PARIS — In their quest for a sustainable urban future, city planners can learn a lot from history. And in Paris, that can mean just taking a moment to look around.
Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the driving force behind a drastic overhaul of the city beginning in the mid 19th century, made an enormous and lasting mark on the French capital. More than a century later, that legacy lives on not just as a reminder of the past. It also serves a toolkit from which to draw solutions for the future, according to the organizers of an exposition currently taking place at the Pavillon de l'Arsenal, in Paris' 4th arrondissement.
Density, diversity, connectivity, walkability, pooling, reversibility... The entire urbanism lingo that architects often try — and fail — to reinfuse into new neighborhoods, already exists in this city. And it has for quite some time. Some 60% of the buildings in Paris (about 57,000 buildings) were planned and erected between 1850 and 1914.
Paris is now one of the world's densest cities. And yet it has many characteristics of the modern-day sustainable city, one that doesn't use too much natural land, has energy-friendly buildings, and where people can easily get around on foot.
"We feel that Haussmannian neighborhoods work well and are pleasant to live in. We didn't exactly know why, so tried to explain it with this exposition," says engineer Franck Boutté, one of the show's commissioners.
The other two commissioners, Umberto Napolitano and Benoît Jallon, are architects of the post-modernist school, a background that didn't exactly predispose them to admiring the baron's work. But after looking at the Haussmann legacy up close and in detail, they came to appreciate many of the planner's signature elements.
Working more as scientists than historians, the three experts studied objective data by "counting" almost everything: the number of streets, street width, distance to a metro station, number of shops, block size, block width, empty spaces, facade length, etc. Thus dissected, buildings quickly reveal their secrets: They're narrow, built around courtyards, and therefore well-lit and well-ventilated. Semi-detached, they take up little space and keep each other warm.
Even social mixing, the Holy Grail of modern-day politicians and city planners, was once favored. True, class hierarchy was well understood by bourgeois families, but their domestic servants, accommodated in not-always-very-comfortable attic apartments, at least avoided spending hours in public transports. And the mixing was also functional, since shops were installed at the bottom of buildings from the origin.
A century later, the model has proved its worth and coped well with all sorts of changes: Residences were modified, separated and transformed into offices before returning to their original function, by means of adjustments made easier by the generous volumes they offer. The attic rooms are perfect for children, to accommodate friends, or as an extra source of income. Regrouped, these spaces offer the best views of the city and sometimes the possibility of adding a terrace. The fact that they were made of stone is also a huge asset. Not only does the value of the buildings keeps rising — as any real estate agent can tell you — but they've also proven to be sustainable, more so really than many modern constructions marketed as such.
Was all that planned from the beginning? "It's hard to say, but these few lessons should serve us for planning the city of tomorrow," says Franck Boutté. That could mean drawing inspiration from some principles that the basic modern city seems to have forgotten. "All telephone cables nowadays go through metro tunnels. It couldn't have been foreseen when they first dug the tunnels. We'd be wise when we build the infrastructures of Grand Paris, to save some empty space where we could develop functions that we can't foresee, by putting usage quality before pure and immediate profitability," the engineer says.
The big question is: What will they do with these findings? A group of some 20 architecture students were asked to look into the mass of data and use it to "hack" Paris, with the help of the developers from Enodo Games, who have modeled the French capital for their next game, "The Architect: Paris."
They recently presented their own version of a reinvented Paris. Is the city stuck in its evolution by too many constraints and lack of space? No problem: you can double it in height by using a Yona Friedman-like cylindrical megastructure. The Eiffel Tower finds itself in the middle of an island, surrounded by bridges that lead directly to the first story. A blanket covers the river Seine and links up the quays in line with the Jardin des Plantes.
The city becomes a place for agricultural production. The students lifted or flew over the city's outline. Some of their projects often keep it untouched and bypass the most significant buildings, like the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais. A mark of respect for an identity they acknowledge as an advantage, but most certainly because, more than a century after Haussmann, it still works.
Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.
It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.
More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.
But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:
Cleaner aviation fuel
The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.
While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.
Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.
In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.
Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.
High-flying ambitions for the sector
Hydrogen and electrification
Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.
One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.
Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.
New aircraft designs
Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.
International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.
The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.
Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airportcommons.wikimedia.org
Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.
The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.
Data privacy issues
However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.
Auckland Airport, New Zealand
The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?
At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.
Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.
40% of Swedes intend to travel less
According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.
At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.
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