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Debt-free Homes For the Poor

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

As the population around the world’s cities grows, and slums grow larger and more prevalent, the urgent need for affordable and decent housing becomes more pressing. The world’s megacities – like Buenos Aires, Argentina, where more than 13 million live in the metropolitan region – have to find a way to provide housing that is both cheap and does the minimum possible amount of harm to the environment.

About one-third of the world’s urban dwellers live in slums, and the United Nations estimates that the number of people living in such conditions will double by 2030 as a result of rapid urbanization in developing countries. Latin America is already the most urbanized region in the developing world.

“Throughout Latin America you have economies that are growing and doing well, but the way the economies are growing is actually generating more shanty towns,” said Erik Vittrup, senior adviser on Latin America and the Caribbean for the U.N. Human Settlements Program. “It’s a growth that is just generating wealth for those who (already) have it.”

How well people dwell is integral to their mental and physical health. Most squatters and slum dwellers live in makeshift homes made from whatever they can get their hands on. These dwellings are usually unsafe and vulnerable to fire, floods, and earthquakes.

But across the South, initiatives are proving it is possible to build good quality homes for the poor while avoiding burdening them with debt. Pioneering ways are being developed for the poor to build their own high-quality houses using recycled materials and environmentally friendly products.

In Colombia , Alejandro Salazar, a chemical engineer, professor at the Universidad del Valle (http://www.univalle.edu.co/english/) and innovator running several companies pioneering new building technologies using recycled waste, is building high-quality, inexpensive houses for the poor.  By combining free building materials recovered from waste, a government grant and the voluntary labour of the homeowners, Salazar’s company is able to build homes for the poor that don’t leave them with ongoing bank debt from mortgages.

Based in Cali, Colombia (http://gosouthamerica.about.com/od/cali/p/Cali.htm), his companies Ecoingenieria (product and material research and development), Ecomat SA (production of eco-materials using industrial waste and construction rubble), Constructora Paez, (social housing construction using eco-products) and Wassh SA (environmental management and transformation of dangerous solid waste into non-dangerous materials), are focused on pioneering new technologies for housing.

“Our company uses two basic technologies,” said Salazar. “The production of eco-materials from solid waste and demolition waste, and the implementation of an agile building system, which does not require skilled labour and is hand-transportable. All the pieces are produced in a prefabrication plant that uses the eco-materials.”

Salazar has found a way to provide homes quicker than existing NGOs – Popular Housing Organizations (OPV), as they are called – established to address homelessness in Colombia. The homeless poor are caught in a Catch-22: they need to have a formal job to receive homebuilding assistance from the government, and they usually can not save up enough money for a down payment on the home.

Salazar’s solution is to take the maximum grant given by the central government, which is US $4,730, and combine it with the recycled building materials and homeowners’ own labour. He says this allows a house to be built for roughly half the price of a similarly sized one that uses conventional materials: the eco-materials house costs around US $ 6,590, compared to US $12,000 using conventional materials. Land is often either donated by the municipality or the family already owns it. And in Salazar’s experience, the whole family chips in with the building: husbands, sons, brothers, fathers, wives.

The training takes just three days on eco-materials and a day in construction techniques for house building.

“To date, we have built with this method 306 houses,” said Salazar. “For the coming year, we expect to deliver around 500 houses or more. To build a house, after acquiring the land, we need three people working eight hours a day to build it in four weeks – all under the supervision of a workforce teacher and the supervision of an engineer or architect.

“The houses are designed by architects with the participation of the community or families. They do some workshops and the design conforms to their vision and expectation. In Colombia, there is an earthquake resistance code which is binding in law and provides detailed specifications of the materials, foundations, structure and roof.”

The pre-fabricated building materials are made from recovered waste from a wide variety of sources: ceramic red brick, coarse ash and fly ash, slag from steel, copper slag, porcelain insulators used for electrical power lines, nickel slag, sludge from sugar and alcohol plants and water treatment plants.

“The raw materials we use are industrial solid waste and demolition waste. It costs the industry a lot to throw away this waste,” Salazar said.

