A Visit to Incheon, South Korea’s New Songdo City: Green City of the Future?

New Songdo City, Incheon, South Korea

Back from Incheon, South Korea, where the partially contructed New Songdo City district is rising up as an acclaimed example of the world’s first ubiquitious technology city, and the first Korean “new city” planned with green features. Ground was broken for Songdo in 2004.
Completion is scheduled for 2014, when about 65,000 residents are expected to live locally and 300,000 workers are anticipated.

Having benchmarked the sustainability of the largest 50 US cities in my book How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings, I was curious to investigate Songdo’s qualities.

I was representing Common Current in New Songdo by addressing the Global Environment Forum on the topic of climate change and urban sustainable development. The conference, on “Low-Carbon, Green Growth” was hosted by the city of Incheon’s Free Economic Zone and the United Nations.

About 1,000 people from the UN (including Secretary General Ban Ki-moon), national governments, businesses, international non-governmental organizations and academia met in New Songdo’s ConvensiA to collectively forge the path toward a low-carbon future.

Songdo is quickly taking shape as a city of the future because it will be digitally wired and controlled in terms of systems management, which includes everything from waste to energy use. In my five-star Sheraton Hotel room, for instance (opened August 1), not only did my room entry card activate and de-activate all lights and appliances when I entered or left–a feature common in European hotels and woefully absent from the antiquated US hospitality industry–it also turned on or shut off the room’s cooling system.

Songdo’s Central Park (foreground), Songdo Sheraton (center) and ConvensiA (right)

The system was so efficient it was able to quickly cool the room when I re-entered, and when I left the room for short periods of time to workout or go to breakfast, it was so well insulated that it remained comfortable without active cooling.

Integrated smart building features will save massive amounts of energy. How many unoccupied rooms in hotels or offices across the world have lights burning and air conditioners blasting at this very moment? Probably enough to supply most of the energy for the spaces that are being used. Other digital features enabling greener operations will be bicycles and electric cars available through electronic smart cards, similar to the highly successful Velib bicycle share program in Paris.

All buildings including the smoker-free Sheraton are accredited by the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environment (LEED) ratings. The New Urbanist-inspired master plan for New Songdo was designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox, with some buildings designed by Daniel Lebeskind and HOK. The entire development is a LEED for Neighborhood Development pilot project, the only one in Korea, and one of 239 worldwide.

LEED-ND attempts certify that the not only are buildings green, but that their neighborhood is resource efficient in terms of offering public transportation, cycling and pedestrian options. New Songdo is served by a new subway line and will feature dozens of miles of cycling paths and pedestrian friendly urban planning, including wide sidewalks with generous landscaping, and frequent crosswalks.

New Songdo’s more traditional “green” features include 30 percent open space, highlighted by a carefully planned and executed Central Park with running and biking trails, and waterway for both transportation and recreation.

Entryway to New Songdo’s Central Park, Sheraton Hotel in background

When I jogged through New Songdo’s car-free 100-acre Central Park (note to designers – a more direct pedestrian pathway from the hotel entrance to the park’s crosswalk is needed), I was taken first by how established its many plant, grass and tree species were, despite construction still in progress. Most developments landscape as an afterthought, which means plants and trees do not get established before they are subjected to foot traffic and other human stresses.

The park’s seven rain cisterns, holding 5,253,000 liters, capture rainwater for use in the park’s irrigation, and they were plenty full after remnants from Typhoon Morakot deluged the area this past week.

In New Songdo, the care given to having natural systems interact with the built environment was testafied to by the noise of insects, including droning cicadas and thousands of graceful dragonflies zipping about the trees.

The New York City-based developers Gale International, have worked with fomer EPA Administrator Christine Whitman’s Whitman Strategy Group in planning integrated sustainability throughout the $35 billion mixed-use (40 percent office; 35 percent residential; 10 percent retail; 10 percent civic space and 5 pecent hotel space) Songdo City.

New Songdo is in partnership with Cisco and its Connected Urban Development initiative, which is aiming at reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the use of technology in buildings, transportation and communications.

Whitman told me her four-year process on providing sustainability input is entering its final phase: the group’s role now is to ensure that construction firms don’t cut corners, such as making sure that pedestrian paths and bike trails aren’t compromised with narrower layouts.

Gale International founder Stan Gale said a challenge for New Songdo has been in harmonizing green building standard between the USGBC’s LEED and emerging Korean standards, which are set to go into effect for all private building construction by 2011. Many countries are hesitant to adopt LEED standards wholescale, as these were designed for the US developers in terms of zoning, material and operating system requirements.

