Shanghai EXPO: Keeping Sustainability In Context

With less than a month to go to Shanghai EXPO, I have been receiving a number of requests for my opinion on the “sustainability” of the EXPO itself. It is a subject I addressed for the first time while speaking at a Net Impact event, and followed that up with a review of the UNEP report (part 1 and part 2) of the event, and most recently I was interviewed by NPR and following the recent JUCCCE event where a group of my students presented their work on managing EXPO pavilion waste streams. However as I have had several other media inquiries lately, and more time to spend thinking about the complexities of this question, I thought I would dedicate a post the highlighted some of the more important issues I have been considering.

But first, three BIG caveats that I think need to be put out there in order to properly frame my comments.

1) On a purely philosophical level, the question of whether or not Shanghai EXPO is sustainable is a false one, and would have to  by its very nature overlook the fact that there are an estimated 70 million visitor (140 million trips) who will journey to the EXPO site by all forms of “unsustainable” modes of transport, and a lot of resources upstream and downstream are going to be managed in a very unsustainable way.  Just like many other large scale events.

2) Any verdict on the sustainability of the event can really only take place after the event is over, and the tents have been taken down. That, while one can certainly look a the quality of pavilion design and construction through a sustainability lens, we have yet to see how these pavilions operate, how EXPO waste is managed, the usage rates of clean transportation will be, or what the real impact of pavilion removal will be.

3) That while there are certainly valid questions on how sustainable an EXPO can be with 50 of the multimillion dollar pavilions will be removed, it is also important to understand that the footprint (green and brown) of the EXPO itself will be far wider.  There are expected to be an additional half million visitor rides on the metro everyday, hundreds of hotels have been built, and regardless of how green the restaurants on the grounds are operated, these visitors are going to make their way into the city and enjoy other services as well.  Footprints that may or may not have the same level of greenness as those physically on site.

So, before I even get into the meat of the post – and my thoughts – it should be understood that no EXPO (or any large event) for that matter should even be expected to be sustainable, but in the case of Shanghai’s, things are a bit more interesting than before.

EXPO pavilions/ venues:
9 times out of 10, when being called for a comment on the sustainability of EXPO, it is really the sustainability of the pavilions themselves that I am being asked about.  That, given the fact that nearly all of the pavilions are being removed, that it somehow makes the event itself unsustainable.  And were one to only focus on the fact that Shanghai officials (and participating groups) are building upwards of 100 buildings whose effective lifespan will only be about 6-9 months.. then, one would be write to make a determination that this EXPO is not as advertised.  It is not sustainable.

But, this judgment can only be made under that assumption, and here are a couple thoughts that I believe hold merit for why this EXPO should be given some green credits:

1) The fact that these pavilions were always planned to be removed was well known by everyone going into the event. In fact, for many of the pavilions who are participating, they were faced not only with a strict set of parameters about building efficiencies, equipment, and operations to promote sustainability, many also took it upon themselves to develop designs and plan for materials that not only leverage sustainable architectural designs, but have been built with materials easily reused, and in some cases can be completely broken down and rebuilt at another location.

2) The educational impact of this event, pavilions included is going to be huge.  Given the fact that many of these buildings have been designed, sourced, and built using some of the most advanced technologies and practices, that this city is rolling out the largest fleet of hybrid taxis and buses ever seen, and the majority of power for the event is going to come from renewable energies, this event site will become the largest test site for all that is green when it comes to urban planning, building design, infrastructure, etc. Lessons that probably will be lost on the full 70 million, but with thousands of world leaders and architects expected to come to Shanghai for EXPO, they will be important lessons for many who are in a position to take these lessons and do something positive with them.

EXPO Operations/ Events:
For me, how well the operations of the site will be managed, and how the thousands of events hosted in the pavilions will be run, serves as the biggest question mark of all.  That, for all the planning that has gone into this event, it will only be after the energy bills are tallied and the trash taken out, that a full sense of the impact will be known.