He said the biggest obstacle to the new homes is psychological: many people initially “tend to reject at first-hand the technology.”

“When visiting the factory and then visiting the homes – or model homes – they then compare it with a traditional house, and realize that the best eco-homes when finished meet the standards of Colombian earthquake resistance and are also cheaper,” he said.

Compared to using conventional building materials, the eco-materials reduce the cost of a new home. And the company still makes a profit from it!

In Paraguay, Elsa Zaldivar is using recycled plastic, cotton netting, corn husks, and loofah sponges (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luffa) to make cheap, lightweight construction panels for housing. This has a double benefit: it makes for cheap housing and it is good for the environment.

“That’s very important in Paraguay,” said Zaldivar, “because we’ve already reduced our original forest to less than 10 percent of the national territory.”

Zaldivar got her experience working with people in the impoverished area of Caaguazú, where in the past she helped with the building of toilets and making stoves. She found that involving local people in this work made a huge difference: “They told me: ‘Now we feel like we’re people with dignity.’”

She encourages local women to grow loofah – a plant that once flourished but was being ignored. While the fruit is edible she was more interested in the crusty sponge that is left over when the plant is dried. The women started a cooperative selling loofah sponges, mats and slippers. But there was a lot of waste in the process, with a third not suitable for export. She then came up with the idea to use the loofahs for wall and roof panels for cheap housing.

Along with industrial engineer Pedro Padros, she developed a way to combine loofah with plastic waste. Padros invented a machine to melt the recycled plastic and mix the molten plastic with loofah, vegetable fibres and chopped corn husks. It has produced a building panel that is lighter and easier to move around than lumber or brick. With a grant from the Inter-American Development Bank, design improvements have been made and the cost-per-panel brought down from US $6 per square meter. It is now competitive with the cost of wood panels. The great thing about the panels is that they can be recycled again when they wear out, completing the cycle.

“To have a decent home liberates people,” said Zaldivar.

Resources

  • Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things: This radical concept is about how products, can be used, recycled, and used again without losing any material quality—in cradle to cradle cycles. Website: http://www.mcdonough.com/cradle_to_cradle.htm
  • Builders Without Borders: Is an international network of ecological builders who advocate the use of straw, earth and other local, affordable materials in construction. Website: http://builderswithoutborders.org/
  • World Hands Project: An NGO specialising in simple building techniques for the poor. Website: www.worldhandsproject.org
  • CIDEM and Ecosur specialise in building low-cost community housing using eco-materials. They have projects around the world and are based in Cuba. Website: http://www.ecosur.org

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Prisons With Green Solutions

An ingenious solution is helping Rwanda reduce the cost of running its bursting prisons, while improving conditions for the prisoners and helping protect the environment.

The country’s prison population soared to a peak of 120,000 suspects awaiting trial for their role in the 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. The traditional court system, gacaca, is being used for national reconciliation, but the process is slow and costly for a country where 90 per cent of the population exist on subsistence agriculture, and where food production has dropped below 70 per cent of the levels needed for self-sufficiency (USAID).

But thanks to enormous, bee-hive shaped human manure digesters, a steady supply of biogas is on tap for cooking and lighting at prisons – the first country in Africa to do this. Five of the country’s largest prisons – two at Gitarama and one each in Butare, Kigali and Cyangugu – now have biogas plants producing 50 per cent of the gas needed to cook for prisoners. It has also saved half of each prison’s US $44,000 a year firewood costs. The money saved is being ploughed back into renovations to the prisons to improve conditions, and to provide more services like healthcare.

Biogas is produced from the fermentation of household or agricultural waste or animal or human feces, and has become a viable alternative when traditional gas sources become more expensive. The waste is placed in a 150 cubic meter beehive-shaped digester and fermented until a gas is produced. According to lead engineer on the project, Ainea Kimaro, 100 cubic meters of waste is turned into 50 cubic meters of fuel by bacteria devouring the manure in just four weeks.

The digesters are a project of the Kigali Institute of Sciences, Technology and Management ‘s Center for Innovations and Technology Transfer.

