Cities emerging as epicentres of sustainability

It's time to look at the big picture when it comes to environmental issues and how they affect all aspects of real estate globally. There is so much talk about the nitty-gritty of the debate – specific carbon footprints of certain property construction techniques, the effectiveness or otherwise of some solar-gain measures, and the speed of global warming's onset, for example – that it is easy to ignore one of the most important factors: strategic planning for the future.

Therefore, the new Vision For Cities document released at the annual MIPIM property junket in France is to be welcomed as reminding us of how the big picture counts. It is no coincidence that RICS uses the concept of the 'city' as a vehicle for furthering the sustainability debate – just look around you. The Middle East is using the city as a way of housing growing populations and demonstrating growing economic influence in the world; China is doing the same, more aggressively, as it moves populations from the countryside into the city; and the west is using the city concept to test new ways of living, as San Francisco's sustainable and man-made Treasure Island shows.

RICs recognises all of this:

- Cities cover all aspects of the sustainability debate – consumption of resources, emission levels, construction techniques, even the protection of natural habitats;

- There is broad agreement (some tacit, some more open) that cities reflect issues like social equity, and political and financial stability;

- Property professionals have a vital part to play in how cities must develop to accommodation a growing global population;

- A challenge at least as large as future development is how to retrofit existing commercial and residential real estate with upgraded sustainable infrastructures to 'go green' and to reflect different lifestyles such as better living conditions, greener transport and more online home-working.

The RICS contribution is valuable because it builds an edifice, showing how no single sustainability issue can be seen in isolation and how all of them are found in cities.

It is almost frightening to consider that now, with 50 per cent of the world's population living in cities, the real estate industry needs to take account of so many demographic and industrial trends when considering something as relatively simple as, say, a new suburb in an existing city. Take these factors, for example:

- The increased specialisation of international business – finance, legal, accountancy or even information call centres – requires the close proximity of appropriate skilled labour, suppliers, clients and competitors. They will expect their 'specialist' cities to accommodate all of these;

- Emerging cities now have an extraordinary opportunity to take on mature cities by developing an infrastructure appropriate for a specialist business. Such an opportunity has probably never existed in the past;

- These cities – some expanding to cover whole regions – generate high volumes of cross-cutting commuter and business travel not currently supported by existing transport infrastructures.

These points and others in the RICs report are self-evident and should come as no surprise to property professionals. Yet, it is refreshing to have them explained clearly and to cut through the micro-detail that so often stifles debate on sustainability.

RICs concludes with a series of pleas.

Firstly, it wants the concept of the 'city' to be accepted as a vehicle for future business, population and transport growth – not to the exclusion of rural areas and regions, but as a recognition of its primary importance for those three growth activities.

Secondly, it wants city spatial planning to be comprehensive, settled and most of all stable. It should not be "rewritten according to every political change" says the report, in a bid to encourage investment that will have long-term benefits. (Interestingly, master-plans in China and the Middle East appear not to change frequently whereas in the west, such changes occur almost annually in places).

Thirdly and finally, it calls for debates and consensus on the very biggest issues, which affect planning and real estate – employment, immigration, taxation, and development and building control. This consensus should be sought by planners, investors, developers, builders, estate agents and utility providers, to ensure a collective thought on how the city should develop.

A pipedream? Of course, to some extent it is. Few who have seen the protracted difficulty that developers have in getting planning permission for even small schemes in, say, western Europe could believe that global consensus on urban issues could ever be reached. But it is vital to at least try, and this document shows us why it would be worthwhile.

(Vision for Cities available on


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