Three years ago, Mohammed Saquib and his fellow students Yaseen Khalid and Nabeel Siddiqui were seeking inspiration for their final year university project. The Syrian crisis was at its peak and with the plight of refugees filling news bulletins, they decided to try to address the desperate need of some of the world’s most vulnerable people for shelter.
As they began their research, they discovered that Pakistan itself was facing a shortage of 10 million houses, with many people living in overcrowded, unsanitary informal settlements.
“There was no innovation in the construction industry in Pakistan and so we realized we needed to make a prototype, a house that could be assembled by anyone in minimal time and should be affordable as well,” said Saquib, who studied civil engineering at NED University of Engineering and Technology in Karachi.
Post-graduation, the trio founded ModulusTech, a startup that produces low-cost, energy efficient, flat-pack modular homes that can be used to house refugees but could also serve non-governmental organizations or government agencies seeking to build classrooms or health clinics in rural areas. The houses can also be used in the construction and tourism sectors.
“Each house is 16×16 square feet, with electricity and plumbing and everything pre-integrated in the panel walls. Each house costs around US$3,000 and the lifespan is about 30 years. The houses can be assembled in just three hours, using three people,” said Saquib.
“Primarily, we were targeting refugees and internally displaced people and we wanted them to be able to assemble these houses and get a feeling of ownership … According to a United Nations report, a refugee stays on average 17 years in temporary shelter so we designed (the house) according to this,” the 26-year-old added.
The houses are built around a steel frame with walls made of recyclable materials such as fibre cement composites and wood plastic composites. Glass wool insulation ensures the houses are energy-efficient and cost-effective. It is estimated that a ModulusTech house has a carbon footprint that is up to 52 times lower than traditional concrete homes.
When the team tested the homes in the Thar desert, where the outside temperature was around 50 degrees Celsius, the temperature inside was around 35 degrees, Saquib says.
In 2017, ModulusTech was accepted into The Nest I/O, a Pakistani startup incubator. Since then, the team has won a slew of awards and was selected by the Pakistani office of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) to represent the country at the world’s first Global Manufacturing Industrial Summit in Germany last year.
ModulusTech hopes that government departments or relief agencies will buy its houses to set up in refugee camps or other settlements where displaced people are gathered. Pakistan is home to around 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees, and around 400,000 people have been displaced internally by conflicts, violence or extreme weather events like floods.
ModulusTech won a grant from UN Environment as part of the Asia-Pacific Low-Carbon Lifestyles Challenge, which supports young people with cutting-edge ideas to foster energy-efficient, low-waste and low-carbon lifestyles.
“With this money, we have set up our own factory and we have labour and a proper manufacturing facility,” Saquib said, adding that the business training offered as part of the award was also very useful.
Dechen Tsering, UN Environment’s director for the Asia-Pacific region, said ModulusTech’s innovation was an example of the ingenuity needed to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems, with this project particularly geared toward helping some of the most vulnerable people.
Around one billion people live in informal settlements around the world, with millions more living in buildings that are not environmentally friendly. Rapid urbanization and economic growth challenge communities to sustainably expand capacity, heightening the need for innovation in building systems and infrastructure.
“Improving lifestyles across Asia and the Pacific must be an inclusive endeavour, and Mohammed … (is) demonstrating how we can get it done,” Tsering said.
Global ingenuity and innovation across all sectors will take centre-stage at the fourth UN Environment Assembly in March. The motto for that meeting is to think beyond prevailing patterns and live within sustainable limits.
So far ModulusTech has sold around 30 units, mostly to businesses in the construction industry who sought structures for washrooms and site offices. They are also in talks with United Nations agencies about possible uses for their product.
As they seek to build their market, the team are already working to upgrade their basic model by installing a solar-powered water purification system. They are also incorporating a second storey into their designs.
For Saquib, architects, designers and engineers have a critical role in fighting for a better environment, but education is also key.
“As a nation, we really don’t care about climate change now. Signing a Paris (climate change) agreement or creating a Pakistan vision for 2025 will not solve this issue. You have to go to ground level,” he said. “Global warming and our response in Pakistan should be part of the schools’ curriculum … It is the government’s duty to raise awareness of this issue.”