“Biogas kills two birds with one stone,” Kimaro told the BBC. It gets rid of all the human waste and helps cover the enormous costs of feeding so many prisoners. Prior to the digesters, the quantity of human waste was a real problem: it was flooding down hillsides and leaking into rivers and lakes.

A school, the Lycee de Kigali , also has a digester. “The methane gas is used to cook for 400 students and for operating Bunsen burners in the school laboratories”, Kimaro said.

Many would think this a smelly affair, but in fact the whole process isn’t that pungent. Most of the digester is underground and the gas produced burns a clean, blue smokeless flame. It is much cleaner than the smoke from firewood. The remaining sludgy residue is used as an odourless compost for soil. This is used in the prison gardens to grow maize, mangos, bananas and tomatoes – all of which ends up back on the prisoner’s plates, improving the quality of their nutrition.

“The firewood savings are excellent – they really make a difference for us,” a Cyangugu prison warden said, adding that the odour-free compost had done wonders for the prison gardens. “Look at all these bananas! This fertiliser really is the best,” he said to the BBC.

In Uganda, human urine and feces are being mixed with banana peels, algae, water hyacinth and poultry droppings to make biogas. In Uganda’s rural Mukono district, biogas is used for cooking, lighting pressure lamps and to power engines. The slurry left over is then used to fertilise the soil. For Ugandans, most of whom are rural dwellers, electricity is rare and petrol to run generators and refrigeration units is expensive.

“It keeps the environment free of organic wastes, is convenient, time-saving and reduces smoke-related illnesses often associated with the use of firewood,” said Patrick Nalere, country director of the Heifer Project International, an American NGO which shares livestock and knowledge to reduce poverty. “If the majority of Ugandans adopted biogas, we would preserve our biodiversity. People should exploit decomposing raw materials, which are free. Therefore, no monthly power tariffs.”

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

Published: February 2008

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

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UNDP In Mongolia: The Guide | 1997 – 1999

Editor: David South

Researcher and Writer: Jill Lawless

Publisher: UNDP Mongolia Communications Office

Published: Between 1997 and 1999

Background: This is the original text from the brochure UNDP in Mongolia: The Guide first published in 1997. It, for the first time, provided a rolling update on what the United Nations was doing in Mongolia, offering key contacts and data to help advance human development in the country. It introduced transparency to the UN’s work in the country and made it easier to hold programme and project staff to account.

Mongolia – Population

With an area of more than 1.5 million square kilometres and a population of 2.38 million as of October 1997, Mongolia has a population density of only 1.5 people per square kilometre, one of the lowest in the world. The country has a relatively low growth rate of 1.6 per cent (1995), down from 2.5 per cent in 1989. At this rate, Mongolia’s population will reach 2.5 million by the year 2000.

Despite the popular image of Mongolians as nomadic herders, it is an increasingly urbanized country – 51.9 per cent of the population is urban, 48.1 per cent rural. More than one quarter of Mongolians live in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar. The other major urban centres are Darhan (pop. 90,000) and Erdenet (pop. 65,000 ).

The country is divided into 21 aimags (provinces), plus the autonomous capital region. The aimags are:

In the centre: Tuv, Uvurhangai, Arhangai

In the north: Bulgan, Selenge, Hovsgul, Zavhan, Darhan-Uul, Orhon

In the east: Hentii, Dornod, Suhbaatar

In the west: Hovd, Uvs, Bayan-Olgii, Gov-Altai

In the south: Dundgov, Dornogov, Omnogov, Bayanhongor, Gobisumber

The People:

About 86 per cent of the country’s population are Kalkh Mongols. Another 7 per cent are Turkic in origin, mostly Kazakhs living in the western aimags of Bayan-Olgii and Hovd. The rest belong to a wide variety of ethnic groups, including the Buryat, Dariganga, Bayad, Zakchin and Uriankhai. Mongolia’s smallest ethnic group is the Tsaatan, about 200 of whom live as reindeer herders in the far north of the country. 

During the communist period, Mongolia was home to tens of thousands of Russians. Few remain. 

More than 4 million Mongols live outside Mongolia, in Russia and the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia.