One the one hand, you have some very big investments in energy, transportation, and water usage that have been put in to manage the site at its highest levels, and I have no doubt that EXPO officials did their best to calculate the various elements they needed to when developing investments in solar power, hybrid buses, and closed loop waste cycles. Planning that could quickly unwind should the wind not blow or the sun not come out.

Closer to the ground, it is highly possible that the events which are being run on a daily basis could wreak havoc on the green footprint of those pavilions should event managers on hand not plan their events with a “sustainable” lens. That, in their need for bottled water, prepared lunches, printouts/ brochures, and gift bags, event managers will share a significant portion of the footprint themselves as they drive traffic through their sites

The Extended EXPO Footprint:
Moving beyond the physical site of the EXPO itself, this is an event that will have (has had) a huge impact on the city Shanghai itself. An impact that has been both positive and negative, and is in many ways very difficult to measure given the complexity of measuring the impact of EXPO in a city like Shanghai, the investments that have been made to prepare for EXPO, and the fact that 70 million visitor are going to be taxing the city’s services for a period of 6+ months.

1) Hardware Investments for the Future
Were Shanghai a city like London whose economic growth and large city investments had largely been made and stabilized, then it would have been quite easy for any outsiders to peer into the city and see exactly what was an “EXPO” investment. However, in Shanghai, this is made difficult by the fact that for years the city has been apart of a development program that was moving industry out of the city, improving public works (particularly water), and working hard to improve the transport system that carries its residents. Investments that have been linked to EXPO, but ones that while I will agree have perhaps been given a bit more umph, I cannot clearly link to the EXPO itself.

Investments that I can clearly link to EXPO though are primarily in the form massive investments to beautify the buildings, parks, and streets of Shanghai, while at the same time increasing campaigns to improve its citizens. Some of these investments, particularly those that have improved common spaces, have been for me great additions to the city itself and have provided a refreshing new feel to the city that was once lacking, however this addition needs to be balanced against the fact that entire buildings have been painted with lethal paints and have been given seemingly needless face lifts (click here for before and after pictures of the Apollo building in Jing An park) all in the name of EXPO.

2) Software Investments for the Future
Getting beyond the buildings and roads, a lot of money is making its way into improving the software that runs the city as well. A city wide restaurant grading system, campaigns geared towards commuters, and tips on leading a sustainable lifestyle have been all been geared towards improving the way in which the city’s residents interact and operate within the city.  It is a process, and a package of messages, that will likely hit the vast majority of Shanghai’s residents (old and young), and will have a long term positive impact on the sustainability of the city as a result.

And let’s not forget the fact that all these good messages are one that city officials at ALL levels have had to consider, plan, and participate in… which, even if only partly integrated, will have further positive knock on effects as well.

3) 70 million people (140 million footprints) in Shanghai.
With 70 million visitors coming to Shanghai, the fact is that the footprint of this EXPO will largely be from the services that support these visitors off site. Hotels, restaurants, transportation, and so on that were largely left out of the EXPO regulation guidelines, but will in fact require a significant amount of coal fired energy, petroleum based gases, and massive amounts of other resources that the city ordinarily would not have needed. It is in fact perhaps the only area where I could clearly point the sustainability needle to the negative (at this point), as little has been done to really improve these off site systems outside of their new coat of paints and shiny new signs. A footprint only made larger by the fact that many of the city’s guerrilla recyclers have already been taken off the streets as well.

Some concluding remarks:
What is important to keep in mind when judging the sustainability of the EXPO, or for any large event for that matter, is that these events often impact the host cities in so many ways that it is impossible to take a clean read on their impact, and Shanghai is no different.  And that with nearly 8 months to go, it is premature to give a final verdict, a verdict that I know some are looking for right now. Or are at the very least looking to get a preliminary read on.

Going forward, I only hope that the event can be judged in a manner that considers some of the constraints, arguments, and angles that I highlighted above.  It is by no means an exhaustive list of things that should be considered, but it is a list of things that I have recently discussed with friends, reporters, and students, and I would welcome any additions to it in the comments below.

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