PGCC Zero Emission Development (ZED): Reality or hype?

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The Penang Global City Centre project has been stalled after a concerted civil society campaign. We must never buy into a developer’s claims so easily without first critically questioning all the details and the evidence, says Concerned Penangite CLW.

The much-hyped-about Penang Global City Centre (PGCC) project is the crown jewel of the Northern Corridor Economic Region (NCER), which aims to boost economic growth of the northern states in Peninsular Malaysia. The project has been presented to the people with a string of ecologically friendly tags and ‘green’ promises. The latest “ecological selling point” to be imprinted on the PGCC proposal has been that of the Zero Emission Development (ZED). 

To some degree, the supposed ‘greenness’ of PGCC (a.k.a. PENZED), appears to have outshone the primary economic orientation of the project as well as the 40 towers of concrete, steel, bricks and glass, and the asphalt that would replace most of the existing turf club green. 

In the light of the multitude of environmental and social issues increasingly plaguing the State, we need to critically and constructively assess any proposed development of such significant economic and physical magnitudes for its potential environmental and social impacts.  What we need in Penang are more sustainable forms of development that strive to balance all social, environmental and economic needs for extra long-term benefits to all Penangites – not the short-term economic gains of a small group with long-term environmental and social detriments for society at large.

Some feel that the various eco-technological jargons used by the developer in promoting the  PGCC are more a decoy – to distract us from the fundamental ecological and social issues that the project potentially gives rise to and to fool us into accepting it for all its supposed ‘greenness’. 

The purpose of this article is to remind us not to lose sight of several important facts about PGCC that are certain to become hard realities if the project goes ahead the way it has been proposed.  It then briefly reviews the concept of ZED with reference to Bill Dunster Architects’ BedZED project and SkyZED proposal in the UK (see references below), highlighting how the idea of ‘ZED’ used in PENZED is fundamentally opposed to that used in the original BedZED and the proposed SkyZED. 

A more suitable location is then explored for PGCC (if the project must go on) that may potentially reduce its environmental and social impacts.  The article concludes by pointing out that we need to be more critical about the ‘carbon-neutral’ and ‘zero-emission’ claims in the PGCC proposal, particularly in the light of the still experimental nature of the ZED concept.  We must not buy so easily into all the developer’s claims without first critically questioning all the details and the evidence of the claimed effectiveness and, importantly, assessing all the likely side impacts. Some facts about PGCC (we must keep an eye on)

Before getting into more details about this so-called ZED (see below), let us first remind ourselves of the fundamental, undeniable, facts about PGCC:

The PGCC on the Penang Turf Club land entails the felling of mature trees along at least Scotland Road – an ecologically unsustainable act in the very first place.

High levels of traffic

The PGCC will generate high levels of traffic – we need to look at its traffic impact assessment (TIA) critically –  mostly of private cars that run on carbon-based fossil fuel and emit CO and other environmentally unfriendly pollutants. The necessity to widen Scotland Road, build/upgrade three traffic interchanges and connect to the PORR irrefutably attests to this.  On this alone (and we are not yet even considering the other socioeconomic impacts of increased traffic that are detrimental to society at large), the PGCC cannot possibly be carbon-neutral; we will notice that even in the original ZED development (see below) the architect has been careful to use only the term “near carbon-neutral” (see Dunster 2006, p.130; my emphasis).

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Irreversible loss of a green site

The PGCC will result in the irreversible loss of a green site that connects well with the central hill ridge of Penang Island with pristine rain forests. The existing Turf Club land offers a very rare opportunity to create a heavily wooded, forested park extending from the central ridge that will have extra long-term environmental, social and economic benefits. Losing this green site to 40-odd concrete towers will necessarily mean extra long-term environmental and socioeconomic dis-benefits, which will be virtually irreversible.

