Daily Planet

Astana: a call for a sustainability campaign for 50 per cent of the world’s cities

Prompted by a recent trip to Astana, Kazakhstan, artist and economist Lars Zimmermann here explores the importance of sustainable approaches to city construction.

In August of 2017, we were invited to Astana in Kazakhstan to present our work with the Open Source Circular Economy Days as part of the World-Expo 2017. I met fantastic people there doing great work. But I also got a bit sad when I walked through the city. I discovered one of the worlds biggest sustainability problems—a problem I have never heard or read about: cities are not built to last.

I didn’t take pictures there. But I did a little image search on the internet. Click here, here, here or here and zoom in to the pavement and the little walls to get an impression. I saw things that were much worse than in these images. And of course, I’ve also seen examples that weren’t that bad.

Astana became the new capital of Kazakhstan in 1997. Since then, the better part of the city was built—from scratch! And especially for the EXPO2017, a lot of new infrastructure was added: futuristic buildings, places, shopping malls, and so on. The paint on the walls of the conference center we were presenting in was still wet!

Naturally, everything was a bit out of proportion, often empty or unused and lacked a ‘soul’. The soul of a city emerges—as my colleague Sam put it—when many people with many different ideas use and shape a space over time. So it’s no surprise there was no soul—yet. It will be invented by the citizens in the coming decades. The lack of soul was not the part that made me depressed.

What made me depressed was the incredibly poor quality of the construction: how the city was built. A lot of the fresh and new things there were already broken—built broken! I saw a park with stone benches—no older than a few months—and each bench was already broken. I counted the stones and bricks used for the pavement, walls, fountains, and so on: four out of five were damaged—they must have come out of the factory like that already. Things were falling apart everywhere. I walked by buildings younger than 10 years old, but you couldn’t go inside using the regular staircase because that staircase was already ruins, which reminded me of pictures of decomposing Greek temples that are thousands of years old. But the invention of the iPhone is older than this building!

Why? One of the problems is for sure the extreme differential of temperatures. Extreme winter cold alternating with extreme summer heat  is putting a lot of stress on the infrastructure. But the bigger or real problem is probably another: when you put build a huge city like this that quickly, with construction methodologies and materials that haven’t been around for centuries in your culture, it will be impossible to find enough well educated and skilled construction workers, factories, planners, and craftspeople to do a proper job. Everything is built fast by untrained people.

From a sustainability point of view, this is an incredible disaster or problem. Building a city is extremely energy and resource intensive! Imagine all this steel, glass, and stone mined, processed, shipped, and processed again. And try to imagine the exhaust, pollution, and climate effects that go with it. If everything is built broken, this means it needs to be replaced or fixed quite soon—using new steel, glass, and stone, causing even more pollution, exhaust, and climate effects. Sustainability means building things to last.

Today, 3.5 billion people on this planet live in cities. Researchers predict that by 2050, it will be 7 billion. This would mean that 50 per cent of the city infrastructure that will be around in 23 years gets built in the coming two decades! The amount of carbon that goes with this already equals the total amount allowed by the Paris Climate Agreement. We haven’t feed, clothed, transported or heated 10 billion people on the planet and have not equipped them with digital technology. All of this would be an addition.

So we’re already over the limit. And then, when new cities are built in a quality that makes it necessary to redo them just after a couple of years… the problem really gets out of hand!

So let’s build things properly, to last, and therefore sustainably.

I’m not sure if this is really a global problem. I’ve not been to many areas on the world where these cities are built right now or will be built. I hope that it’s not like it is in Astana. Not all of these areas have to deal with the same extreme temperature differences. (But climate change is coming, posing new problems to to city infrastructures.) But the main and key problem: the lack of qualified planners, factories, craftspeople, and construction workers might exist in many if not all parts of the world.

If I were a sustainability activist or sustainable startup pioneer in those parts of the world, I would think about taking on this problem as it’s certainly one of the real big sustainability problems on earth. You could run campaigns, do lobby work, and set up schools, seals, and certification processes to educate people to demand and install better quality construction. You can do this as an activist or as a company! It should easily be possible to fund this work. If you are there in those parts of the world: just start!

An aspect that got to me while I was walking through Astana: what does this communicate? What message does it send to the people that live in this city—who move through it every morning, every afternoon, every evening, every night? The lack of care for the environment and future, the lack of foresight, the missing respect for materials, and everything that is attached to them. It’s very likely a throw away mentality. Not fit to foster an atmosphere of mutual care for our planet and its biosphere. Not fit to enable people to invent the relationships and strategies needed for a sustainable world.

But this time it’s not a matter of hacking infrastructures. It’s a matter of hacking politics, planning, construction business, and public opinion.

I think you can underestimate the importance of this for our globe: the longevity of city infrastructure!

(Update: I found one article that addressed the problem. But have a look at it… what does it say and how?)

This article originally appeared in Lars Zimmermann’s blog.