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Pathways to sustainability

According to the urban planner Maarten A. Hajer, although cities are humanity's greatest invention, they are also beasts that threaten to devour us. Fortunately, however, the Dutch professor and political adviser thinks that we can tame these beasts. He does not believe in a gloomy dystopian future where our climate is concerned. Instead, he puts his faith in the power of imagination.

Urban Future Studio Portretten_HR_Elisabeth Lanz Fotografie_18

PROFILE: Mr Hajer, what things are you giving up to help save the environment?

Maarten A. Hajer: I've significantly reduced my air travel and might only eat meat once a week now. But our best decision was to buy a small sailing boat, and we now spend our holidays on the water in and around Holland. Sailing is a wonderful metaphor for harnessing the power of nature and having fun at the same time: a kind of green hedonism.

But many people are reluctant to give up their habits. They want to drive a convertible, to barbecue their steaks and dream of having a home with a garden.
Well, it's actually a good thing that people are excited about the future rather than just worrying about things that are no longer possible. Collectively, we need to start imagining new, desirable futures.

Futures? There's more than one?
I always see the future as plural. There are several possible futures. It's precisely the lack of plurality of positive ideas that makes it difficult to make good decisions right now. We need role models that serve as a guide for us in terms of what urban life in the post-fossil city of the future might look like. Only then will all of the problems no longer seem so huge and insurmountable.

But aren't they huge?
I'm not afraid of the challenges. What I am afraid of is the fact that even though we see the risks, we're not coming up with any ideas about how to deal with them. If we want to achieve our climate targets, then change needs to start happening right now on all fronts: mobility, housing, energy, food…

That sounds incredibly complex.
True, and that's why I see a second approach that taps into the evolutionary potential of the present instead. People need to believe that a sustainable future will work. And that happens when they see innovations that are already working elsewhere. The modern times in which we are living make it possible for us to learn from the mistakes and successes of others much faster than before.

In the metropolis of Barcelona, more and more car-free “super blocks” are being built to create green corridors.
The Danish capital Copenhagen aims to be the first city in the world to be climate-neutral by 2025. This also includes alternative mobility concepts.

How does it work in the practice?
We need politicians, companies and NGOs to be sharing good ideas with one another all around the world. Many housing developers are already doing this. Lots of local authorities are also having a look around to see where others are having success. In Copenhagen, for example, some things are already going extremely well, like the climate-neutral supply of district heating to buildings.

Why is it working there?
Because the Danes haven't always focused on the very latest, cutting-edge technology. District heating has been around for ages. In Copenhagen, it's been modernised in a climate-friendly way. We, on the other hand, believe very strongly in maximum efficiency and state-ofthe-art technology, but this delays things happening time and time again – people delay making a decision because something better might come along.

So it´s down to  the local authorities.
It would be even better if we produced our own energy. This would make us realise how much energy we need. If I produced my own energy and then maybe shared it with my neighbours in a smart network, I would be much less dependent on the outside world.

But will people in the city ever be self-sufficient?
No. But if we really want to achieve the targets of the Paris Agreement, the city will become a place of great change. Current urban planning methods are unsustainable, both in terms of building construction and the socio-spatial organisation of cities. We need cities that work on both a social and ecological level.

Hasn't the coronavirus brought about more movement away from city centres?
On a global level, urbanisation remains the megatrend. If things continue as before, with socially segregated neighbourhoods and a middle class moving into the suburbs, which can only be reached by private car, then a sustainable future simply doesn't exist. But there are alternatives. Cities like Paris, Barcelona and London are already thinking about how to bring people's professional and private lives closer together once more.

So, compact cities would be the solution?
In many boroughs of London, the shops are empty because people are shopping online. Second offices would be one solution for these vacant buildings. This would make everyday life easier for people who could pick up their children from nursery on foot, at least on some days. It would also be good for the neighbourhood, because new life would be breathed into it. This is what we mean by social and ecological urbanisation. If the shops were turned into flats, the public space and its vitality would be lost.

A second office is also more social than a lonely homeoffice...
… especially as it's quite clear that we need to reduce the square footage of private homes if we want to achieve our climate targets. Nevertheless, our flats are getting bigger and bigger and we're moving further and further out. Both things needs to change.

How can architecs and developers implement this new form of urbanism?
Instead of pessimism and fear, we need a new way of thinking about what really makes life good, a green hedonism. People should say: I'm able to combine my private life with my social life so well in my neighbourhood that I'd be happy to put up with a smaller flat. Our urban future doesn't belong to private ownership, but to vibrant urban spaces that we share.