Q&A: The Ecological Sequestration Trust
Eco-cities guru Peter Head has just left contractor Arup, where he headed an 800-strong global urban planning team, to set up a charity with the ambition to transform planning. Here he explains the thinking behind his latest project
Tell us about the Ecological Sequestration Trust.
Everyone wants to integrate energy, water, waste, food growing, mobility, be much more resource efficient, use fewer materials and employ closed-loop systems [in which waste products are reused] - but there’s no way of making this big change happen. So I decided to set up a charity that brought together world-class engineers, scientists, urban designers, ecologists, water people and food people, to show that it can be done.
We’re creating open-source modelling software, a library of data and models, which is a fairly profound game-changing piece of work. We’re going to put it into four demonstrator regions: Surat in India; Chongming Island in China, where the Dongtan eco-city was going to be; and Kigali in Rwanda. In the UK, we’ve got several options, but recently the Swansea Bay area has got very excited about being a region.
What will you do in the demonstrator regions?
We don’t change the whole region immediately, because you can’t, but if you have a new idea for building affordable housing, for example, you use the model to anticipate what would happen if it were rolled out. You could actually see what the economic, job creation and business case is, and what the economic and environmental outcomes will be. At the moment we don’t have any tools for that; we literally don’t have the tools to link investment with economic outcomes.
Will these demonstrator regions show how to build sustainable social housing, in a better way?
If land is very cheap, then affordable housing doesn’t necessarily have to be high density. But if land is very expensive, then clearly you’ve got to have higher-density housing to make it more affordable. That’s blindlingly obvious, but it’s surprising how often people say: ‘Here’s a zero carbon home and you can put it in Swansea or London or anywhere.’
So these tools will provide a better way of looking at masterplanning and integrating energy, water, waste and food production, as well as maximising the value of what land can provide.
When I talk about housing, I’m never talking about the box. I’m talking about the whole development system, including transport, mobility, goods delivery, waste management, energy, water, food - the whole lot, really. At the moment we often ignore what’s going on under the ground, the heating, cooling potential and the water system’s potential.
Does the current definition of a sustainable home really recognise all these elements?
The ranking [of sustainability components] is done in an arbitrary way, allocating arbitrary value. And that’s wrong, because in one place those things might have more value, and in others they might have less. The idea that there’s a one-size-fits-all ranking isn’t right to me.
Is the world moving in the right direction on sustainability?
We’re heading in the wrong direction very fast. I can’t bear that. So I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to do something - to help a little bit to nudge it in another direction.
What will be the outcomes of the Rio+20 conference in June?
Someone in the United Nations coming up with a new policy is not going to change things. I think it’ll be the cities and the regions that make all the running. That’s where I think the effort is needed to really show that it’s possible, and the only way to do that is to roll up your sleeves and start working - with people who can make it happen.
What project are you most proud of?
It’s probably the planning of the Dongtan eco-city [planned to open in 2010, the city was meant to house 500,000 and be self-sufficient]. It’s a disappointment that it hasn’t been built, but there will be a much larger city built using the principles of the Dongtan project, so all the learning that came out of that project is alive in China.
In terms of projects that were built, I’d say the Second Severn Crossing. Every time I drive across it, it’s a bit of a thrill. That’s the great thing about being an engineer.
Prime minister David Cameron has said he wants to bring back the garden city (see feature, page 30). Is that a good idea?
Not really, because I don’t believe in blueprints, as I’ve tried to explain. I believe in looking at the natural resources and natural conditions and land values, and then working out a bespoke solution.
Often you try to impose an idea on a place, and it doesn’t fit. So I don’t think the answer is a garden city, an eco-town or an eco-city, I believe it is a way of developing in harmony with the natural world, using natural systems and what people in that area want.
I just think we should be developing the tools to be able to do that. It’s a bit difficult, but it’s the only way it’s going to be done.
Is this an evolution of what a sustainable town or city is?
Yes, I think it is. It is an evolution and it is quite hard to grasp at the moment and that’s why the demonstrators are important. So there’s a place here that’s done that, and there’s a place in India, Africa and China, and you can draw your own conclusions about it. These need to become thriving models for a new way of doing everything.
What do you make of the changes in the planning system in the UK, and the introduction of the localism agenda?
I think it’s quite good, actually. The big ambiguity in it is what ‘sustainable development’ means. People see it as a carbon thing, or not building on green land. But for me, greenfield is part of the land system.
The fact that it’s got crops growing in it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re using the land very efficiently and it doesn’t mean it has good ecological value either. The view out of the window is not necessarily the most important dimension - it’s not the one that’s going to allow our kids and their kids to live better on the planet.
People still complain that ‘sustainability’ is hard to define.
That’s what I’m trying to do: here’s sustainability, let’s look at how we make this thing work, including factors like resource efficiency. Personally, I get a lot more reaction from people when I say, actually, sustainability is all about waste reduction: waste of money, waste of materials, waste of people’s lives and time. That tends to get people quite motivated.
Peter Head is founder of the Ecological Sequestration Trust