EducationEnergy & EnvironmentEnvironmentInfrastructure

Sustainable cities: Frank J Convery

Professor Frank J. Convery, Heritage Trust Professor of Environmental Policy at University College Dublin, reflects on sustainability-related issues during a recent stay in Boston and on universities as agents for change.


In scale, atmosphere, demography and sociability, Boston reminds one of Dublin. Irish names everywhere; the Irish national colour everywhere, as the green-attired basketball team – the Boston Celtics – were in the play-offs, and the grass and trees in the Public Gardens and Boston Common were in full growth. And the same Irish fatalism about the weather and sports success exists: if the weather is good, enjoy it because it will change; if it’s bad, it may be an omen for worse to come.

As regards sports, notwithstanding recent successes, Babe Ruth’s departure in 1908 to the Yankees still casts a long shadow and inhibits undue optimism. It’s a sports- mad town, with pain from the close loss of their American football team – the Patriots – in the Super Bowl being eased by the success of the Celtics in basketball, and the on-again-off-again Red Sox. It all reminds one how positive for the environment great sport is – huge engagement and enjoyment, with relative little environmental pressure ensuing.

Boston has the greatest concentration of students anywhere in the world; if you’re over 50, you are a definite outlier. I was staying in an area called Back Bay, which was reclaimed in the 19th Century and became the fashionable quarter for the rising merchant class that emerged after the Civil War. It is vaguely reminiscent of Ballsbridge in Dublin.

Some differences, however, are notable. In Boston, they have finally completed their ‘big dig’, which was a huge and seemingly never-ending project that involved tunnelling under the Charles river, sinking motorways below ground at a cost that ran many billions of dollars over budget and for which the citizenry will be paying for years to make up the deficit. The lessons learned from this experience include the fact that digging major holes in the ground under water is inherently expensive and risky in terms of cost, and the surprises seem always to be cost-increasing ones.

The good news is that the tunnel now works; the city landscape has been adorned, and tolling is electronic so traffic mostly flows smoothly. There are lessons for us as we begin our own ‘big dig’ in Dublin with Metro North.

Another difference is the existence of an underground – the T – which is functional, inexpensive to use and fully integrated with the bus system. A monthly swipe ‘Charlie card’ costs $59 (€38), and gave me hassle free access to all services. A city that takes tourism seriously works hard to minimise the transaction costs of getting around. Boston does so; we in Dublin do not.The T is linked to a bus line–the Silver Line – which I used a number of times; it goes on a dedicated roadway to the airport, and is fully integrated into the metro in the sense of being on all the maps, having no fare distinctions or special entry points. It presumably is cheaper than building a rail line; in the context of our own metro plans, it would be useful to do a cost benefit and customer satisfaction analysis. I am a great fan and frequent user of the buses using the N11 dedicated bus corridor in Dublin, and would like to see such corridors get parity of esteem in both analysis of choices and investment decisions. As the price of petrol tipped over the $4 per gallon (€0.65 per litre) threshold, hysteria was in the air: GM has closed three SUV manufacturing plants; the second-hand market for ‘gas guzzlers’ has collapsed; consumption is falling, and ridership on the T is up 10 per cent. It looks like growing demand in China and the pressure this is putting on oil prices may finally break the American love affair with big cars.

There are two buildings that dominate the landscape in Boston: the Prudential, an ugly and undistinguished 1960s edifice, not unlike Liberty Hall but much higher, and the Hancock Building, a much more recent I.M. Pei-designed edifice of beauty and distinction. Both were within sight of my apartment in Back Bay. In the context of Dublin, my instinct has been that we should confine very high-rise buildings to specific zones like the Docklands, and retain an atmosphere of intimacy and modest scale. However, the Hancock makes a case that if – and only if – a building of real distinction is added to the city landscape, then it provides an icon of beauty that – at least as I experienced it as a resident living about five blocks away – need not destroy the coherence and feel of the neighbourhood. As regards the Prudential, its main addition to the enjoy ability for the visitor is a viewing platform – Skywalk – on the 50th floor, which is the best such experience I have had: the vistas over the city, river and harbour are beautiful and very well interpreted, and the inner walls are used to tell the fascinating experience of emigrants to Boston over the centuries. If we decide to allow a city centre tower, let’s ensure that it’s of great quality and that the opportunity to provide a bird’s- eye viewing space and very well interpreted visual tour is taken.

The American Revolution was conceived, initiated and its first battles took place in Boston and environs. The people, places and events associated with this are captured by traversing on foot the Freedom Trail. This is a twin line of red bricks built into the footpath, which links for the visitor all the key historic buildings and events that explain the creation of the modern United States. It is eminently walkable in two hours; one encounters lovely and well-interpreted buildings and great food along the way in Faneuil Hall and the North End, where the Italian culinary tradition remains strong. One also encounters on the route the Irish Famine Memorial, which tells the story of progress from the destitution and isolation of the 1840s to the prosperity and integration of today’s Irish Americans. Getting this piece of ethnic propaganda inserted into the most exclusive and iconic path in America was a brilliant piece of orchestration – no other group gets this positioning or profile. Is there scope for such an iconic trail in Dublin, either literary or historical or both? It represents tourism at its best and least demanding in terms of environmental impact.

