To Save the Environment, Invest in Quality of Life

Urban planning that emphasizes quality of life may hold the key to achieving sustainability goals

By Xische Editorial, August 8, 2018

 Source: Zimowa/  Shutterstock

Source: Zimowa/ Shutterstock

Norway, one of the world’s largest exporters of oil, is building a sustainable airport city in Oslo. With its liveable cities and fresh Nordic air, Norway is often associated with green initiatives, such as extensive public transportation and renewable energy. Aside from the high cost of living, Oslo has one of the highest quality of life rankings in the world. How Norway translated oil wealth into a fresh approach towards renewable energy and urbanism provides critical lessons for cities far beyond the idyllic borders of Scandinavia.

Let’s start with the basics. Investing oil wealth into public-use projects is a defining component of Norwegian urbanism. From ambitious recycling programmes to the widespread use of bicycles and public transportation, Norwegians embrace renewable energy in all aspects of their urban lives. In 2017, Oslo built the world’s first green airport terminal. Taking their commitment one step further, Oslo announced plans earlier this year to build a sustainable city around the airport.

The new airport city aims to create more energy than it uses. Set on an area of more than 1,000 acres, renewable energy will power its public transportation and lighting, sustainable local forests will provide wood, and clever design tricks will maximize daylight to reduce energy use.

While the Oslo airport city will not be finished for 30 years, the announcement is an important milestone for other cities grappling with environmental sustainability and quality of life. The country’s leadership knows that oil wealth is useless if residents and citizens cannot enjoy their urban environments. Other oil-producing countries understand this dynamic well, too. The UAE’s commitment to sustainable urban development, as demonstrated by programmes like Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, reveals its view on national wealth and healthy cities.

Sustainable urbanism characterized by the use of renewables has placed Norwegian cities among some of the best in terms of quality of life. Gulf states are adopting similar tactics. Without a healthy environment, how are people supposed to enjoy the windfall of their oil wealth? Could a similar approach to urbanism be underfoot in places like China or India?

Before you turn up your nose at this prospect and claim that Norway is unique due to its small size and the Scandinavian appreciation for nature, consider some recent developments in China. In 2017, the Chinese government announced it would spend $360bn on renewable energy developments by 2020 in line with the Paris Climate Agreement. As the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions, the announcement came with targets to increase electricity generation from low-carbon sources. At the time, the Financial Times noted that “the new announcement on renewables supports a move towards greater self-sufficiency but also helps meet [Chinese President] Xi’s second key policy objective – the reconstruction of the country’s employment base”.

Aside from the geopolitical calculations and domestic dynamics involved in the push towards renewable energy, there are some important social factors at play in the decision. China’s meteoric economic rise over the last two decades has created a massive new wealthy class. China leads the world in the number of new billionaires, while the middle class is growing at a phenomenal pace. All this new money comes with a sense of privilege that is increasingly stifled by the poor quality of life in China’s major cities. Rich or poor, air quality affects everyone.

In some cases, luxury establishments attempt absurd band-aids to deal with air quality and other environmental pitfalls. One hotel in Shanghai, for example, offers filtered air that is said to be 10 times cleaner than air on the street. This is not a viable long-term solution.

China and other emerging market countries that suffer from environmental degradation, such as India, could take a page from the Norwegian urbanism playbook. Investments in renewable energy projects will help contain environmental problems but are only half the battle. Governments should invest in quality of life programmes in cities.

Parks, pedestrian-friendly streets, viable public transportation, and the reduction of cars all help make cities more livable for people. The Oslo airport city will feature open spaces and use natural light to make residents feel at one with nature. While this might not be possible in the cramped confines of Shanghai or Beijing, the principle can be applied.

As more people enter the middle class in emerging markets, the demand for better quality of life will amplify. Given its small population and temperate climate, such demands have been easy for Norway to implement over the past quarter century. China and India’s vision will be different but the human desire to live in a clean environment with space to move freely is universal. Just as Ikea has exported one Scandinavian value to the world, so might Norway export its own quality-of-life approach.