Roadmaps and crystal balls at City-zen

How can we guarantee that our cities will be future fit? The answer is that we can’t. Even trying to determine something as basic to daily life as the price of fuel beyond 2030, in the words of Hélène Poimboeuf, Grenoble’s Energy Transition Director, “is like looking into a crystal ball”.

The cities of Amsterdam and Grenoble, however, will not content themselves with palmistry. Through City-zen, each city is mapping that future, from ‘you are here’ to ‘X marks the spot’ and drawing a route between them. During a session at City-zen Days, both cities opened a window into how they are planning for the future.

Using the City-zen approach of gaining a firm understanding of the current situation and creating consensus among all interested parties as to the desired outcomes, these cities have created a guiding vision – for Amsterdam, the roadmap, for Grenoble, the masterplan – laying out the steps to a sustainable future.

Gas use off the Richter scale

Amsterdam can be sure of one thing, energy is going to hold major challenges in the future. The thirst for natural gas is already causing earthquakes in the north of the Netherlands, but there is no one energy solution that can replace it. If Amsterdam were to switch to biogas, confessed Andy van den Dobbelsteen, Professor of Climate Design & Sustainability at TU Delft, it would have to rely on the nation’s entire supply, leaving nothing for the other cities.

Feeling the burn of energy demand

For Grenoble anticipated success in waste reduction and circular economy is a double-edged sword – less waste production means that energy generation from incineration plants will decrease, as demand continues to rise. The building stock needs enormous amounts of heat to brave the alpine winter, and the local grid is not yet optimised for the potential of renewable energy.

Plotting a course to a zero-energy future

Despite these challenges, the two cities are determined to steer the course towards a future that works for everyone. “City planning” said van den Dobbelsteen, “is like driving: You have to make decisions early. By moving forward along the wrong route, you can end up a long way from your destination.”

Grenoble is searching hard to find energy alternatives. Given their lush situation, they are privileging wood supply. Rather than relying on regulatory obligation to change the habits of local businesses and power suppliers, Grenoble is giving them the opportunity to work together with the city to innovate for change, designing realistic targets by sector. Similarly for developers and citizens, the tactic has been to get everyone on board with the message, and cocreate the solutions.

For and with the people

Because of their participatory approach, Grenoble prioritises the social element, welcoming and informing residents through public meetings, information campaigns in schools and an online platform, ‘Métro Énergie’, that allows for transparency and dialogue.

In the face of uncertainty from experts, some of whom suggest that heating will be a moot point in modern insulated buildings, some of whom insist that it will remain an important factor, Grenoble assembled a panel of citizens which met over a period of three weeks to establish priorities.

Be the change

Reaching consensus in this manner is, however, a slow process, and Grenoble is jumping on opportunities that are immediately available. The city is seeking to be the change, installing banks of solar panels on its public buildings, and ensuring that new housing stock meets high standards for energy consumption, embodying the municipal principle of energy sobriety.

One size does not fit all

Even at city level, Grenoble recognises that there is no one size fits all solution. Their holistic approach breaks the region into concentric zones, each planned to privilege the most fitting energy sources. They are also reaching out to work together with neighbouring regions, capitalising on different strengths, such as potential for biogas production.

One of the cornerstones of their plan to reduce energy demand is improving their housing stock through building retrofit. Here, tested techniques can deliver quick payback. And renovation of over 40,000 homes is planned by 2030. They are also exploiting the geothermal power for heating, cooling and energy production.

Inner city pressure

Amsterdam is also tailoring solutions across their territory. The greatest difficulty lies in their historic inner city, where the pallet of options leaves much to be desired. Switching these historic buildings to green gas power would immediately use up the entire city’s supply, but a radical renovation to modernise energy standards would change the look of the city, making such a move basically out of the question.

The solution may be laying a new heat grid within the city’s canal network, connecting the houses from below the water. New power options like heat pumps could be disguised in boats docked along the piers.

In the suburbs, a densification of the housing stock could create greater efficiency, and, as the heritage question is less pervasive here, options like rooftop heat panels that store heat in underground energy reservoirs could be explored.

Freedom and limits

Despite a less bottom-up approach than Grenoble, Amsterdam has teamed with universities as a wellspring of innovation, and now has a sufficiently concrete set of options to begin consultation with citizens. Unlike Grenoble, Amsterdam’s solution will include regulatory measures. Creating the position of Energy Director for the city will mean appointing one person who can ensure that every agent is acting responsibly.

This will, however, be far from rule with an iron fist. Rather, the municipality will direct the overall system by outlining the policy for the city and wider region. This policy will set boundary conditions which leave different areas the flexibility to use their local knowledge in delivering appropriate implementation.

Mobility matters

Both cities are in a good position regarding sustainable mobility – Amsterdam with its famous cycle-mania and Grenoble with its tram network. But both remain intent to achieve more: Grenoble is focussing on behavioural change, creating online tools for car sharing and carpooling, while Amsterdam is contemplating building up parking on the ring roads and barring gas-guzzlers from the city.

Taking up the reins

Whether by bike or by tram, navigating the future will be tough for Amsterdam and Grenoble, and indeed for all European cities. There is an ongoing battle to broaden leverage and support, and to effect enormous increases in impact without going overbudget. Making these funds go further will involve new heights of cooperation with residents and the private sector.

The array of solutions on show during City-zen Days was, however, enough to make one feel hopeful. Harnessing alpine rivers to generate power for electric vehicles, heat homes and cool pharmaceuticals; building smart grids that communicate through an internet of things to lower peak demand and create more conscientious users; refurbishing homes to give residents greater comfort while reducing waste; innovation is rife, and the future is bright with ideas. One thing is for sure: Amsterdam and Grenoble are cities that have let crystal ball drop and taken up the reins.

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  • The Project

    A city operating entirely on clean energy. In theory, it's possible. But in real life? How to integrate new solutions in existing buildings, systems and people's lives? What are the technical, economic or social barriers? And how to overcome these? That's what we learn by doing in 20 projects in Grenoble and Amsterdam.

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    • 35,000 tonnes CO2 saved per year
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