Human Development:

– Mongolia’s per capita GDP is U.S. $359 (1995). But this fails to take into account the cashless subsistence and barter economy widespread in rural areas.

– Poverty, though widespread, is difficult to tabulate. 1996 government figures put the poverty rate at 19.2 per cent – 19.8 per cent for rural areas, 18.7 for urban areas. But State Statistical Office figures for October 1997 indicate 36.8 per cent of urban residents and 27.5 per cent of rural Mongolians live below the poverty line. 

– Omnogov, Gobisumber, Hovsgol, Ovorhangai and Bayanhongor are the aimags with the highest poverty rates.

– The average monthly household income in September 1997 was 58,516.7 tugrugs (U.S. $73). Average expenditure was 58,124.8 tugrugs. In 1995, 48 per cent of household expenditure went on food. In poor households, the figure was 64 per cent.

Social Data:

Life expectancy: 63.8 years (1995)

Infant mortality rate: 40 per 1000 

Under five mortality rate: 56.4 per 1000 

Maternal mortality rate: 185.2 per 100,000 (1995)

One-year-old immunization rate: tuberculosis 94.4 per cent, measles 85.2 per cent (1995)

Access to safe drinking water: rural 89.9 per cent, urban 46.1 per cent (1995)

Access to sanitation: 74 per cent (1995)

Adult literacy rate:

 men 97.5 per cent,

 women 96.3 per cent 

Primary school net enrollment: 93.4 per cent

Secondary school net enrollment: 56.9 per cent 

Physicians: 26 per 10,000

Hospital beds: 9.9 per 1000

Daily calorie intake: 2278.2

Data 1996 unless otherwise indicated. Sources: State Statistical Office, Human Development Report Mongolia 1997

Mongolia – Economy

An Economy in Transition:

After 70 years of centrally planned economy, Mongolia is embracing free-market principles with a vengeance. Economic liberalization began under the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party government in the early 1990s. The Democratic Coalition government, elected in June 1996, has vowed sweeping economic changes, including  privatization of state assets, liberalization of trade and promotion of foreign investment.

The foreign investment law now encourages foreign investment in the form of share purchases, joint ventures and wholly foreign-owned concerns. Mining companies are given significant tax holidays. In May, 1997 parliament abolished customs duties expect on alcohol, tobacco and oil products.

All of this has been a shock to Mongolia and Mongolians. The country’s GDP shrank by a third in the early 1990s, though it has slowly recovered since. Inflation topped 300 per cent in 1993, but was brought down to below 50 per cent by 1997. The tugrug fell from 40 to U.S. $1 in 1991 to 800 to the dollar in 1997. Unemployment officially stands at 6.5 per cent – unofficial estimates are much higher.

The government’s ambitious privatization scheme has stalled; manufacturing and exports are down; imports are up. Adding to the problems is the fact that world prices for Mongolia’s major export items – copper and cashmere – have fallen.

The state retains at least 50 per cent ownership of the nation’s flagship enterprises, including the national airline, MIAT, the Gobi cashmere company and the power stations.

Mongolia has a resource-based economy, exporting mostly raw materials and importing mostly processed goods. The top exports are mineral products, textiles, base minerals, hides, skins and furs and animals and animal products. The major imports include petroleum products, industrial equipment and consumer goods.

Mongolia’s major trading partners are its two neighbours, China and Russia, though Korea and Japan are becoming more important – and the number-one export destination is Switzerland. 

Sidebar: The rural economy

Half of Mongolia’s population is rural, and herding remains the backbone of the Mongolian economy. Agriculture accounts for 30 per cent of the nation’s GDP. The number of herding households grew during the economic turmoil of the early 1990s, and now stands at more than 170,000; there are 30 million head of livestock in Mongolia. Herders produce meat, skins and furs; more and more herders are investing in cashmere goats, a substantial money-earner. 

