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Building a sustainable future

By Norman Foster

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(CNN) -- Two trends will affect global practice over the next two decades: the need to pursue sustainable patterns of development; and the opportunities presented by developing economies.

The need to address man's impact on the environment has never been more urgent. Scientists predict that the Earth will warm by 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius by 2100 -- more than temperatures are thought to have changed since the dawn of humanity.

It is now widely accepted that this is largely due to rising concentrations of greenhouse gases -- mostly significantly CO2.

In the developed world, buildings consume half the energy we generate and are responsible for half of CO2 emissions, the remainder being divided between transport and industry.

That is alarming enough. But what will happen as the developing world catches up?

China predicts a doubling of GDP in 2010 compared with 2000, and Kazakhstan, one of the fastest-growing economies, had an astonishing 9.5 per cent growth in 2002.

In China, the building boom is unprecedented, fast and furious. Cities such as Beijing and Shanghai change virtually by the day, with sobering environmental implications.

To avoid global environmental catastrophe, every country has to adopt sustainable development strategies.

Sustainability requires us to think holistically: the location and function of a building; its flexibility and life-span; its orientation, its form and structure; its heating and ventilation systems, and the materials used, all impact upon the amount of energy used to build, run and maintain it.

Virtually every new building can be designed to run on a fraction of current energy levels. However, that is only part of the story. There are two further crucial issues: population growth and the shift towards living in cities.

The world's population stands at 6.4 billion; in 10 years it is expected to reach 7.5 billion. By 2015 there will be 23 "megacities" with populations over 10 million. Nineteen of them will be in developing countries, where up to half the population will be urbanized.

Cities that sprawl are far less energy efficient than densely planned communities. Car travel is a crucial factor. Imagine somebody driving 20 kilometers to work each day. His or her housing will consume 720 liters of oil per annum, the workplace 285 liters, and transport 900 liters. This tells us that even if the buildings were zero energy and carbon free, we would still have problems.

Alarmingly, in most countries car usage is still increasing. To reduce car travel we have to encourage compact cities and high-density new development.

Critics argue that higher densities lead to "poorer" environments. But that does not follow. Monaco and Macao, the world's densest urban communities, are at opposite ends of the economic spectrum.

In London some of the most densely populated areas offer the most desirable lifestyle: Kensington and Chelsea have population densities up to three times those of London's poorest boroughs.

Holistic thinking must equally be applied to infrastructure -- transport systems, streets and public spaces -- the "urban glue" that holds cities together. The quality of infrastructure impacts directly on the quality of urban life.

The clean nature of much post-industrial work means workplaces can be combined with housing and localized communities can be sustained when transport connections, businesses, schools and shops are all within walking or cycling distance of home.

Architects have a vital role as advocates of sustainable solutions. But we also need more progressive developers and politicians with courage to set goals and incentives for society to follow.

Some countries have given a lead: Germany has long understood the need to reduce consumption and adopt renewable energy sources, and that is reflected in building codes.

Others, in varying degrees, lag behind. There are no technological barriers to sustainable development, only ones of political will.

If we are to avoid the environmental damage wrought by the unsustainable patterns of the past, then the established and emerging economies must act in unison and with urgency before it is too late.

-- Lord Foster is principal of Norman Foster & Partners, London. His works include the Millennium Bridge in London, the glass dome for the Reichstag redevelopment in Berlin and the Grand Viaduc du Millau in the south of France

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