The 21st century finds, for the first time in history, a majority of the world's citizens living not in small towns and rural villages, but in cities and other urban places. As the planet becomes increasingly urbanized - and increasingly warmed by human activity - the need for a more environmentally sustainable form of city design, a "green city," has never been greater.
This is shaping up to be a landmark year in the international effort to address climate change as well as a critical opportunity to consider how green cities can be part of the solution.
In December, the world will turn its eyes to Copenhagen for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Known as "Kyoto II," these multinational talks will seek to implement a new international agreement for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol.
The newly committed engagement of the United States this year bodes well for the international effort but will not by itself be enough to seal the victory. All nations, including the United States, will have to meet their targets and those that fail will face legal consequences.
With the approach of Copenhagen, national planning efforts to curb greenhouse gasses are taking on increased urgency. These efforts focus mainly on restricting emissions, since we know that the burning of fossil fuels contributes to the blanket of greenhouse gasses around the globe. However, we are only just starting to appreciate how land use decisions also contribute to this "fog."
A little-known 2004 study by NASA, the United States National Air and Space Administration, underscored how the shape of our built environment impacts climate change. The study found that land use changes - development, deforestation, farming - have done more to warm the planet than twice the collective carbon output generated by 300 years of industrial activity.
The message is clear: Any serious effort to halt current climate trends must also address land use practices. Fossil fuel reduction is vital, but we also need fundamental change in the landscape and functions of the places where most of the world's population now lives.
Indeed, a significant cause for optimism in the NASA study is its implication that land use changes don't always exacerbate global warming. They can also mitigate it, which brings us to green cities.
The green city
The concept of the sustainable or green city is nothing new. Builders and city planners have long sought to improve upon conventional development standards of their time.
New York City's Rockefeller Center, built in the early 1930s, broke the mold of single-use urban development with a massive (for its time) master-planned project incorporating retail, commercial and residential elements.
Another Manhattan development, Battery Park City, was built in the 1970s on land reclaimed from the Hudson River using 917,000 cubic meters of dirt and rocks excavated in the construction of the World Trade Center and other buildings.
Today, Battery Park City is a 0.4 square-kilometer mixed-use residential and commercial neighborhood, and something of a sustainability laboratory. The Battery Park City Authority, which oversees development in the zone, has published guidelines for the creation of environmentally responsible residential and commercial buildings as part of a healthier, more sustainable community.
Nothing, however, compares to the size and scale of the Republic of Korea's contribution to sustainable urban development, the Songdo International Business District.
A master-planned metropolis rising in Incheon on the west coast of the Korean peninsula, Songdo IBD is poised to be a destination city for global business while at the same time a greener, more livable and more sustainable city than any in modern history.
Its scale is unprecedented. Built on 607 hectares of reclaimed land along Incheon's waterfront, this $35 billion project will include 17 million square meters of office/commercial space, 10 million square feet of residential space, 2.8 million square meters of retail and 2.8 million square meters of public space. When completed in 2015, it is estimated that Songdo IBD will be home to 65,000 people and that some 300,000 will work there.
Its vision of sustainable development is also unprecedented.
In many ways, Songdo IBD City demonstrates what the future of urban development will look like. It addresses environmental needs head-on with an integrated master plan that takes the entire cityscape - from infrastructure to architecture, transportation, utilities, density, open space and parks - into account.
The guiding principles of sustainability include the need to create a city that is better for its inhabitants, better for the region and better for the planet as a whole. As such, sustainability looks at not only the direct environmental impacts of resource use, but the indirect environmental benefits that accrue when a city's design encourages social vibrancy and connectivity, an embrace of culture and a climate of economic activity.
Songdo IBD will do all of this, guided by time-tested, smart-growth principles relating to such issues as density, transit-proximity and availability, environmental preservation and pedestrian-friendly design, that are shown to deliver the highest quality of urban life.
In order to ensure that Songdo IBD truly sets a new standard in green design, the developers, U.S.-based Gale International and Korea's POSCO Engineering and Construction Ltd., made an unprecedented commitment to quantify and benchmark the city's level of sustainability against leading international standards.
The development team is participating in the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Neighborhood Development Pilot Program to certify the entire city as being sustainably developed. The USGBC is a nonprofit organization of development industry professionals whose standards are recognized worldwide. Its LEED rating system has long been the benchmark for green construction. The Neighborhood Development Pilot Program takes the concept a step further, integrating smart growth and green building principles into the first of its kind standard for sustainable community design.
All buildings within the developer's control - over 350 major structures - will seek LEED certification or certification under the Korean Green Building Rating System. Buildings in Songdo IBD will feature elevators that are 75 percent more efficient than current systems; they will employ plumbing fixtures that reduce water use by at least 20 percent citywide, and every building will incorporate locally-sourced materials and materials with recycled content.
All buildings will also effectively utilize the most basic natural resources - air, water, and sunlight - in heating and cooling. Even the way the streets are configured will be designed with environmental sensitivity in mind. Forty percent of the city will be green space, delivering a better living environment and an eco-friendly cityscape.
What will all this mean to those who will live and work in Songdo IBD? It will mean a better quality of life and a healthier environment in a city that points the way forward for smarter, healthier and more ecologically-sustainable communities worldwide.
Once completed, annual carbon dioxide emissions of Songdo IBD will be significantly less than those of comparable urban areas. At the same time as giving people an exciting and beautiful place to live and work, Songdo IBD will demonstrate the power of private sector partnerships that cross international boundaries. The American companies and the Korean firms with which they are working are gaining ideas and practices that can influence the design of buildings and cities in the United States, Korea and other parts of the world.
While there is nothing else like Songdo IBD today, its success will ensure that it will be the model for the future. It will meet and even exceed Korea's ambitious goals for a cleaner, healthier environment for its citizens, while showing the world what can be done when good faith combines with talent and commitment.