Cultivation of crops, on the other hand, is limited. Before 1990, Mongolia was self-sufficient in cereals and even exported to the Soviet Union. But the sector suffered badly in the early 1990s. The 1997 harvest was 239,000 tonnes, 56 per cent of 1991-95 levels and only 40 per cent of pre-1990 harvests. Mongolia must now import 40 per cent of its cereal needs, a factor that contributes to a vulnerable food-security situation. Cultivation of vegetables is up, but remains minor – only 31,000 tonnes in 1997.

Sidebar: Rich in resources

Mongolia is resource-rich. This vast territory contains 15 per cent of the world’s supply of fluorspar and significant deposits of copper, molybdenum, iron, phosphates, tin, nickel, zinc, tungsten and gold, as well as at least 100 billion tonnes of coal.

Copper is the nation’s number one export. 

Minerals account for more than a third of Mongolia’s GDP and earn half of its hard currency. Gold production is increasing.

Mongolia also contains significant reserves of oil, which could transform the economy. But infrastructure and transportation limitations mean that commercial extraction is limited. The completion of a pipeline to China could change all this.

Economic Data:

Exchange rate: $1 = Tg 808 (Nov 1997)

GDP: Tg 185.5 billion (1996)

GDP per capita: Tg 228,605 (1996)

Inflation: 325 per cent (1992), 53 per cent (1996)

State budget expenditure: Tg 203.6 billion (Jan-Oct 1997)

State budget revenue: Tg 176 billion (Jan-Oct 1997)

Foreign aid (1991-97): U.S. 478 million

Official external debt: Tg 522 billion (Oct 97)

Industrial output: Tg 270.6 billion (Jan-Oct 97)

Exports: $334.2 million (Jan-Oct 97)

Imports: $343.3 million (Jan-Oct 97)

Workforce: employed: 791,800, unemployed 65,700 (Oct 97)

Source: State Statistical Office 

Mongolia – Politics

Seven decades of communist rule in Mongolia began to crumble in 1990, when the collapse of the old Eastern Bloc brought the first pro-democracy demonstrations. The ruling Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, which had already initiated a Mongolian version of glasnost, permitted the nation’s first multiparty elections in July, 1990. 

Superior organization helped the MPRP win both the 1990 and 1992 elections (taking 71 of 76 parliamentary seats in the latter), but reform picked up speed. In 1992, the country adopted a new Constitution that enshrined human rights, private ownership and a state structure based on separation of power between legislative and judicial branches.

In the June 1996 election, major opposition groups united to form the Democratic Coalition, made up of the National Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party, the Believers’ Party and the Green Party. Somewhat to its own surprise, the Coalition won a healthy 50 of 76 seats in the State Ikh Hural, or parliament. The composition of the Hural is now: National Democrats 35, Social Democrats 15, MPRP 25, Mongolian Traditional United Party 1.

In addition to their economic reforms, the Democrats have carried out radical restructuring of government, slashing the number of Ministries from 14 to 9.

The government has a healthy majority, but tensions sometimes emerge between the coalition partners. Mongolia’s transition to democracy has been remarkably peaceful, and the young democracy is robust – there are now more than 20 political parties in the country. 

But economic hardship has caused resentments. In the 1997 Presidential election, voters elected N. Bagabandi, the candidate of the MPRP. In the fall of 1997, the government had to face demonstrations from students and pensioners and an opposition campaign that led to a confidence vote in parliament — a vote the government easily survived. 

Political structure:

Mongolia has a parliamentary system of government, with a 76-seat legislature called the State Ikh Hural. The President, directly elected for a four-year term, is second in authority to the legislature, but he appoints judges and has the power of veto (which can be overturned by a 2/3 vote in parliament).