 

Violates key principles of sustainable development

The ambitious scale and turf-club location of PGCC are in the first place already breaching most, if not all, established principles of good and sustainable urban planning and urban design.  Key physical-spatial aspects of more sustainable urban development include:

•    densification of existing urban areas (through appropriate infill or redevelopment), especially along existing public transport corridors;
•    building on existing stocks of brown- or grey-field sites (thus avoiding encroachment on existing green sites and environmentally sensitive locations);
•    encouraging fine-grain mixed use development that includes a significant proportion of affordable homes;
•    promoting walkable, livable and high quality urban places that are of the human scale; promoting local and regional architecture that minimises the level of embodied energy in construction materials and the construction process (thus discouraging widespread high-rise developments that are normally energy intensive in construction, operation and maintenance). 

The proposed PGCC contradicts all these aspects in location, scale and physical form; it must take an unprecedented genius to transform the project so that it achieves its carbon-neutral sustainable development goal.

The proposed scale and location of the PGCC also contradict the general good principles of urban planning and design: the project does not respect the urban grain and character of surrounding developments and will be completely out of place and context with the background hills and surrounding neighbourhoods.  There are much better, ecologically lower-impact, socio-economically more suitable locations in the island for the project, which make the turf club location unacceptable.

We must not lose sight of the above – they are all facts.  We must press the developer and architects to address these facts first, before even getting into the planning and design details and all their technological jargon (wind tower, PENZED, carbon-neutral, etc.). 

We must demand that they justify and convince us about the rationale behind locating the  PGCC on the Turf Club land and the proposed urban form for PGCC, which looks more like an out-of-date Corbusierian, Modernist utopian master plan of the 1920s-1930s. 

They must explain why other much better, less environmentally sensitive locations in the island have not been considered and why the PGCC can’t take other physical forms that reflect less visually monotonous but more sustainable building massing and better urban design. 

They must demonstrate how they have considered other urban forms and why they take the proposed urban form as being more desirable than the others.  If they can’t do this or sidestep our demand, it can only mean that they have not been honest to us all this while. The public must be made aware of this. I dare not imagine the ugly solid wall that will emerge out of the juxtaposition of the 40 towers and the visual impact that will have on the island’s natural hilly backdrop. The project, if implemented as proposed, is a gross disrespect to the island’s natural setting and a disgrace to the government and the people who elected them.

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PGCC/PENZED vs Zero Emission Development

About PENZED, I presume the developer and architects’ use of the technological jargon is more for impressing, intimidating and/or silencing lay people.  We must, however, show them that we are a knowledgeable people who know no less than they.  We need to come together and when the majority of people begin doubting the whole idea intelligently, the developer and the politicians would also have to start worrying.

The people must persistently ask for proof and technical evidence to whatever environmentally benign claims that the developer and architects put forward.  This should make them think twice the next time they plan to use another jargon or new technology cover-up to deceive us. 

So let’s now talk about the technological aspects. ZED has been popularised by the British architect Bill Dunster through his BedZED (Beddington Zero Emission Development) project.  It is a noble project aimed at achieving the British government’s aims of providing sufficient, affordable housing in London and the rapidly developing south-east corner of England. 

The project is noble and innovative in that it tries to achieve a number of conflicting economic, social and environmental objectives – providing good quality affordable housing (social) that strives to meet carbon reduction targets (environmental) amidst rising construction costs (economic), particularly involving green designs that are non-conventional.  The whole idea is to build on existing stocks of brownfield sites without losing valuable green sites. 

The general built forms are averagely three-storey, back-to-back Victorian style terrace houses, each with an individual garden and climatically oriented to be energy efficient in terms of heating and cooling.  The building blocks are kept short (maximum six units in a row) to allow for higher permeability of pedestrian and bicycle networks.  Car parks are provided round the perimeter of the site and the artist impression of the project shows the use of compact, environmentally friendlier, SMART cars (which are expensive and rarely sighted in Malaysia). By now, we can see how diametrically different the original BedZED and PGCC’s PENZED are!

Bill Dunster Architects are experimenting with the SkyZED idea now (Dunster 2006), which I presume is the source of the (wrong) inspiration for PENZED.  SkyZED is a proposed mixed-use development in an inner city traffic island, near an underused Waterloo Line railway station, in Wandsworth, London. I emphasise: it is an inner-city traffic island near an existing public transport line, not on a peripheral green site with no public transport facilities whatsoever!.

