News: Creating a smart and sustainable city – a look at Reading, Berkshire

Professor Tim Dixon, Chair in Sustainable Futures in the Built Environment, School of the Built Environment, University of Reading

Reading Berkshire

Reading town centre from the Abbey Ruins with a view of the Blade, Reading’s tallest building. Source: David Merrett:

The world’s growing urban population

We live in an urban world. Today a majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and this is set to grow to nearly 70% by 2050. In the UK we are already heavily urbanised with about 80% of the population living in cities. In England much of the future growth will come from existing smaller and medium sized urban areas like Reading.

So rapid urbanisation, changing demographics and climate change will all impact on the way that people live, work and play in cities. This means we need to plan for the future to try and overcome the current disconnection between short term planning horizons and longer term environmental change to 2050.

City visions

Many cities around the world have therefore developed visions (or shared expectations) about the future. In the UK, for example, Bristol’s 2020 vision, and its smart city vision, is based on ‘people, place and prosperity’, a desire to be a ‘Global Green Capital’, and an aspiration to be a centre for smart city thinking. In Canada, Vancouver aims to be the world’s greenest city by 2020, with tough targets set for greenhouse gas emissions and a desire to create a city which is resilient to climate change. In Denmark, Copenhagen’s vision is based on a target to be carbon-neutral by 2025, underpinned by a highly successful walking/cycling policy agenda and a strong focus on renewable energy.

These cities are planning to be both ‘smart’ and ‘sustainable’. This means using new technology (such as smart metering, environmental sensors, and smart traffic management systems) to help create a more sustainable future for people living in cities which is also economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. Creating a smart and sustainable city isn’t easy. It requires a clear strategic vision, a strong link with climate change strategy, active planning, inclusive participation with key stakeholders, and a sense of political viability.

So what about Reading?

Reading’s success is based on its physical and virtual connectivity nationally and internationally, but a big challenge is how to balance the amount of skilled employment required in Reading with the size of its direct labour force. Reading is a net importer of labour, which also creates pressures on housing, transport and longer commuting distances. A rich heritage and historic built environment also makes it difficult to re-engineer or retrofit an urban area like Reading, and adapt and mitigate for the growing effects of climate change. Reading also suffers from poor air quality, and, if accompanied by an increasing frequency of extreme weather events, this could affect people’s health and safety, the continuity of business, and the resilience of energy and water supplies.

So to help us think more strategically about these important issues in Reading the University has been working with Barton Willmore and Reading UK CIC to help create a smart and sustainable vision for Reading, looking ahead to 2050. Through a series of workshops and other related activities we have started to develop a vision for what Reading will look and feel like in 2050. Our thinking has covered urban design scenarios which encompass ‘rivers and parks’, ‘green technology’, and ‘festivals and cultures’ themes. By helping Reading continue to develop as a centre not only for green thinking and research, but also for digital technologies, Reading could also ultimately become an ‘urban living lab’ to help other cities become both smart and sustainable.

Research: Is climate change making groundwater supplies in Sub-Saharan Africa less reliable?

africa_waterOver 500 million people in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) depend upon groundwater supplies, and this is set to rise dramatically. Safe and reliable access to water for the rural poor is a critical factor when reducing the proportion of people living in extreme poverty. As the majority of poor people in Africa depend upon farming for their livelihoods, developing resilient agricultural water supplies is an essential first step.  Groundwater could provide a solution to this as there is the potential to tap into huge groundwater ‘reservoirs’ under the Sahel to provide water  (

Groundwater resources are considered to be more resilient to variations in rainwater levels compared to surface water, and may therefore provide an important water resource to help adapt to changing climate and land use. However growing evidence suggests that extended periods of low rainfall may cause groundwater supplies to fail, dependent on the underlying rocks in the area. It is therefore unclear whether the planned development of groundwater resources to meet increases in demand is feasible in all areas.

It is vital for the survival of rural communities to understand how well levels are being affected by climate change and how extraction of groundwater in one area affects other areas.  Over use of groundwater in one area (e.g., for irrigation) can trigger wide spread well failure in other areas.

