Herbert Girardet: Reluctant Optimist

As part of the Royal Institute of British Architects series of lectures on Architecture and Climate Change, Herbert Girardet, environmentalist, urban philosopher and author spoke on "The Compelling Logic of Positive Action". Calling himself a "reluctant optimist", he presented a case for hope and survival in this century. He is a sophisticated, cosmopolitan and truly optimistic activist. He says we have 10 years to left to get serious about the environment. Using a range of excellent slides and references to new projects from across the world, he presented a scenario which emphasised the need to move quickly and showed how many places already were starting to do that. He said that we have to make linkages between where we live and our impact on the global environment—we are not a private species anymore, we are global. Reducing the urban footprint is a collective and individual responsibility. He is interested in the city's relationship to the biosphere. Cities take up 3-4% of the world's land surface, but use 80% of its resources. The move from villages to big cities in China has had a huge impact on the world. Fires in the Amazon affect North America.
As for nuclear power: he says we have no time for it: it takes at least ten years to build reactors and that's all the time that we have left. Wind turbines are quicker and are a major transformation and success story. Solar is also becoming more widespread particularly in Germany and California. Retro-fitting, driven by legislation, is equally important. The low density American suburbs are utterly dependent on fossil fuels. By putting high density insulation on the outside of housing and using solar for panels and transport, they can become less dependent
The role of government is key. He called this "changing attitudes through vigorous democracy". Government policy can have a significant impact on companies and investments. As a result of legislation in the UK, the construction of zero-energy housing is now mandatory. Similarly in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Scandinavia, thousands of low- energy houses will be built. This creates jobs as well: more than 215,000 new jobs have been created in the wind turbine industry in Germany.
He discussed how to solve the problem of feeding people in cities. The land area required to feed a city is 100 times larger than the city. Shanghai has set aside 300,000 hectares of land outside the city. Cuba has developed urban agriculture i.e. local urban food supply systems to reduce food miles. He is very optimistic about the development (pictured) of Dongtan, the world's first sustainable city, outside of Shanghai. Now in its first phase, it will have 500,000 residents by 2030. Sixty percent of available lands will be farm land with the produce grown for the city and markets in Shanghai. It will be designed with pedestrian villages and low-rise apartments.
Girardet refuses to give up. He has set up the World Future Council as an "inter-generational voice for future generations". It consists of 50 eminent people who will be identifying values and policies for future development. He has also released a new book "Surviving the Century: Facing Climate Chaos and Other Global Challenges" which is a collection of articles on this subject. He may call himself reluctant but he is a magnificent model for us all. :: RIBA

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