MalmÖ, sweden, on the north Sea was a center of shipbuilding for hundreds of years. Then, in the 1990s, the entire industry went to Korea. The region lost 40,000 jobs, and the Western Harbor area was a massive, abandoned brownfield. Faced with the need to reinvent itself, the city leaders chose to embrace the opportunity to do something bold.

“They decided to become the city of the future,” says Patricia Chase, a Seattle-based sustainability consultant who leads tours to Malmö and its neighbor across the water, Copenhagen, Denmark, to show builders, architects, developers, and urban planners what can be done.

“They've tried to make it a real attractive place, so people would go there because it was attractive, not because it was cheap,” says Chase.

Today, Malmö is a thriving example of sustainable development. A university campus is home to 20,000 students. At the heart of the city is the iconic Turning Torso, the tallest (623 feet) residential building in Northern Europe. The mixed-use, 54-story tower designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava runs completely on renewable energy.

A district energy system captures heat generated by electric power stations and industrial processes to provide hot water and space heating to thousands of homes and offices. Throughout the city, stormwater is channeled at surface level, creating extensive water features, instead of through underground pipes. Buildings in Malmö, home to the International Green Roof Institute, make extensive use of the technology, which reduces stormwater runoff by as much as half and cuts energy costs, noise, and the urban “heat island” effect. Plus, it prolongs roof life by shielding the roof membrane from ultraviolet rays and thermal shock.

ROOFTOP GREENERY: Green roofs are widely used in Malmö and at Germany's Freiburg-Vauban redevelopment project (left). The roofs improve insulation, reduce noise and heat, and clean pollutants from the air.
ROOFTOP GREENERY: Green roofs are widely used in Malmö and at Germany's Freiburg-Vauban redevelopment project (left). The roofs improve insulation, reduce noise and heat, and clean pollutants from the air.

Seattle-based architect Bill Kreager of Mithun recently returned from one of Chase's tours and says that what he saw in Malmö could be a model for a renewed New Orleans.

“They've done a wonderfully sustainable site plan,” he says. “There's some pretty high-density stuff, but it's very much in the European tradition of walkability. ... They had the benefit of starting with ground zero, had government subsidies, and they allowed independent builders and architects to come in and develop. It's not a massive Swedish housing project.”

The city of Freiburg, Germany, found a solution to a serious housing shortage with the purchase of the Urban District of Freiburg-Vauban, where a French army barracks had stood for more than half a century. Freiburg-Vauban is now home to about 4,500 people, says Carsten Sperling with Forum Vauban, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) created as the official body for citizen participation in municipal affairs.

The project's master plan included specifications on building heights, standards for low-energy use and consumption, the greening of façades and roofs, rainwater infiltration, and the general structure of the site.

Carbon dioxide emissions have been cut by 60 percent; the savings is the result of insulation, solar power, and a co-generation plant. Like Malmö, the use of green roofs is common at Freiburg-Vauban to help control stormwater runoff, increase energy efficiency, and reduce noise. Traffic congestion has been reduced through good public transportation and a car-sharing system. Currently, 35 percent of the residents live without motorized vehicles.

The establishment of about 40 co-housing groups has enabled low-income families to become homeowners. More than 1,200 of the current residents live in co-housing, which are condo-type buildings with large, communal spaces for dining, cooking, laundry, and recreation.

Builders in high-cost U.S. markets might be interested in a single statement in Freiburg-Vauban's application to the U.N.-Habitat's Dubai International Award for Best Practices: “In Germany at least, it should not be necessary any longer to convert virgin land for housing purposes.”

Says Sperling: “It's a big topic in the German sustainability debate because urban sprawl causes more traffic, higher infrastructure costs, and single houses usually are less energy efficient.”

The official position of the government's sustainability council is that daily growth of new residential, commercial, and traffic areas—which is about 100 hectares (247 acres) a day—should be limited to 30 hectares (74 acres) by the year 2030. Environmental NGOs assert that this could be accomplished completely through converting brownfields, which in Germany are mostly old industrial sites, former military bases, and sites owned by German Rail.

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