Chronology:

1911 collapse of Manchu Qing Dynasty; Mongolia declares its independence

1919 China invades Mongolia

1921 with Soviet help, Mongolia gains final independence from China

1924 Mongolian People’s Republic declared

1990 pro-democracy protests; Constitution amended; first multiparty elections

1992 second multiparty elections; new Constitution adopted

1996 Democratic Coalition elected as Mongolia’s first non-communist government, headed by Prime Minister Enkhsaikhan

1997 N. Bagabandi from the MPRP elected President

Voter turnout: 

1996 elections: 92.2 per cent

1996 local Hural: 64.0 per cent

1997 presidential: 85.1 per cent

Mongolia – Society and Culture

Mongolia has a unique and durable traditional culture, centred around the herding lifestyle. Herders remain semi-nomadic, moving their animals with the seasons as they have for centuries

Many urban Mongolians retain strong links to the land, both literal and sentimental, and the country’s performing and visual arts often celebrate the landscape and the animals — especially horses — that are central to Mongolian life. Mongolia has several distinctive musical instruments and styles, including the morin khuur (horsehead fiddle), the long song (urtyn duu) and the throat-singing style known as khoomi.

After seven decades of communism, Mongolians are once again celebrating their traditional culture, and embracing the image and legacy of the most famous Mongolian of all time – Chinggis Khan, who in the 13th century initiated the Mongol Empire, the greatest land empire the world has ever known. He gives his name to everything from a brand of vodka to a luxury hotel, and centres for academic Chinggis research have been set up.

In sports, Mongolians favour the “three manly sports” — wrestling, archery and horse racing — that form the core of the annual festival known as Naadam. Mongolian wrestlers have won a number of medals at international competitions and are even entering the field of Japanese Sumo.

The 1990s have seen a flowering of freedom of expression. Mongolia has an extraordinary 525 newspapers and a wide range of magazines, while the first private radio and television stations have been established. 

Religion:

Mongolians have been Buddhists since the 16th century, when the Mongolian king, Altan Khan, was converted by Tibetan lamas. In the pre-revolutionary period, Mongolia was ruled by a series of Living Buddhas, or Jebtzun Damba. The eighth, and last, Jebtzun Damba was removed after the communist takeover.

Traditionally, monasteries were centres both of learning and of power. It’s estimated Mongolia had 100,000 monks, or lamas, in 1921 — one third of the male population. In the 1930s, this power became the focus of a ruthless series of purges that reached a climax in 1937. Most of the country’s monasteries were destroyed, and as many as 17,000 monks were killed.

Today, Mongolia is once again embracing its Buddhist heritage. Monasteries are being restored, and are once again crowded with worshippers. The Dalai Lama is an enormously popular figure and has visited the country several times.

For many Mongolians, Buddhism is flavoured with traces of Shamanism, an even more ancient spirituality.

Mongolia also has a significant Muslim community — about 6 per cent of the population. These are mostly ethnic Kazakhs living in the far west of the country. The opening-up of the country has led to an influx of Christian missionaries, and this remains a source of some tension and debate.

A Young Country:

Mongolia is a remarkably young country — more than 60 per cent of the population is below the age of 30, and 40 per cent of Mongolians are younger than 16. This young generation, with its embrace of Western styles and ideas, is changing the complexion of the country. Western pop music and North American sports like basketball have a huge following among Mongolia’s youth. So, too, do homegrown artists like the pop groups Nikiton and Spike and the singer Saraa. 

Social Data:

Television sets: 6.2 per 100 (1995)

Newspapers: 2 per 100 (1995)

Number of telephones: 82,800

Marriage: 10.9 per 1000 over 18

Divorce: 0.7 per 1000 over 18

Number of pensioners: 287,200

Crimes reported: 20,454 (Jan-Oct 97)

As percentage of same period in 1996: 114.4 per cent

Data 1996 unless indicated. Sources: State Statistical Office, Human Development Report Mongolia 1997

More from Jill Lawless:

Read a story by Jill in The Guardian (9 June 1999): Letter from Mongolia | Herding instinct 

Read a World Health Organization (WHO) report on substance abuse and alcohol consumption (WHO Global Status Report on Alcohol 2004) citing Jill here: https://www.who.int/substance_abuse/publications/en/mongolia.pdf?ua=1 

Further Reading:

Modern Mongolia: From Khans to Commissars to Capitalists

The Mongolian Economy: A Manual of Applied Economics for a Country in Transition

The transition to a market economy: Mongolia 1990-1998

Wild East: Travels in the New Mongolia

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2018  

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New Cities Offering Solutions for Growing Urban Populations

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Across the global South, new cities are being dreamed up by architects, city planners and governments, or are already under construction. Two new urban areas being built offer lessons for others in the global South. They both deploy intelligent solutions to the combined demands of urbanization, growing populations and rising expectations.