The Walker Institute, University of Reading is leading a consortium which is working with practitioners and government in Ghana and Burkina Faso to understand where to drill, how deep and what well failure can be expected.

The BRAVE project will address this by incorporating the most up-to-date scientific knowledge within Earth System models to develop appropriate tools for water resource planning in the Volta River Basin of Burkina Faso and Ghana. These new groundwater planning tools will be piloted in eight communities, and their impact on the livelihoods of some of the poorest communities in the region will be evaluated.

The plan is to deveLorna_Younglop seasonal groundwater status reports which will be linked into the Rainwatch-AfClix Drought Early Warning System in Burkina Faso and Ghana.

Within the project, the Walker Institute is working with the Lorna Young Foundation to communicate early warning of drought/flood through radio broadcasts to reach remote farming communities.



Research: Gaps in the Indian monsoon make for tricky power balancing

renewable energyDemand for power in India is rising rapidly, driven by economic growth, rising prosperity, rapid urbanisation and growing demand for energy for cooling purposes. Some of this additional power need is being met by increasing investment in wind energy, particularly in the south and west of India. A recent analysis highlights important considerations for deploying  India’s expanding capacity in renewables in a more efficient manner to balance gaps in the annual advance of the Indian monsoon.

The seasonal cycle in India is dominated by the South Asian monsoon, a vast circulation pattern over the Indian Ocean and Indian sub-continent driven by intense heating from the Sun during northern hemisphere summer. The onset of the monsoon brings life-giving rains to support India’s population of over 1 billion people, but monsoon activity within any season system is irregular, and can be characterised into ‘active’ and ‘break’ periods. Active periods bring increased rainfall, stronger winds and lower temperatures for most of the country, while break periods are marked by reduced rainfall, higher temperatures and weaker winds. During the pre-monsoon season in 2015, for example, temperatures reached 47 °C in parts of India.

India powers up renewables
India’s total generating capacity has more than doubled since 1998, and wind power currently accounts for 8.4% of capacity: it is already the world’s fifth-largest wind energy producer, and is on target to meet 15% of its electricity requirements from renewables by 2020. “The problem arises because the higher temperatures in break periods increase power demand, mainly for air conditioning, while at the same time the production of wind energy is sharply reduced in the lighter winds which accompany break periods,” said Caroline Dunning from the University of Reading, the lead author on the recent paper in Environmental Research Letters (doi link). “The mis-match means that potential wind energy supplies are lowest, just when they are most needed.”

Current weather forecasts can provide only limited warning of an impending break, and little useful information as to its likely duration: this uncertainty forces India to retain secondary sources of power generation on short-term standby, without knowing in advance either when or for how long they will be required. Improvements in forecasting out to two weeks or more would bring significant environmental and economic benefits, as well as reducing uncertainty in day-to-day operational resource management, but are unlikely to be realised within the short term. Meanwhile, the occurrence of high temperatures during monsoon breaks has resulted in power outages in India in recent years, with both economic and social impacts.

An offshore solution?
Dunning and colleagues conclude that, “over-reliance on wind energy from southern India and along the western coast could lead to problems at times of high demand” and suggest that offshore wind turbines in the north-east Arabian Sea may reduce the imbalance, as that offshore region experiences increased wind speeds during break phases. A further complexity is the uncertain outlook projected for monsoon variability under future climate projections – as clearly any increase in the frequency or duration of monsoon breaks would exacerbate the situation further.

Dunning, C.M., Turner, A.G. and Brayshaw, D.J., 2015. The impact of monsoon intraseasonal variability on renewable power generation in India. Environ. Res. Lett., 10, 064002: doi:10.1088/1748-9326/10/6/064002 (Open Access)

Research: Mountains warming faster than previously thought

An Caucasus Mountains, Russiainternational team of scientists including Dr Maria Shahgedanova is calling for urgent action to monitor mountain regions after finding evidence that high elevations could be warming faster than previously thought.
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