New Songdo is a living example of new green cities that will be springing up throughout the world, particularly in Asia, over the next 20 years. The excitement that comes with these endeavors is palpable, in that politicians and planners at events like the Global Environment Forum are recognizing that cities produce about 80 percent of the world’s greenhouse gasses, and that if we can’t get cities right, we will
have little chance to mitigate the most destructive impacts of global change.

And as New Songdo demonstrates, you can fight global climate change not only with more sustainable economic development, but that you can do it with natural systems, applied technology and style.


Release of California Innovation Index: The Green Economy Lives

I went to a release in San Francisco the other night celebrating NEXT 10‘s new 2009 California Innovation Index, which is the premier report tracking the emergence of the Green Economy in the Golden State.

The report, authored by Mountain View, CA-based Collaborative Economics, has found that green sector job growth has outpaced other job growth by a 10 to 1 factor in California. Venture capital for clean tech in California reached $3.3 billion, accounting for 57% of the nation’s total.

California is the leader in solar, wind and battery patents, and has been 68% more productive than the rest of the nation per unit of energy in producing Gross Domestic Product.

2008-01_sf_solar_incentive.jpgSan Francisco city solar installation, Moscone Center

What does all this mean? More jobs nationally will be the bottom line result of the carbon reductions the nation is trying to achieve: The Obama Administration has said it will use the California model of climate change regulations–from alternative fuel vehicle standards to more efficient electricity use–in order to reduce greenhouse gases by 80% in 2050 from 1990 levels.

Which makes sense, as the precedent-setting California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 set the national stage (and Obama’s 80% 2050 reduction target) for a large-scale effort to reduce carbon through the greening of industry, transportation, land use and planning, and energy use.


Skidmore, Owings & Merrill: Green Building Design Grows Up

After wondering for so many years why architects ignored local climate and energy efficiency in service of trendy design, I was schooled last night in how at least one global design firm is making green super sexy.

I gave a talk on green city trends at the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the commercial design, urban planning and building engineering firm, and was given a tour by Design Director Michael Duncan.

SOM-designed Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, China. When complete later this year it is intended to be China’s first zero-net energy skyscraper in terms of operating energy. (Left shows air baffle detail, where wind turbines are located.)

Duncan took me around to look at the models and schematics of dozens of projects, many of them in China. The exquisite craftsmanship of some of the miniature-scale building and neighborhood models was mesmerizing enough (a future version of the Chicago Art Institute’s Thorne Miniature Rooms), but most impressive was that in terms of energy efficiency, building design science is now also a high art.

We looked at computer-generated 3-D plastic San Francisco models (proprietary to SOM), showing every single bulding orientation, down to Tenderloin District message parlors (no, you can’t peer into windows), so designers can understand planned new building solar and wind impacts.

Individual buildings were modeled with solar orientation on their exteriors, so that windows can be designed to block hot sun in summer and to allow warming light in winter. Interiors used parametric modeling to heighten passive solar access for maximum office productivity. Thermal imaging software is used on every project to create energy efficient performance.

parametric modeling.jpg

Parametric modeling of window glazing, (courtesy SOM)

Green building science now tracks the sun’s movement across and interaction with a building at all times of day. Just think if this kind of technology could be integrated into the residential market. We would each save hundreds or thousands of dollars on heating and cooling energy, and would have more comfortable lives overall, while hacking away at global-warming-causing greenhouse gases.

Green materials were less evident in the models and schematics I saw, so in terms of true sustainability, the life cycle impacts of materials and other areas (particularly water supply and use) need to be better understood. Then there is the issue of how people get to these office buildings. Is there transit nearby? How easy is it for them to walk or bike to stores, entertainment and errands?

SOM is also developing geothermal heating and cooling designs along with integrating active PV solar skins into its buildings. Such advances are critically needed, considering that China is firing up one or two new coal-burning power plants each week to meet its growing electricity demand.

But in terms of one key element of green building, passive energy design, I’ve seen the future and hopefully it’s coming to your neighborhood soon.      



California’s Climate Change AB 32 Approved: Blueprint for Obama?

Yesterday California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) approved plans to reduce the amount of carbon emissions in the state to 1990 levels by 2020, in what is shaping up to be a template for action by the new Obama administration and Congress.

Though CARB’s chair Mary Nichols apparently did not get Obama’s appointment to lead the US EPA (that will probably go to Lisa Jackson), Nichols may ironically end up impacting national climate change regulations even more in her current position planning and implementing California’s Global Climate Change Solutions Act, or AB 32. 


