In search of some Miracle Gro for the ‘Green Shoots of Recovery’

An ambitious EU-funded project is beginning (the official launch is in April) aimed at demonstrating sustainable urban regeneration. In the European project tradition it has a funny, pseudo-acronymic name, in this case REMOURBAN: REgeneration MOdel for accelerating the smart URBAN transformation. Maybe it trips off the tongue better in some other language…

REMOURBAN

REMOURBAN [www.remourban.eu]

Featuring an impressive “who’s who” of project partners, five cities are involved: Nottingham (UK), Valladolid (Spain) and Tepebaşı/Eskişehir (Turkey), with Seraing (Belgium) and Miskolc (Hungary) as “follower cities”. The project will “transform urban life”, according to the CORDIS information service. Targets include energy savings of 40% and the avoidance of 50% of CO2 emissions. Impressive… but what does it actually involve?

The planned regeneration work is aimed in particular at low-carbon heating and transport, with ICT as an enabler. The cities involved share a common feature: that of district heating… which isn’t all that common outside of Iceland (where geothermal energy makes it an obvious choice). Meeting heat and hot water requirements centrally instead of leaving homes and businesses to make their own arrangements typically delivers higher efficiencies, and facilitates a move towards better emissions controls and the incorporation of renewables such as solar energy and biomass.

Practitioners generally agree that efficient energy generation is all very well but a big chunk of going ‘green’ must involve using less. In REMOURBAN this is reflected in the desire to demonstrate substantial improvements in insulation – not through the construction of a handful of fabulous modern ‘eco houses’, but by making improvements to the existing housing stock, which in Nottingham includes many older buildings that don’t have cavity walls. This is significant; a project that tackles the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be.

Another strand to the project comes in the form of sustainable transport, with electric buses and delivery vehicles, plus hourly car hire schemes. As with district heating, electric and hybrid vehicles in public transport seem to be a good starting point for green initiatives, because the higher initial investment (and expensive mid-life replacement of batteries) needn’t be prohibitive, since they aren’t borne by individuals.

electric buses

You wait half a century for an electric bus, and then several turn up all at once. (In this case, in Beijing.)

Joining it all together is information and communications technology. CORDIS tells us that “smart, joined-up thinking is key to urban renewal” and since the project is funded under the Smart Cities and Communities call, it’s clear that ‘smart’ will be a big part of these sustainable cities. In addition to ICT playing a role in improvements to transportation, retrofitted houses will include smart meters, providing better information to the energy providers and also to consumers. One has to hope that REMOURBAN introduces smart meters that are better than the current crop, which have been met with bafflement from some householders, and considerable resistance from others. Concerns include high costs, the invasion of privacy, security risks (for instance, a meter reporting when your house is empty), and the new ability for utility companies to turn services on and off remotely, without gaining access to the property. Given that 65% of the households under study (I’m thinking of Nottingham in particular, here) are social housing, it will be interesting to see the extent to which the people that the project calls “have-not citizens” can be engaged.

I think there are two ways to interpret “sustainable urban regeneration”. Are we only talking about urban regeneration that has a ‘green’ element? That’s commendable enough in itself, but the other way to interpret the phrase would mean it offers urban renewal that is itself sustainable, and sustained. A future-proofed city?

Five years from now, when the project is all done, It’ll be interesting to see just how much sustainable renewal has been delivered for €21.5m. (When you’re on one of these EU projects you’re acutely aware that it’s taxpayers’ money…) Will this injection of funds have primed the pump, and shown how best to renew other cities across Europe? I’m impressed by the pragmatism of an approach that builds upon existing systems rather than the clean-slate infrastructure we might wish to have. I’m also pleased to see a project looking at how “have-not” citizens can move towards sustainability, because too many people still dismiss ‘green’ thinking as a middle class phenomenon. If it’s true that 24% of UK households are in fuel poverty (defined as needing to spend more than 10% of household income for an adequate heating regime) perhaps climate change begins at home.

We shall see.

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