He admits it is frustrating that the environmental benefits of ModulusTech’s flat-pack housing is not recognized locally.
“We have built this house and nobody is looking at how sustainable it is, for example that the lifespan is 30 years. No one cares about that,” he said, adding that this lack of knowledge means designers must also take on the mantle of educators.
“We must educate but we have to take baby steps. People just care about the cost. They don’t care about the energy analysis,” he said. “But we are trying our best to educate them, and we really highlight our achievements, like the fact that the houses save 45 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per house. That’s a huge thing right now.”
The living air purifiers cities need more of
In our all-too-hectic urban lives, a city park is a great place to unwind. Trees and green spaces have mental health and well-being benefits, on top of being great for relaxation and recreation.
Trees also help reduce air pollution. According to the study Tree and forest effects on air quality and human health in the United States, particulate matter, which is particularly damaging to lungs, is retained on tree surfaces, while leaves act as filters, absorbing polluting gases.
But the study also warns that while trees can mitigate the effect of air pollution, deposits of air pollutants on leaves can also affect photosynthesis “and therefore potentially affect pollution removal by trees”. As with everything, balance is key.
The cooling effect of trees
Trees can also significantly cool temperatures in cities. In hot climates, tree cover can reduce energy expenditure on air conditioning, while driving down the consumption of air polluting fossil fuels that power these cooling systems. Experimental investigations and modelling studies in the United States have shown that shade from trees can reduce the air conditioning costs of detached houses by 20–30 per cent.
“Trees could reduce temperatures in cities up to 8°C, lowering use of air conditioning and related emissions by up to 40 per cent,” says Simone Borelli, an Agroforestry and Urban/Periurban Forestry Officer with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
“When part of a wider landscape mosaic, large green patches within and around cities would also reduce emissions through avoided sprawl and excess mobility requirements,” he adds.
Urban tree-planting has to be done right. Species planted should be ones that are most effective at trapping pollution, typically those with large leaves. Officials also need to account for things like wind patterns and tree spacing. If water is scarce, they’ll want to consider drought-tolerant varieties, and avoid trees that increase pollen and allergies.
Action is all the more important given that urbanization is accelerating—the proportion of people living in cities will be 60 per cent in 2030 and 66 per cent in 2050. Nearly 90 per cent of this increase will occur in Africa and Asia. To address the impacts of this rapid growth and the related challenges, a large-scale effort is needed.
Building the Great Green Wall of Cities
Nearly 8,000 km long and 15 km wide, the Great Green Wall is an African-led movement of epic proportions initiated in 2007 to green the entire width of northern Africa, a semi-arid region extending from Senegal to Djibouti. A decade in and roughly 15 per cent under way, the initiative is slowly bringing life back to some of Africa’s degraded landscapes, providing food security, jobs and a reason to stay for the millions who live along its path.
An initiative of this nature in urban areas is being developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization and other partners in preparation for the UN Climate Summit in September 2019. It aims to create up to 500,000 hectares of new urban forests and restore or maintain up to 300,000 ha of existing natural forests in and around 90 cities of the Sahel and Central Asia by 2030. Once established, this “Great Green Wall of Cities” would capture 0.5–5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year and stock carbon for centuries.
On 1 March 2019 the UN General Assembly established the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, which should give further impetus to tree-planting efforts.
“UN Environment promotes the planting of trees as a key way to mitigate climate change and boost land-based biodiversity, 80 per cent of which is in forests,” says Tim Christophersen, head of UN Environment’s Freshwater, Land and Climate Branch, and Chair of the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration. “We are working with partners across the planet to boost tree planting for ecosystem restoration. There is scope for planting one trillion more trees, in addition to the 3 trillion that already exist on Earth. But it has to be done right; planting indigenous trees, supported by local communities, is a good way to go.”
Let the stones gather some moss
In those forest ecosystems, trees are not alone in cleaning the air. An ambitious project by Greencity Solutions in Berlin, Germany, seeks to marry high-tech applications with another natural air purifier: moss.
