Looking for the wormhole towards affordable sustainable housing

Athanasios Votsis, Adriaan Perrels, and Tuukka Rautio

Weather and Climate Change Impact Research, Finnish Meteorological Institute



How do livable and sustainable cities look like in practice? How does one balance the economic, social and environmental goals of sustainable development, in the short- and long-term? What kinds of land use policy have the potential to steer urban development into affordable, socially balanced, and climate-friendly configurations? We are exploring these questions by taking an evidence-based

multidisciplinary approach, focusing on three dimensions: (1) state-of-the-art forecasting and simulation of urban evolution; (2) linking of the notion of urban commons with segregation and affordability policies; (3) interaction between energy management and land use planning.

Simulation of city growth and form

Smartland-project produces a toolbox for exploring sustainable urban futures of considered cities, by developing an urban simulation model that predicts how land use, the volume and composition of the building stock, and key housing market, sustainability and demographic indicators might be affected by land use policies (including residential energy planning), with special reference to improving urban sustainability while retaining housing affordability.

Current literature on sustainable cities notes a strategic need for tools that help planners evaluate whether ideas and hypothesized solutions about sustainable cities have the indented effects when applied in actuality [2,4], with urban form, urban growth, and the spatial arrangement of resources and activities being focal points [1,5]. State-of-the-art tools combine models of economic, land use, transport, and demographic dynamics and are capable of providing quantitative scenarios about the built environment at a few meters’ resolution and about socioeconomic parameters at postcode or building-block aggregations [3,6].

Smartland-project enhances this kind of applied urban research and increases its applicability to sustainable land use planning in three ways. Firstly, we adopt an approach that can model key urban parameters at the metropolitan, neighborhood, and building scales. Secondly, we incorporate theories about the maneuvering space of housing affordability and segregation interventions, aiming to identify pathways that resolve the sometimes-difficult demands and trade-offs of the above policy targets. Thirdly, we introduce a substantial climate change mitigation-adaptation component by modelling detailed residential energy consumption and mitigation strategies.

The toolbox starts with a real estate market model that forecasts the yearly average prices, total amount, and new construction of the main housing types of a considered city. Next, land use change and housing market models translate those forecasts into location-specific predictions of the price, 3D form and type of buildings, also describing neighborhood characteristics such as amount of green space. In parallel, we develop demographic (see section 2) and residential energy consumption components (see section 3). The forecasts are influenced, among others, by income and population trends or expectations and by active or future urban plans. With this approach we can assess the implications of land use policies for economic, social and environmental sustainability at multiple geographical scales.

Urban commons, segregation, and affordability

Smartland-project introduces the notion of ‘urban commons’ into policy-oriented research in housing affordability and residential segregation. We explore whether practices and policies surrounding urban commons can be integrated with land use policies in order to effectively and efficiently meet affordability and anti-segregation targets.

Current research shows that the socioeconomic dynamics enabled by urban commons play a significant role in sustainable urban transitions [7,8]. Examples of urban commons include amenities and shared spaces such as community gardens, parks, common areas of apartment buildings, but the notion deals heavily with how socioeconomic activity is organized around those spaces: for instance, their shared planning and management or caretaking, paid or volunteer labor, collective action, notions of safety or community, or on-demand/multiple uses of shared spaces. The concept has progressed beyond theory into operational urban planning and design principles [8] and tighter, quantitative integration with urban spatial research is possible based on state-of-the-art methods that explore social and economic dynamics at fine urban scales [9,10]. More down to earth, it means that city planners have to account more for those shared spaces and urban economists have to realize the trade-offs between private and public living space. It also means that the dwellers themselves can take more responsibility for those spaces.

In Smartland-project we aim to advance this line of research through a number of applied case studies around Finland. We produce quantitative information about how urban commons policies can interface with land use policies to increase the effectiveness and steering space of anti-segregation and housing affordability targets, while maintaining the supply of amenities.

We accomplish our aim by developing, firstly, a model that explores scenarios of demographic mix at the postcode and building block scales. This is a component of the tool described in section 1. Secondly, we develop quantitative indicators that track the links between segregation, affordability, and urban commons incentives and design principles, in the context of land use policy. Actual implementation of environmental sustainability may unintentionally promote gentrification, which in turn conflicts with social sustainability. This links with section 3 below: can one find resourcing models of improving sustainability of the housing stock without giving up on affordability? These methodologies are applied in selected Finnish cities, complemented by participatory field research, notably interviews and soft GIS.

Interaction in energy management and land use planning

This description, in which we present the key features of energy management that have an influence on land use and housing markets, highlights the need of coordination in planning for different sectors, if sustainable development, climate neutrality and affordable housing are key targets in cities.

