Transforming cities and neighbourhoods toward a sustainable future

Why interdisciplinary collaboration is crucial to achieving zero-carbon goals in Canada and beyond

Canada Excellence Research Chair Ursula Eicker and Michael Bossert, manager of research innovation and business development at Next-Generation Cities Institute (NGCI), in front of the lab visualization wall used to develop the Gamified Urban Simulation Platform, a primary tool for the NGCI.

Photo: Ivona Bossert

Zero-carbon targets are difficult to hit in part because governments have limited authority and control over the biggest carbon producers: cities. Co-ordination and co-operation across these complex systems of buildings and infrastructure are necessary to meet ambitious zero-carbon goals. The challenge is identifying the required integrated actions—and bringing stakeholders together to take them.

Ursula Eicker, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Smart, Sustainable and Resilient Communities and Cities at Concordia University and co-founder of the Next-Generation Cities Institute, is exploring solutions to these challenges. Her work is investigating what contributes to a city’s carbon footprint, with the aim of giving stakeholders the tools and strategies to help transform their neighbourhoods and cities toward a sustainable future.

“Very often people work in silos: real estate developers care about their construction, urban planners look at transportation,” Eicker says. “But it’s important to keep sight of the big picture. We need to look at the interconnection of building and community design, and how that affects our mobility behaviour.”

A two-track strategy for integrated action

Eicker’s multiyear project blends theoretical and practical work to promote integrated action. This has included the development of modelling tools that can simulate the impacts of different factors (such as adding or removing a building) on a carbon footprint.

Similar tools exist, but this one integrates multiple modelling tools into a single platform to enable cross-sector simulations. This makes it possible to model the interactions between buildings, transportation systems, waste generation and other sectors to provide a fuller picture of the neighbourhood- or city-wide implications of action on carbon emissions.

Equally important are the strategies Eicker and her team are devising to achieve the interdisciplinary collaboration needed for city-wide transformation. This component keeps the project from being strictly theoretical—because, amid the current climate crisis, action can’t wait.

“We can spend another 10 years discussing and writing about the best indicators, but that won’t change anything,” Eicker says. “We need partnerships to get things done.”

The team’s simulation tools and strategies have already made a difference in Canada, helping minimize carbon emissions in Montreal’s Éco-quartier Lachine-Est, including sustainable development of industrial heritage projects on the Lachine Canal, and the revitalized Bridge-Bonaventure and Pointe-du-Moulin sector.

Global perspectives on climate action

A key principle of Eicker’s work is the need for interdisciplinary co-operation to achieve green, zero-carbon, inclusive and affordable cities. Similarly, as a global crisis, climate change will require collaboration and knowledge-sharing across countries and continents to reduce carbon emissions to sustainable levels.

Ursula Eicker (in yellow dress) with some of her students, as well as Concordia University engineering students, during a site visit to the Éco-quartier Lachine-Est project. Maja Vodanovic, mayor of Lachine, is in the red dress, far right.

Photo: CERC Archives

Eicker brings both facets to the project with a PhD in physics from Scotland, a background in building efficiency and renewable energy systems research in Germany, and industrial experience in France developing thin film solar modules. Her team is interdisciplinary, as well, comprising 50 predominantly international graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in engineering, computer science, natural sciences, economics and other social sciences, arts and humanities—all working toward an inclusive and universal approach to sustainable urban development.

For climate action, such diverse perspectives can help identify blind spots. In Canada’s case, Eicker was surprised by the country’s centralization of renewable energy infrastructure compared to Europe, where decentralization and a mix of solar and wind power is the norm. For example, electricity in several Canadian provinces is generated by hydro plants far away from urban centres, and solar photovoltaic systems remain rare. This bottlenecks capacity and prevents a resilient energy supply when combined with other factors, such as inefficient buildings in need of retrofits, and increasing electricity demand in the transportation sector.

Drawing on global lessons will help countries plan and build next-generation, zero-carbon cities. Cities like Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Barcelona have made major strides by relying on public or active mobility, introducing low-emission zones, integrating renewable energy systems, valourizing their waste and supporting ambitious building retrofit programs.

What does this mean for Canada? Significant changes to infrastructure, city design and citizen involvement are required, says Eicker.

“When we think about alternatives, we want to see more walkable, green, affordable and zero-emission neighbourhoods where the community is actively involved in the transformation process.”

Want to learn more?

To learn more about Ursula Eicker’s research, visit Concordia University’s Next-Generation Cities Institute