An eco city in China and a smart city in the Republic of Korea are tackling today’s – and tomorrow’s – challenges.

A joint initiative between China and Singapore, the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City project (tianjinecocity.gov.sg) – located on reclaimed land some 45 kilometres from the booming Chinese city of Tianjin and 150 kilometres from Beijing – is an attempt to create a replicable model for other cities in China and the global South. Already well underway, with the first phase of construction nearly complete, the Eco-City’s hallmarks include encouraging walking, reducing reliance on private vehicles and aiming to generate 20 per cent of the city’s energy from renewable sources. It is run from the Chinese end by Tianjin TEDA Investment Holding Co., Ltd and in Singapore by the Keppel Group.

It is located 10 kilometres from the Tianjin Economic Technological Development Area (TEDA), a fast-growing high-tech business hub in its own right.

Called an “integrated work, live, play and learn environment,” it is a mix of public and private housing based on the highly successful model developed in Singapore.

The concept of an “eco city” was first raised by Richard Register in his 1987 book Ecocity Berkeley: Building Cities for a Healthy Future. It was to be a place that minimizes inputs of energy, water, and food and outputs of waste heat, air pollution, carbon dioxide, methane and water pollution. Like smart cities, eco cities are taking shape in various forms around the world. Some are applying the concept and principles of an eco city to an existing place, while others are being built from scratch.

The Tianjin Eco-City is a mix of elements designed to make it sustainable in the long-term. It includes an “EcoValley” running through the development as its centrepiece green space to encourage walking and cycling between the major centres of the city. It has the usual urban services – from schools to shops and restaurants – but also, critically, a growing range of business parks to support employment.

Unlike green initiatives in wealthy, developed countries, it is hoped the Tianjin Eco-City will prove a more relevant model for the global South. It has factored in the need to make an eco city pay its way and generate new business and innovations. It is trying to address the pressing urgency of China’s growing population and rapid urbanization, while balancing people’s expectations of rising living standards. As in other countries in the global South, people aspire to a higher standard of living and this needs to be taken into consideration when planning eco cities.

Ho Tong Yen, Chief Executive Officer of Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City, says its aim is “sustainable development packaged in a way that is uniquely Asian.”

He says the project is intended to be “practical, replicable and scalable.”

“Practical at its core is building something that the market can support, something that is affordable given the economic development of the region,” he said. “The idea is that this model must be one that is replicable and scalable in other parts of China. Now, strictly speaking, there is no reason it needs to be just for China – it really might be replicable in other developing countries as well. Our starting point, however, is to find a model that might work for China.

“I think it is still a work in progress – a bold experiment – and it is a long-term experiment. The idea is to create an eco city that can support a population of 350,000 over a 10 to 15 year horizon.

“In some ways it is a city that does not look all that much different from other Chinese cities. But if you look at the subtleties – the building orientation, the renewable energy, the transit oriented developments, the walkability concepts – these are all the elements we built into this project.

“An eco city is not necessarily a science-fiction-like concept; it is something that is very real, very do-able. It looks a lot like a normal city – it is not a special city in a glass dome.”

The explosion in information technologies in the past decade has re-shaped the way cities can be planned, run and developed. The connectivity brought about by now-ubiquitous electronic devices such as mobile phones and the ever-expanding information networks connected by fibre optic cables is giving rise to so-called “smart cities.” These urban areas draw on information technologies to use resources more efficiently and reduce waste, while – it is hoped – better serving the needs of residents. Real-time information can be gleaned to monitor energy use, or traffic congestion, or crime, while constant online connectivity enables the efficient delivery of a multitude of services to residents.

Smart cities vary in their scope and ambition. Some are existing urban areas given a modern upgrade, while others, such as the Songdo International Business District (IBD) (songdoibd.com) smart city in the Republic of Korea, are planned and built from scratch.

