One need only to look at the marvel of the Roman aqueducts to see that at one point in history, civil engineers had the balls to completely reshape the course of human history. Fast forward a couple millennia, and we have Great Britain’s Peter Head attempting to do the same. For seven years, the civil engineer led the planning and integrated urbanism team at fabled engineering group Arup. With more than 800 employees under Head’s wing, Arup became a world leader in sustainable urban planning and design. The global firm rolled out bold schemes for massive eco-cities such as China’s Dongtan Island project, and Head himself was championed in the media for his leadership in the new sustainable planning movement. In 2008, Time magazine deemed him an eco-hero while a British magazine said he was one of the fifty people in the world who may be able to save our planet.
But when the markets crashed and access to capital dried up, many of the truly revolutionary ideas put forth by Head were dropped or, as he would admit, only pieces of plans were completed. “They weren’t being implemented,” he says. “The plans were there, but [the clients] were just choosing little bits and not doing a profound integration. It is in the integration of these things that the real benefits come.” The Dongtan project, for one, was marred by corruption, politics, and contractors’ cold feet. Today, with one lone windmill and a handful of unimpressive apartment towers, it quickly has become the poster child for eco-cities gone bust. Which would be a civil engineer’s worst nightmare.
Civil engineers are trained problem solvers. It’s in their DNA. When asked by the Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE) to present how our planet can sustain nine billion people by the year 2050, Head realized the world needed to radically rethink planning models, and we needed to move at a much greater speed of implementation. As Head often demonstrates in his presentations, for China to continue with its present model of growth, it will require a land area roughly twice the size of France, annually, in order to sustain itself. Head says China’s leaders have finally realized this is simply not possible.
It was at a Climate Exchange conference in China in 2010 when Head was confronting leaders about the need to move forward that an audience participant challenged him: if Head had the resources, what would he do? “And I said I would get the top scientists, top business people, top financiers in the world together and persuade them to show that it is possible to do things differently,” he says. “Because we know it is possible. You just have to go and demonstrate it.”
The audience member responded that if Winston Churchill won the Second World War with less than fifteen key players, why couldn’t Head do what he proposed? Head remembers mulling the challenge. “I went home and talked to my wife,” he says. “I thought I should be able to make a difference or at least try. I’ve got three grandchildren, and I can’t bear the thought of them having to go through a terrible outcome in their lives.”
In an audacious move, Head resigned his leadership role at Arup and founded a charitable trust he named The Ecological Sequestration Trust (TEST) that he hopes just might be the vehicle the world needs to move to a different model of sustainable planning. “It isn’t possible in the private sector, but it also isn’t possible to do it in the public sector,” Head says, “so I’m going to step into the middle with some money to actually help people find that profound change.”
The plan of the trust is to implement closed-loop system planning in three cities in three different regions of the world: Kigali, Rwanda; Surat, India; and Chongming Island, China. Chongming Island is adjacent to Shanghai—Dongtan is on its southern tip. In late August 2012, TEST signed a memo of understanding with the Chinese government to consult on the Chongming Island project. Head is back on the island and has even greater plans for its future. Head’s closed-loop eco-design system is inspired by nature, which allows for resources to be continuously replenished and reused. As an example, Head shows how carbon dioxide emissions from a coal plant can be converted into biomass with byproducts of the biomass being further broken down to form organic chemicals and fuel products, making carbon dioxide a useful economic resource rather than a deadly byproduct.
Head’s fearless foray into economics on the one hand seems anathema to our compartmentalized way of solving design problems; on the other hand, it makes sense. Why shouldn’t civil engineers be leaders in helping communities build infrastructure systems that will help them allocate their scarce resources? Head has said that never in the history of the world have we been able to monitor how infrastructure and planning impact economic growth and human development—until now.
Using monitoring technology, he wants the three test cities with their layers of closed-loop planning to create an accessible pool of knowledge for others to use. They are to be examples of how comprehensive closed-loop systems are sustainable and can be the engines for much needed economic growth.
Is this all too Quixotic? Will Head’s plans be discarded on the vast heap of previous failed utopic civic planning? Head himself realizes he is fighting a messaging war of sorts. “I get a lot more reaction from people when I say, ‘Sustainability is all about waste reduction: waste of money, waste of materials, waste of people’s lives and time,’” he says. “That tends to get people quite motivated.”
One wonders if the revolutionary work in any of his three test cities will come to fruition. Is he being played by savvy governments who recognize the public relations value of having someone of Peter Head’s stature on their team? Or will his efforts actually reshape history?
Here’s to you Peter Head, a true leader in green design. You may be one of the 50 people who do save the planet—that is, if anyone gives a damn.