Geneva steps onto the stage as an urban laboratory for ecological change

"Urban Gardens", transition project in Geneva (Credit: Jean-Jacques Kissling)

Greater Geneva as a laboratory for greener future cities - that was the vision realized by the Fondation Braillard Architectes (FBA), in its first-ever international workshop for architects and urban planners from Switzerland, featuring tactics and tools to decarbonize cities. The two-week Transition Workshop 2020, which concluded on Friday, aims to train agents of change to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050, using living examples from cities’ landscapes.

Why is it important ? Unsustainable urbanization is one of the biggest drivers of energy consumption, CO2 emissions, and thus climate change. Well-designed and managed cities are thus an imperative. Under the aegis of the United Nations Environment Programme, which also has a major office in Geneva, FBA launched The Eco-Century Project to examine relationships between spatial design and the planetary resources. The workshop was a test for a new, and bigger educational framework that FBA envisions, to be led by a new generation of urban architects, designers and decision makers. The City of Geneva, the Canton of Geneva, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), the Liechtenchtein Institute for Strategic Development, Bureau Haus and Services Industriels de Genève (SIG) all partnered in the project.

Panos Mantziaras, Director of the FBA, a Swiss non-profit, and workshop founder:

“The ecological transition is now. A new generation of motivated and trained professionals will act as a collective agent of change, to support and inspire the movement towards sustainable development of places, communities, cities and regions. It is imperative to develop a new cycle of knowledge and know-how to create and accelerate the projects of the ecological transition. Cities and territories need to develop a new negative-emissions project in terms of space, society and aesthetics, as a global and local existential challenge.”

The workshop three aims include: Raising awareness, transmitting design tools and empowering a new generation:

  • Raising awareness in sustainable architecture, urbanism and landscape architecture;

  • Fostering and transmiting design tools and methods for resilient buildings, cities and regions. Mantziaras says his most immediate aim is to:

“Provide the Canton de Genève with ideas and a tool box to help them implement ecological design strategies as co-decision maker in the greater region both in global and local terms and be in a better position to advise the private sector, the real builders of Geneva.”

  • Empowering a new generation of spatial designers (practitioners, public administrators, decision makers) with interdisciplinary capacities to build, rehabilitate, preserve, and reuse whilst protecting the environment. Mantziaras:

“What is being taught in schools of architecture is 95% , if not more, “business as usual”. Students coming out of those schools still use concrete, steel, glass and they don’t have arguments to put their transitional ideas forward.”

Credit: © Fondation Braillard Architectes

Keynote speakers. High level participants with expertise in different fields led lectures and workshops. These included the famous Swiss philosopher and environmentalist Dominique Bourg; president of the Global Footprint Network Matthis Wackernagel; dean of the EPFL’s School of Architecture, Claudia Binder; and architects and planners such as Paola Viganò and Stefano Boeri. Mantziaras:

“The ecological transition is a very complex issue. We are modestly trying to create something that does not exist at the moment: the genetic material for a school of transition.”

New and practical solutions. The sixteen participants-half pf them architects and designers and half from other disciplines like engineering, anthropology, sociology, economy- devised proposals to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050. Mantziaras:

“Each person creates on average 10 tons of carbon every year in Geneva. The objective is to reduce our overall activity to one ton, lowering our impact on environment by 90%. The idea of the workshop is to invent steps that will slowly, but surely, bring the whole of society to work in that direction. We are laying the foundations for a triple zero reduction: zero emissions, zero energy, zero waste for the construction where it is absolutely not implemented.”

The participants also devised scenarios for the sustainable redevelopment and densification of Les Marronniers neighborhood in Grand-Saconnex. The new development, still in its early design phase, is to include a hundred more apartments for about 250 inhabitants, as well as public amenities and green spaces.

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Participants examining an urban project on site In Geneva. (Credit: Jean-Jacques Kissling)

Greater Geneva, the perfect setting. Not only the city itself, but the greater metropolitan region, nestled between the Alps, the Jura Mounains, and around Lake Leman, is an ideal setting for the study of environmental urban action, the FBA organizers assert. It’s carbon footprint has remained stable despite population growth. Expanding public transport infrastructures, such as the new CEVA line linking the Geneve metropolitan area directly with French communities around the lake, provides enhanced opportunities to accelerate green mobility. And the presence of international organizations enhances the human resources of the region. Broader ecological issues such as glacier melt and sustainable water resource development are uppermost in the minds of authorities in a region where water resources depend heavily on Alpine snowmelt.