Built on 1,500 acres (607 hectares) of reclaimed land from the Yellow Sea in Incheon, Songdo International Business District is being built by Gale International and POSCO E&C of Korea. It is considered one of the largest public/private real estate ventures in the world. Due to be completed in 2017, it will be home to 65,000 people (22,000 currently live there), while 300,000 people will commute in daily to work. Fifteen years in the making and costing over US $35 billion, it is called a “synergistic city” because it contains all the elements necessary for people to live a high-quality life.

Currently 50 percent complete, Songdo IBD is considered one of Asia’s largest green developments and a world leader in meeting LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) (https://new.usgbc.org/leed) standards for green buildings. For example, it has the first LEED-certified hotel in Korea, the Sheraton Incheon. These high green standards have led to the United Nations Green Climate Fund Secretariat establishing its headquarters in Songdo, with a slated opening in 2013.

Songdo is “smart” because information technology connects all its systems – residences, buildings, offices, schools, hospitals, hospitality and retail outlets. This includes more than 10,000 Cisco TelePresence units (http://www.cisco.com/en/US/products/ps7060/index.html)– menu-driven video screens – being installed in the residences to connect them to all the services available in Songdo.

It also benefits from proximity to IncheonInternationalAirport – consistently voted one of the best in the world – giving residents quick access to other Asian cities such as Shanghai, Tokyo and Hong Kong. This connection between urban development and a highly connected airport is being called an “aerotropolis.”

Songdo smart city is just one part of a massive regional development plan, using reclaimed land from the sea and marshlands. The residential and business developments are all being linked to IncheonInternationalAirport, which is being positioned as a transport hub and gateway to Northeast Asia – it boasts of being a three-and-a-half hour flight to one-third of the world’s population. The idea is to create a thriving international business hub that is a short flight away from Asia’s booming and fast-growing economic centres.

“The beauty is you are doing everything from scratch – you are using newer building technology, newer systems,” said Scott Summers, Vice President of Foreign Investment for developers Gale International Korea LLC.

“You are not going into a city and ripping up old things and then put in new systems. You have a greater opportunity to install this technology, the backbone (information technology from Cisco), to allow these services and connectivity to work properly because you are laying wires in buildings from the get-go rather than going in afterwards.”

Summers believes it is the high-tech component of Songdo that will set it apart from other cities in the future. Songdo is being built with a combination of innovative sustainable development technologies and the latest in information technologies provided by Cisco.

“That is one of the reasons we are pushing this technology, because it is how a city operates that is important,” Summers said.

“The operation of a city, to do it well, is going to improve the success of it. (To) embed into the development of the city some of the technologies of sustainable development – to put in the pneumatic waste system, grey water system, the co-generation – all of those things are much easier to do on raw land.”

Sojeong Sylvia Sohn, owner of Songdo’s Kyu, a Korean fusion cuisine restaurant, was attracted to Songdo and is banking on its future growth.

Sohn said Seoul’s “existing commercial area was just saturated.”

“Songdo International City in Incheon is the future for the region and early business tenants are coming here for investment purposes. It has uncluttered streets and modern buildings, being an international city – this makes it attractive.”

Resources

1) Eco Cities World Summit: The International Ecocity Conference Series brings together the key innovators, decision makers, technologists, businesses and organizations shaping the conversation around ecological and sustainable city, town and village design, planning and development. Website: http://www.ecocityworldsummit.org/

2) Richard Florida: The Creative Class Group is a boutique advisory services firm composed of leading next-generation researchers, academics, and strategists. Website:http://www.creativeclass.com/richard_florida

3) Global Urbanist: The Global Urbanist is an online magazine reviewing urban affairs and urban development issues in cities throughout the developed and developing world. Website: http://globalurbanist.com/

4) UN-Habitat: The United Nations Human Settlements Programme, UN-HABITAT, is the United Nations agency for human settlements. It is mandated by the UN General Assembly to promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities with the goal of providing adequate shelter for all. Website: http://www.unhabitat.org

5) Eco-Cities: A Planning Guide by Zhifeng Yang. Website: http://tinyurl.com/d26rxdx

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