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Cities can lead the way toward global sustainability

Concordia expert in next-gen cities factors social justice into the equation
October 15, 2019
By Maeve Haldane, BFA 91

Ursula Eicker “Cities are the right actors because they know what the local problems are and can think much more carefully about the social justice topic,” says Ursula Eicker.

Ursula Eicker moved to Montreal from her native Stuttgart, Germany, to lead Concordia’s Cities Hub as the new Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Smart, Sustainable and Resilient Communities and Cities. She joined the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science in June, in the Department of Environmental Engineering. Eicker is building up a broad and interdisciplinary research team – from Engineering to Finance to Arts – that has access to $10 million in funding over seven years, thanks to a federal grant. Most recently, Eicker was the scientific director of the Research Centre for Sustainable Energy Technologies at the Stuttgart University of Applied Sciences.

Tell us about how your work led to sustainable development in cities?

I studied solid-state physics [in the 1980s] and had an interest in solar energy from the beginning. The Green Party was starting in Germany, so everyone was looking more seriously at environmental issues. My first job, in France, was for a company that developed solar modules. Then I looked at solar modules in buildings and building efficiency and how you would match energy consumption and production: You don’t have enough sun in winter when you need the most energy for an individual building, so you need storage if you really want to look at a zero-carbon society.

What are the important considerations for a city’s sustainability?

Clean energy is crucial to prevent climate change, but if you look at city design, a change in our transport system is the most important thing. For city design to change, cars need to go away or to be drastically reduced. It will be very hard to meet CO2 targets if we continue with individual cars, and the change to electric vehicles will stress our infrastructure. In addition, cars make cities ugly and noisy and polluted. You need to move in small steps, very gradually. If you drastically reduce individual transport, in the beginning, people and commerce complain. But where there’s a lot of pedestrian traffic, shops start to appear. Then you ask yourself how do you get goods to your place? But that last kilometre of transport can be well organized, with cargo bikes or small electric transport vehicles. We need more forms of micro mobility, more scooters, more bicycles.

What are Concordia’s strengths for work on cities?

My department covers everything in the built environment – energy efficiency, bringing renewables to infrastructure, occupancy behaviour, modeling the city from building scale to city scale. Then there are people in computer science who work on city scale models and data management. In urban studies people are working on the urban form and how that affects energy and transport needs. There’s powerful data-visualization expertise in design and computational arts so you can really show how a city looks today in 3D and animate this and how it can develop in the future. We can bring every department in, from the arts, sociology, finance, to name just a few, and that will make [our program] unique. We can bring in performance arts to engage people and create some appetite for change.

Why do you prefer the term Next-Generation Cities instead of Smart Cities?

There are already Smart City research institutes, worldwide, which are mostly technology-driven. But here, the approach is much broader – building a vision of where we want to go and then using the technology to make it possible. It’s what you ask: How do we want to live in the future? We can come up with a concept of how we want to live and communicate, and then see which role technology plays in the transition.

And what does the ideal city look like?

Better use of public space and a good social mix would be the ideal city for me. For me, density is not a problem. Quite the contrary! I think it can be a very creative environment. I find many heterogeneous sets of people together in an urban environment much more interesting than an urban sprawl type of setting.

Which cities do you admire and for what traits?

European cities, like Copenhagen, have reduced individual transport very well and they’re not in a benign climate, either. My favourite city in the world is Barcelona. They’ve got a progressive government and do a lot for social inclusion. They started change at the city edges where the more disfavoured population lives because the mayor of Barcelona comes from a social justice background. They are slowly trying to create spaces without individual cars, by connecting several big housing blocks to a superblock with no cars inside. Inside everything is pedestrian and a community can develop.

How does changing cities have a global impact?

Many more people live in cities, so cities need to provide the housing and infrastructure for a growing population. Now, in addition, they need to do it in a sustainable way. Many cities have made pledges to go carbon-neutral. These are ambitious goals and we know what needs to be done to translate these goals into a real action plan. It costs a lot of money, which is why it’s so slow, but it will pay back eventually. The challenge is to raise funds for the initial investment in the renewal of infrastructure. Cities are the right actors because they know what the local problems are and can think much more carefully about the social justice topic. If you just tax CO2 and everything becomes more expensive, we have a social justice problem. You need to reimburse people who can’t afford heating any more. You need to have a mechanism of paying back.

How hopeful are you about our ability to confront the world’s sustainability issues?

I’m reading Jorgen Randers’s 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years. He predicts we will go in the right direction because it’s the only one, because oil and gas will be exploited – whether that’s in 50, 100 or 200 years. It’s a question of time. We probably won’t go fast enough and that means a lot of unnecessary suffering for a lot of people – wars and resource struggles, flooding. The more we work to do it faster than slower, the better. On a local or state scale you can do really ambitious things and I think that would be great to be part of it. If a few progressive cities show how it can be done, then that could be a catalyst for others to follow. The beauty of my job is that I can think about this change and help to get it going.


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