SkyZED comprises two 35-storey aerodynamic blade structures standing atop a four-storey car-free office plinth, capped with communal roof garden with social facilities such as crèches and cafes (see Figure 1).  The complex houses 300 affordable one- and two-bedroom flats.  The two vertical blades are connected every six floors with communal enlarged lift lobbies incorporating communal herb gardens and shared play space for residents. 

The building has been designed to focus the prevailing wind on to building-integrated wind turbines that provide all the homes’ annual electrical requirements from renewable energy generated within the site’s boundaries. (Note that Penang is definitely not as windy as London so the use of wind turbines in Penang may not be as successful?).

So SkyZED provides 300 affordable homes with no loss of open space and at the same time creates a landmark green gateway as the urban focus to one of the most important approaches to London (see Dunster 2006, p.131). 

Again, SkyZED and PENZED are starkly different. Comparing SkyZED’s  two towers providing affordable homes in an inner city traffic island site with public transport connection at a location that provides a landmark for London with PGCC’s 40 towers on a green site without public transport facilities at a location that would spoil Penang’s natural hill backdrop is like comparing heaven with you-know-what.

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Interlude: An alternative site for PGCC (if it must go on)

Considering the opportunity to create a green landmark for George Town (as for London above), if as political necessity the PGCC must go on, the project would be better located along the Jelutong Expressway, the most important approach to George Town (from the airport, the Penang Bridge and the proposed second bridge).  Locating PGCC on a premium waterfront location (e.g. around the existing JKR site at the Sungai Pinang estuary) with high accessibility and potential for public transport links will provide a strong gateway to George Town and certainly boost the image of George Town as a premier 21st century waterfront city. 

Importantly, the reclaimed land also has lower environmental impact to build upon vis-a-vis the Turf Club land.  In fact, as an environmentally and socially responsible developer, it serves the developer (as well as the government) best that they opt to relocate the PGCC project to the waterfront and convert the Turf Club land into a forested State Park to offset the carbon footprint of the massive PGCC project. (Offsetting carbon footprints of “unavoidable” economic activities and development is becoming accepted worldwide as the least that can be done to be environmentally and socially responsible.)  This generous and ethical act of best practice in sustainable development will be marked gloriously in history for endless generations, for as long as heaven and earth exist!

Show us the evidence

Many new technologies are only experimental and sound good and workable in concept and logic. But there are many details and side effects which are not predictable that we need to consider.  The ‘precautionary principle’ of sustainable development necessitates that we only adopt technologies when we have enough evidence of their efficacy and minimal side impact.  I am not against new technology and development, but since we already have examples to learn from, we need to be more critical of the technologies available to us before adopting them in our specific context, especially those experimental ones. 

The developer and architects, under good and ethical design practice, are obliged to provide us with technical evidence of the efficacy of the proposed technologies, particularly its suitability to our geophysical context (e.g. reliable results from wind tunnel experiments, computer simulations, energy consumption modeling etc.). 

The public should be knowledgeable about this and should come together to pressure the developer to show proof of their various claims of environmental and social benefits.  Reluctance to provide evidence can only mean they either have no evidence or are just paying lip service to us.  Otherwise, there is nothing for them to hide from us.

For more details on ZED, please search the Internet for “BedZED”. 

Some good sites include:

http://www.peabody.org.uk/pages/GetPage.aspx?id=179 and

http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/communitiessummit/show_case_study.php/00035.html,

and Bill Dunster Architects’ site:

http://www.zedfactory.com/zedfactory_home.htm. 

For a review of problems besetting the BedZED project and how the developers are continuously learning to improve the development and futures ones, see: http://www.24dash.com/environment/14517.htm.  


Please also see: Dunster, B. (2006) ‘What is the ‘New Ordinary’?’, in Moor, M. and Rowland, J. (2006) (Eds.) Urban Design Futures. London: Routledge, pp.122-134.Figure 1: Impression of proposed SkyZED development.


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