Mary Nichols of CARB

AB 32 was passed by the California Legislature and signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006. For students of history, that was before the Bush administration even formally acknowledged that climate change was made more severe by human activity.

Now that Washington DC has come around to the need for taking action on addressing climate change, Obama is using California’s goal of reducing carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050 from 1990 levels as his overriding milestone. Next comes the Obama cabinet’s climate-energy policy framework, which will draw upon California’s metrics-based sectoral carbon-reduction roadmap.

So what happens in California will not stay in California (sorry Las Vegas!): from low-carbon fuels standards, to energy efficiency and industry cap and trade programs, there will be massive echos nationally and even globally.

One update in yesterday’s document from the draft plan released this summer is greater emphasis placed on regional government to manage land use and planning under Senate Bill 375 (see post from last month). Regional state “blueprint planning” efforts with metro planning and transit agencies will help develop smarter less-carbon intensive growth, while reducing new sprawl.

Local governments’ requirements to reduce carbon include water use and conservation, green building and a role in adhering to the blueprint planning at the regional level. The good will be rewarded with faster permits through less environmental reviews and more federal highway funding, while laggards will suffer the opposite impacts. 

One other AB 32 update in the fine print is that CARB has expanded its land use and planning carbon mitigation strategy. Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) was the sole metric considered by the agency to manage compliance. Now CARB says that reducing VMT is important, but also necessary is the encouragement of multi-modal transportation.

Measuring multi-modal transit rates (public transit use, carpooling, walking and biking to work, school or chores) is an approach I’ve used all along to measure how well communities demonstrate continual sustainability improvement. I’ve been advocating that state leaders in Sacramento look beyond VMT. Glad to see they’re coming around to the understanding that VMT by itself:

  • does not accurately measure vehicle use at the level of cities or communities. VMT includes “pass through” traffic data on freeways, arterials, etc. from other towns or locations. Some communities with great public transit, walkability and bikability hate it, as VMT doesn’t accurately reflect the efficacy of local planning, programs and policies.
  • is a negative incentive, or “stick” that says, “drive less or else”

AB 32’s regional blueprint process should draw upon easily available public census data. Communities can learn much about their problems and cures by analyzing how much people ride public transit, walk, bicycle, carpool and telecommute, particularly as new policies, light rail lines or pedestrian pathways with mixed-use development are launched.  

With such a baseline government can then use transportation demand management strategies, funding mechanisms, public awareness and even information technology to get more people to make these less-polluting choices more frequently.    


Tour of the “Souths”: Korea and Carolina Sustainability Quests

My lack of posting here is the result of travels the past few weeks.

First, I went to South Korea, where the Asian Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability invited me to speak at its opening conference, “New Vision and Strategies of Research Institutes for Sustainable Development.”

Just yesterday I returned from Charleston, South Carolina, where I spoke as part of series of sustainability talks put together by Eve Blossom, founder of Lulan Artisans in Charleston. Eve, a diplomat and networker par excellence, guided me to meetings with longtime (32 years!!) Mayor Joe Riley, the Charleston Green Commitee, the Executive Directors of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and Sustainable Charleston, and others.



The South Korean event, held at Seoul National University was put together by Professor Ki-Ho Kim, of Seoul National’s Graduate School of Environmental Studies. The Asian Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability (AIEES) is launching a cross-discipline research and applied research body that will draw upon urban design, engineering, forestry, arhcitecture, environmental studies and materials sciences.

The approach of AIEES is to to collaborate with other universities (the Yale School of Forestry and Seoul National inked an agreement while I was there), business (we had dinner with the CEO of Samsung), government (South Korea’s Environmental Minister attended, as did the planning director for Boston, Kairos Shen) and NGOs (a Chinese NGO was represented by a Peking University professor). 

In Charleston, that city has been kicking around sustainability in multi-stakeholder committees for the past year. My presentation showed how cities can be benchmarked according to sustainability indicators, which can then help prioritize where to begin taking action.

I recommended transit-oriented smart growth and reduced dependence on coal power as the two focal points for sustainability planning, and gave a few best practices and management approaches as to how this might be accomplished.

In any case, Charlestonians were in fine form–curious, intelligent, practical and enjoyable to visit with. I look forward to heading back there, either as a sustainability facilitator or as a tourist. The “City of Manners” is a fine showcase of antebellum architecture, all accessible over bluestone-paved sidewalks in a gorgeous bayside setting.  



SF Opens Academy of Science to Public: LEED Platinum Behemoth

San Francisco’s biggest green building in scale and grandeur (410,000 sq. feet) is opening to the public this week, the new Academy of Sciences, housing a planetarium, aquarium and natural history museum. I was able to take a peek in advance as a member.