Finally, there is the use of water – the river and the sea – to set the city in its natural context. MIT faces the Charles River, with a wonderful esplanade that makes it both beautiful to look at and to enjoy for running, relaxing, dining. The Kennedy Library and Museum is a beautiful I.M. Pei-designed building looking out on the harbour, which again makes the connection with the sea in a visually arresting fashion. And, of course, for Irish people of a certain age, the stories in the Library itself bring back powerful memories of when all seemed possible. Although we have made important progress in both Limerick and Dublin to rediscover the joys of the river and the sea, the Boston achievement sets a benchmark for us for the future.

The universities

For Europeans, it is striking that adjacent US universities generally provide mutual access to their courses for both undergraduates and post-graduates, the only requirement being that the student has the prerequisites to take the course, and there is space in the class. This allows comparative advantage to work, and gives the best students access to the best minds in the city region in question. For this to work, universities need to have approximately the same t
erm times, similar grading schemes, and a willingness to recognise that, while there may be short-term costs, all can benefit in the longer run. And they do.

In Europe, by contrast, while there are occasional ad hoc collaborative arrangements – which owe more to personal interactions than institutional commitment – we struggle to create flexibility of courses even within our universities. There are many reasons why European universities struggle to get into the top 25 universities in the world: lack of money, associated with unwillingness by alumni and the private sector to provide major endowment support; oppressive control by government; schedules and examination practices that differ so radically that effective linkage is impossible; incestuous hiring practices owing more to nationality and inheritance than merit; tenurial and financial arrangements that make it difficult to reward excellence and discourage the converse; language barriers that inhibit mobility and thereby meritocracy. There are three independent efforts to rank universities globally: Times Higher Education QS World University Ranking (UK), Shanghai Jiao University (China) and the National Research Council CYBERmetrics (Spain).

The following eight universities appear in all three lists: Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley, Columbia, Chicago, Cornell, Pennsylvania and Stanford. All are American, and all – except for UC Berkeley – are private. The US universities dominate all three lists.

From the perspective of addressing key sustainability issues of energy, climate change and environment, the data from these surveys are very encouraging, in the sense that we have strong programmes and leading scholars in at least five of the top eight universities: Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley, Columbia and Stanford, to which we should add Cambridge and Oxford, as they rank in the top 10 of both the Times Higher Education and Shanghai Jiao rankings and perhaps also in the others at the top level, while we are also very well represented in the next levels.

It could be argued that the performance of universities in Europe is weak because most of them are mainly teaching institutions, with the bulk of national research being undertaken in Research Institutes, so the European positioning overall may be understated. This may be true, but I note that the National Institutes for Health (NIH) where much health research in undertaken in the US had a budget for 2007 of $28.6 billion, so it cannot be presumed that the ‘outside university’ research in the US is negligible.

Some conclusions and implications

As long as the US continues to host the world’s leading universities, which are the major engines for innovation and new enterprise, it will remain a powerful force in the global economy, notwithstanding the emergence of ‘the Asian century’ and the inevitable shift of the planet’s economic centre of gravity towards the East. The evidence we have means we have to be less sanguine in Europe about our future. Unless there is a step change in performance by our universities, while we will all be lifted by the rising tide of US innovation and Asian dynamism, Europe’s relative position will deteriorate.

There are a few positive omens. In Germany, the costs and trauma of reunion are reaching an end, and it seems likely that policy will turn to rediscovering the intellectual leadership that made it the leading source in the world of innovation and scholarship a century ago. France, likewise, is beginning to recover ground lost over the past 50 years. On a per capita basis, the universities in Scandinavian countries perform better than anywhere else in Europe and so our European North may well provide the real leadership if the performance of the major countries does not live up to their promise. All of this is directly related to sustainability. Unless we achieve de- carbonisation of the global economy, the consequences are highly uncertain, but probably not good. Addressing this challenge will require new technologies that reduce the costs to a reasonable level. It will be the supreme irony if Europe sets the policy stage for new technologies to prosper, but then the US comes through and captures the benefits in the form of new business.

One lesson from Boston is that it is performance not titles that matter. Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) has no ‘university’ in its title, but it is a world leader.

In Ireland, we have only supported research and innovation as a national priority since about 1990, so we lag behind both in Europe and globally. However, the trajectory is positive, with movement up the rankings, albeit from a very low base. To continue our progress, we will need a step change in funding and organisation, with the focus on areas where we have comparative advantage. In UCD we have decided, under the aegis of the prospective Earth Institute, to make environment and energy a major focus of our research, development and innovation strategy, linked to our teaching and our graduate training. We already have world-class scholars doing work in a variety of relevant areas. They need to be supported in deepening and expanding their work, and the links and synergies between research groups need to be facilitated and encouraged, so that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. To fulfil our ambitions, we will need to link to complementary research clusters at other universities in Ireland and globally, wherever scarce talent is to be found.

I have a dream that, 50 years from now, Dublin will be Europe’s Boston, hosting world-class universities; a place renowned for its vibrant intellectual and social life; recognised as a global leader in a variety of fields, but – in particular – showing the way as regards making our planet a congenial place for our posterity.

Profile: Frank Convery

Professor Frank Convery is Chairman of Comhar, Ireland’s Sustainable Development Council and is Heritage Trust Professor of Environmental Studies at University College, Dublin. He was formerly Research Professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute, and has also worked in the USA. Frank is active on a number of EU wide investigations and bodies, including membership of the Science Committee of the European Environment Agency. He has written widely on resource and environmental issues.

Show More
Back to top button

eolas Magazine newsletter subscription

The eolas magazine digital edition is released each month – keeping you up to date with the latest political, public affairs and business developments. Subscribers will also receive announcements on upcoming conferences.