Wednesday, Sep. 24, 2008

Peter Head

This year, for the first time in history, more people will be living in and around cities than in rural areas. On balance, the change is welcome: cities offer more paths out of poverty and are the engines of the global economy. But sprawling metropolises full of energy-hungry cars, offices and homes can also be wasteful and inefficient. Ensuring smart and environmentally friendly urban growth is crucial.

Few people see that more clearly than Peter Head, a director at Arup, the British engineering company that worked on such iconic structures as the Sydney Opera House and Beijing's "Bird's Nest" stadium. Head, 61, who leads the firm's planning and integrated urbanism business, has ambitious plans for entire communities that will work better socially and economically even as they embrace environmentally sustainable principles.

Nowhere is Head's work more vital than in China, the world's biggest emitter of CO2. Some 18 million Chinese are trading rural life for cities every year; innovators like Head can help reduce the environmental impact of that seismic shift. The British engineer heads a project to build an eco-city in Dongtan, a farming area near Shanghai that is three-quarters the size of Manhattan. Dongtan's buildings, buses and cars will run on renewable energy; its heat and power plant will use waste from rice mills as an energy source. Almost all of the city's waste will be recycled and reused, while Dongtan's farmland will supply organic food. And with pedestrian and cycle paths criss-crossing the city, key destinations — from schools to hospitals — will be cleverly spaced to minimize journeys. By 2010, when the first phase is scheduled for completion, 5,000 people are expected to settle in the city; by 2050, officials hope the number will be as high as half a million.

Know-how from the project will also be applied in Wanzhuang, close to Beijing, where Head's team plans to build a city for 400,000. The hope is that his firm's ideas will take hold across China. An Institute for Sustainability in Dongtan will teach business and government leaders about sustainable development, says Head, enabling "the knowledge and work [there] to be disseminated quickly."

Wowed by Arup's plans for China, authorities in London commissioned Head to sketch a blueprint for the capital's first large-scale zero-carbon housing development. The firm is working on similar projects from Azerbaijan to the U.S. "There aren't many times that you're in a position where you can see on a daily basis things changing so quickly," Head says. "It must have been like that during the industrial revolution." Perhaps. This time, though, change will hopefully be kinder to the planet.