Reprogramming Existing City Infrastructure for Sustainability

Across the world, innovative solutions to urban needs are emerging from new uses for existing structures and systems. Scott Burnham, who has created and directed design and urban initiatives in major cities worldwide, has written a recent article explaining some of the best projects that have been made lastly.  

One of them has been developed by engineers at the local University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) in Lima. For those living on the edges of Peru’s capital, access to clean drinking water is a problem. So, they decided to tackle the issue by making innovative use of two of the city’s more abundant resources: its humid air (which can reach 98 percent humidity), and the billboards that reach into it. They installed a humidity collector and water purifier into the top of one advertising structure in the village of Bujama, creating the UTEC Water Billboard. It can produce 96 liters of clean drinking water a day for local residents, which flows down a pipe to a tap at the base of the structure.

Seven thousand miles away, the residents of Umea, a city 300 miles north of Stockholm in Sweden, spend six months each year with little access to another  natural resource: sunlight. What the city does have, however, is plenty of buses and bus stops.  Local energy company, Umea Energi, saw an opportunity in the intersection of the need for sunlight and for shelter. It replaced the lights in the shells of 30 bus stops around the city with UV light therapy tubes powered by solar energy, transforming the bus stops into “therapy saloons…to give the people of Umea an extra energy boost when they needed it the most,” as the company says.  After the installation of the light therapy bulbs, the use of public buses in Umea increased by 50 percent.

Also, Burnham explains that time is a great decider of what stays and what disappears from the urban landscape. As technology and social behavior changes, so do the physical elements of the city. Phone booths and emergency call sites have given way to the mobile phone in which everyday objects are embedded with sensors and wifi-enabled.

In New York, a partnership between the City and two telecommunications companies, Cisco and City 24/7, has seen 250 phone boxes repurposed as information point touchscreens. The business model replaces advertising for coins: a person might tap on the screen to find the way to the nearest park, and also be alerted to a few offers from local shops and restaurants, which can be stored on their smartphone. The information points can also act as communication tools during emergencies. If this pilot is successful, all of the city’s 12,500 pay phones could be replaced.

 In Vienna, Telekom Austria has found another use for hundreds of its disused phone booths: converting them into electric car charging stations. Drivers have the option to pay from their phone via SMS text messaging.

Back in New York, numerous scaffolding structures can be left standing for years. Brooklyn designers Bland Hoke and Howard Chambers saw an opportunity to rethink these structures. The result was Softwalks, a kit of seats, benches, counter tops and planters that bolt onto existing scaffolding structures to transform them into spaces for social gatherings or personal relaxation.

 So, according to Burnham, cities are celebrated as terrains of infinite. But cities also face tough challenges: from population growth and congestion, to emissions targets and economic competition. As existing resources come under pressure, there will be rewards for innovators who can stretch their applications in new directions.

maria soler