The building is pending a LEED Platinum designation, the highest grade given to the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating program. It was devised by Italian designer Renzi Piano and features:

  • a huge Expo-67 like green roof, with two and a half acres of native habitat for the endangered Checkerspot butterfly
  • active solar and even more impressive, passive solar lighting and passive ventilation, featuring outdoor air supplied the surrounding Golden Gate Park “Virginia mated with Borneo” ecosystem (thanks Mark Reisner).
  • A living rainforest display with simulated rainfall, semi-free roaming birds and lots of real humidity in a self-contained orb (pictured below).
  • A bunch of eco features such as denim insulation, recycled steel structural members and guiding frogprints from points of local public transportation egress.  



I loved the covered piazza created in the center of the building. When I entered it, I was the only one in its large but cozy space. The air was fresh and cooler than the rest of the building, providing a needed respite fron the crowds of sneak peak members milling about the exhibits.

The piazza, which an attentive guide told me was created as an homage to Piano’s native Italy’s central public spaces, reminded me of San Francisco cafes, which have a habit of leaving their door open even on the chilliest of winter days (this was a foggy summer morning in the Sunset District, after all).

My only moment of disappointment was in the bathroom, where signs above the toilets bragged about how “these highly-efficient water conserving toilets are available for purchase for your home, too.” 

Yeah, they sure are. At 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf) they are required for any new construction or remodel throughout the state. Our home 0.8/ 1.4 gpf model is nearly twice as efficient, and cost only $50 after our water district rebate.

Other than that, splendissima






“Wicked Problems”: California’s Climate Change Challenges

The 5th Annual Conference on Climate Change in California wrapped up yesterday, and speakers took on the hard questions that follow on the heels of the scientific acknowledgement that at least some global man-made climate change is now occurring thorughout the world, and that includes California.

Greenhouse gases have “lifetimes of decades if not centuries,” according to Scripps Institute of Oceanography’s Dan Cayan, and there is likely to be ongoing impacts at every level of culture, society and the economy.

The so-called “wicked problems” the state faces–the term taken from Dan Cayan’s label of “problems that are all tangled up in different processes”–are rife.

  • Water allocation, with Sierra snowpack forecast to decrease 30-90 percent from 2020 through 2090, creating a scramble for water among users. UC Berkeley’s Michael Hanemann noted that the state was not measuring current diversions of water or groundwater use.
  • The costs of climate change mitigation and adaptation: How expensive will it be? Who will pay and will there be a way to allocate costs equitably? 
  • Communcation of both the nature and scale of the problem to the American populace, media and policy makers is a challenge since scientific data can be misinterpreted, misunderstood or downright ignored. “We’re not good entertainers,” Dr. Cayan ad-libbed to the amusement of the large audience of mainly scientists.
  • More and more data and information is needed, according to the California Department of Water Resources director Lester Snow, to better forecast and prepare for damage to human settlements and ecosystems through climate change induced flood, drought and wildfires.

So what were some of the best ideas that came forth during the Sacramento event once the caveats cleared?

Economics professor Hanemann suggested that the state come up with climate change adaptation plans similar to existing urban water management plans. Just as the water management plans do for extreme drought, climate change adaptation plans could scope what could be done by state, regional and local government to prepare for worst-case scenarios (drought, flood, heat stroms, wildfires) in land use, transportation and public health.

ICLEI’s Gary Cook outlined how that international member-based organization is leading assessments and actions plans for climate resilient communities in four US locations: Keene, NH; Homer, AK; Miami-Dade County, FL; and Ft. Collins, CO.

Art Rosenfeld, longtime commissioner of conference host the California Energy Commission, spoke on day one about how cool roofs–a very low cost or even no extra cost technology–reduces cooling use by 20 percent in homes and businesses, while reducing overall urban heat islands.

This one step taken in all new construction in the world’s largest 100 cities, which at the CEC’s behest California is mandating for all new and rebuilt homes next year, would save 400 billions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions. That is equivalent to more than the greenhouse gas emissions of all nations for an entire year.

And people would pay less on their energy bills, providing a net positive financial impact immediately for all homes that use air conditioning.

In addition to state policies like AB 32, which would reduce overall emissions by 70 percent come 2050 with myriad such policies to reduce building, transportation, government and industry carbon emissions, there is no one silver bullet. 

California is beginning to demonstrate that such wicked problems must be attacked with an almost endless arsenal of research, policy, programatic, product and management innovation.