We know that a sustainable and climate neutral city is fairly dense, while sufficient green space should be retained [18,11]. It is possible to develop a new neighborhood while achieving sustainability criteria and affordable housing. However, currently in big cities, the existing building stock faces challenges to be climate neutral. Renovation costs for existing buildings are notable and sometimes existing energy infrastructure does not support desired changes in energy management. The focusing of urban growth on existing city structure is motivated by densification targets rooted in sustainability criteria. If urban growth would significantly expand the built-up area, it risks increasing car use, or it would require expensive extension of public transportation systems. On the other hand, limiting urban growth may increase house prices. It is as yet unclear, how a well-managed balancing of a truly sustainable city and fair-priced housing looks like, when the city also has significant population growth. On top of that, in big cities transportation emissions are clearly higher per capita compared to medium or small size cities [11,16]. So, there are important differences if population growth is concentrated in a few cities or spread over many cities.

Currently energy systems are planned separately from sustainable land use planning and these are based on different models [12,15]. Currently there are no fully integrated models or planning practices [13]. If the physical structure and ownership of energy systems get more dispersed, planners should account more for the resourcing investments and operations in a multi-actor decision environment.

In Smartland-project we study the abovementioned dilemmas, based on the ability to describe the physical housing stock and socioeconomic development at the same time, as discussed in the preceding sections.

Finland will place demanding GHG reductions into action in the following decades. GHG reductions require already notable and radical changes in energy management in the built environment. Accomplishing these actions and changes require also approval from consumers at the same time, when growth of big cities cause pressure to house prices, which need important balancing solutions.

Key references

Simulation of city growth and form

[1] Echenique, M et al. (2012), Growing cities sustainably. Journal of the American Planning Association 78: 121–137.
[2] Geertman, S et al. (Eds.) (2013), Planning Support Systems for Sustainable Urban Development (Springer).
[3] Harvey, EP et al. (2019), Developing integrated models by coupling together existing models; land use, economics, demographics and transport in Wellington, New Zealand, Computers, Environment and Urban Systems 74: 100–113.
[4] Pelzer, P et al. (2014), The added value of planning support systems: a practitioner’s perspective. Computers, Environment and Urban Systems 48: 16–27.
[5] Votsis, A (2017), Planning for green infrastructure: the spatial effects of parks, forests, and fields on Helsinki’s apartment prices, Ecological Economics 132: 279–289.
[6] Votsis, A (2017). Utilizing a cellular automaton model to explore the influence of coastal flood adaptation strategies on Helsinki’s urbanization patterns. Computers, Environment and Urban Systems 64: 344–355.

Urban commons, segregation, and affordability

[7] Borch, C & Kornberger, M (Eds.) (2015), Urban Commons: Rethinking the City (Routledge).
[8] Foster, SR & Iaione, C (2019), Ostrom in the City: Design Principles and Practices for the Urban Commons. In Hudson, B et al. (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of the Study of the Commons (Routledge).
[9] Knaap et al. (2019), The Dynamics of Urban Neighborhoods: A Survey of Approaches for Modeling Socio-Spatial Structure, GIS & Quantitative Geography (in press).
[10] Votsis, A & Haavisto, R (2019), Urban DNA and sustainable cities: A multi-city comparison, Frontiers in Environmental Science: Land Use Dynamics 7(4): 1–15.

Interaction in energy management and land use planning

[11] Baiocchi, G et al (2015), A spatial typology of human settlements and their CO2 emissions in England, Global Environmental Change 34: 13–21.
[12] Cajot, S et al. (2017), Obstacles in energy planning at the urban scales, Sustainable Cities and Society 30: 223–236.
[13] Keirstead et al (2012), A review of urban energy system models: Approaches, challenges and opportunities, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 16: 3847– 3866.
[14] Minx et al (2013), Carbon footprints of cities and other human settlements in the UK, Environmental Research Letters 8: 35-39.
[15] Pasimeni, MR et al (2014), Scales, strategies and actions for effective energy planning: A review, Energy Policy 65: 165–174.
[16] Perrels, A (2008), Sustainable Mobility and Urbanity, in Perrels, A, Himanen, V, Lee-Gosselin, M (eds.), Building Blocks for Sustainable Transport – Obstacles, Trends, Solutions, 133-156 (Emerald)
[17] Späth, P & Rohracher, H (2015), Conflicting strategies towards sustainable heating at an urban junction of heat infrastructure and building standards, Energy Policy 78: 273–280.
[18] Weisz, H & Steinberger, KJ (2010), Reducing energy and material flows in cities, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 2: 185–192.