“The ability of certain moss cultures to filter pollutants such as particulate matter and nitrogen oxides from the air makes them ideal natural air purifiers,” says Greencity Solutions.
“But in cities, where air purification is a great challenge, mosses are barely able to survive due to their need for water and shade. This problem can be solved by connecting different mosses with fully automated water and nutrient provision based on unique Internet of things technology,” it explains.
Or by planting more trees that will provide the cover and humidity, that will help moss take hold and grow.
New study expected to chart Melaka’s pathway to urban sustainability
Within the framework of the ‘Sustainable City Development in Malaysia’ project, which seeks to address the country’s urban challenges and which is being implemented by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), executed by the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT), and supported by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the ‘Melaka Sustainability Outlook Diagnostic: Pathway to Urban Sustainability’ was launched today. The report is the result of an assessment performed by the World Bank’s Global Platform for Sustainable Cities (GPSC) in which Melaka actively participates. The study will inform the Melaka State’s Structure Plan and its long-term planning document; it will also offer key recommendations for the State to chart its own pathway to urban sustainability.
The diagnostic consists of an overview report containing a policy brief, an executive summary and a benchmark assessment as well as six supporting reports that cover each of the diagnostic’s dimensions, namely Reinforcing Melaka’s Economic Success; Integrating Environmental Plans; Enhancing Housing and Services; Shaping a Compact, Efficient, and Harmonious Urban Form; Shifting Melaka’s Mobility Modal Split; and Demonstrating Fiscal Sustainability.
One of the report’s recommendations calls for the State and the City of Melaka to obtain a credit rating; accordingly, both entities already agreed to undergo a formal rating assessment with UNIDO’s support. Depending on the assessment’ result, they could tap capital markets to finance future infrastructure projects. Moreover, another recommendation calls for the City of Melaka to complete a climate-smart capital investment plan for which the city indicated its willingness, with UNIDO coordinating local and national inputs to raise funds.
Being one of most urbanized countries in Asia, 75 percent of Malaysians reside in urban areas and over 90 percent of the national economic activities are conducted in cities. Rapid urbanization has created tremendous economic opportunities for the country, but has also put enormous pressure on its urban infrastructure and services.
Make Dhaka Walkable
When it comes to urban mobility, Global South cities suffer significant challenges such as lack of transport equity and poor accessibility for the urban poor. On the March of 25-28, 2019, the Share the Road Programme (a partnership between UN Environment and FIA Foundation) participated in a workshop dubbed ‘make Dhaka walkable’ held in Dhaka, Bangladesh, organized by the Sustainable Transport Equity Partnerships (STEPS) – a global alliance of researchers and practitioners including the Walk21 Foundation, UN Environment and the University of Leeds. The organizations are committed to identifying the essential steps decision makers and multi-disciplinary teams of experts must collectively take to meet the needs of people walking. STEPS aims to promote urban transport systems that can meet the travel needs of low income, city populations in the Global South.
Despite walking making up to 75% of all journeys, the conditions in which people walk in Dhaka are often unsafe and unpleasant. In order to highlight the needs of pedestrians in Dhaka, the meeting brought together engineers, planners, civil rights activists, NGOs, social scientists and many more for a real interdisciplinary perspective of the transferability of global walkability practices.
The opening workshop included representatives from Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority (DTCA), Road Transport and Highways Division, Ministry of Road Transport and Bridges, University of Asia Pacific and others to help push the local walking agenda forward.
One of the gaps identified through the STEPS programme is the severe inadequacies of non-motorized transport in transport policy in the Global South. The Share the Road programme shared knowledge on the experience of non-motorized transport in Nairobi -the small initiatives needed to make big differences, the need to have NMT users included in the planning of road construction projects, and the importance of securing a percentage in transport budgets. The vital and economic aspects of walkability projects cannot be ignored.
Having discussed the ‘eight steps to walkable Dhaka’ facilitated by Walk21, the workshop was brought to a close by Professor Jamilur Choudhury from University of Asia Pacific who gave some personal reflections on the development of transport policy and walking in the city, and stated his commitment to moving the walkability agenda forward locally.
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