Smart, green PMB?

2009-02-24 00:00

A smart, green Pietermaritzburg? Hope lies in the fact that there’s a growing tendency for cities to take the lead in national and international matters. Recently, the mayors and their deputies from over 300 European cities got together in Belgium and pledged to cut back their greenhouse gas emissions. The interesting thing was that they decided to take the lead in Europe and go beyond the EU’s goals. Three hundred European cities represent an enormous political force and even in global terms cannot be ignored.

The vision of the “smart” and green city of the future would include its being self-sufficient in renewable energy. The vision would be realised by a combination of conservation measures, particularly the insulation of buildings, the use of the same buildings to generate electricity, the encouragement of public transport, electric cars and a smart electrical grid which would distribute power where it was most needed and thus even out surges.

According to enviro-guru Jeremy Rifkin, quoted in the Business Report, February 12: “In 25 years, millions of buildings ... will be constructed to serve as both power plants and habitats.” The urgency that spurs these European cities does not just come from concerns about climate instability. The politically manufactured instability of Russian gas supplies during this unusually harsh northern winter has clearly concentrated some important urban minds. Cold houses in northern climes equals political instability.

Examples of urban initiatives already taken are London’s car charges which encourage the use of public transport and electric vehicles. The effect has been to reduce the number of cars on central London’s roads by an average of 60 000. There are arguments about whether it has relieved congestion, but 60 000 fewer cars has to represent a considerable saving of energy and reduction of carbon dioxide emission. Meanwhile, in Paris a building is being constructed which will use 4 000 square metres of solar panels to meet its own power needs, while selling the surplus.

If it can be done in the mild Parisian climate, there must be hope for our affectionately nicknamed ‘“Sleepy Hollow” with its stunningly soporific summers and warm winters. One hesitates to compare Pietermaritzburg with Los Angeles, but the KwaZulu-Natal capital can surely hold a candle (or even a photovoltaic cell) to the city of angels when it comes to sunshine. Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of the Terminator films fame recently opened the solar power systems for the Nokia Theatre and Staples Centre in that city. If Pietermaritzburg is ever to go down this route, it will obviously be the sunnier cities’ examples that will attract it. However, let’s hope that Pietermaritzburg doesn’t have to follow Durban.

An interesting underlying question is why these changes are being driven from cities. It may well simply be that most important changes in human history have come from cities. It seems that, generally speaking, densely populated places with a high concentration of educated people will naturally produce the exchange of ideas which leads to innovation. Occasionally a voice crying in the wilderness is also the source of great social change — one thinks of great religious leaders — but even those and their followers eventually had to move into populous centres to get their ideas to work on others who carried them further — in Jerusalem, Mecca and Rome.

So, it would appear that a meeting of minds in European and other cities is coming to a consensus which would commit cities to an independent political stance which will lead to energy independence. National governments in Europe must be sitting up and taking notice in the way that the state of California got the attention of the United States federal government in the Bush era when the Republican Governor Schwarzenegger put forward his localised green agenda.

I suppose our kneejerk reaction is to protest that this kind of goal is out of sight for a city in southern Africa. However, Johannesburg’s Gautrain might suggest otherwise. The swooningly superlative way in which it has been described in the Gauteng media is instructive — “an African dream”, “an African beauty”, and so on. It’s as if the locals have surprised even themselves with the local establishment of a First World technological marvel and rub their eyes in disbelief. The man directing the tunnelling operations glories in the name of Van der Merwe, but funnily enough no one tells any jokes about him. Apart from what they can do for the economy and the climate, It’s arguable that it’s worth taking on such hi-tech projects just to kick our embarrassing Third World technological cringe.

Sleepy hollows of the world awake: you have nothing to lose but your nicknames.

• Chris Chatteris is the media liaison officer for the Jesuit Institute of South Africa.

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