many European cities are working to tackle ‘urban heat islands’ (UHIs): local areas in large cities with significantly higher temperatures than in the surrounding countryside. The phenomenon occurs because concrete and asphalt absorb heat to a much greater extent than grass and trees do. Temperature differences can be large – for example, London can have temperatures that are up to 10℃ warmer than areas outside.

Some cities are now starting to guide their residents to ‘cooling islands’, such as parks, swimming pools and museums, where they can escape the heat. Paris has developed an app for this and Barcelona has decided to cover 30% of the city’s open spaces with trees to reduce heating. Cities in southern France and Greece are installing water sprinklers and fans to cool down.

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Combined with weather data and computer simulations of how much sun is emitted by proposed buildings, it is now possible to visualise the microclimate in our cities at the start of the design process and then plan new areas so that the risk of urban heat islands is significantly reduced. This is just one example of how advanced data analytics can help us build sustainable cities.

Managing complex projects

At least as important as managing heat are the challenges the world’s cities are now experiencing with stormwater and recurrent flooding. Here too, data analysis, simulation and visualisation using digital tools can enable partners in new construction projects to make wiser and more sustainable decisions about the new areas to be built for future generations.

While the complexity of urban development projects is increasing, there is a strong desire for them to move faster. Time, as we all know, is money. A major challenge comes from planning projects in a linear way. Although sustainability aspects are now included at an early stage, new sustainability requirements inevitably arise later in the process.

With this outdated working model, the plans produced often have to be torn up – in whole or in part – to allow the new requirements to be worked into the plans. As well as taking up a lot of time and risking delaying the project by months or years, this is costly for all involved. Frustration and sheer exhaustion among staff who have put their heart and soul into the planning process is also common.

At the same time, it is essential that new and relevant sustainability requirements are incorporated into ongoing projects. Otherwise, the inhabitants of our cities risk living with serious consequences of climate change for many decades to come.

Building a digital revolution

We therefore need to start discussing and even testing the methods and techniques that have already revolutionised other industries – and discuss openly how they affect stakeholder power, project quality, timeframes and costs.

One example of how this is happening is the Digigrow project in Sweden, which aimed to find the right tools and processes to help digitalise building processes. It allowed participating municipalities to test how different methods could take on more complex work, breaking down silos within organisations and encouraging change.

The project highlighted the importance of visualising and simulating different design options, so that cross-functional teams can more easily arrive at optimal solutions. By introducing visualisation tools at early stages of the urban design process, the projects were completed more quickly and cheaply; the processes were more efficient when people could understand the evidence and work in parallel; and modelling helped facilitate a better dialogue with stakeholders and the public.

Digital ways of working allow us to build climate-resilient and sustainable cities, faster and better. That’s why more architects and designers need to start using the digital tools available, which will mean nothing less than a revolution in the planning process. All it takes is courage and will.

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