Our View on Sustainable Master Planning by Urban Matter

Our View on Sustainable Master Planning

Sustainable view by Urban Matter
Sustainable view by Urban Matter
We wrote this article in 2009 while researching trends in urban planning.

Everything seems to be green these days. And we are not just talking about a springtime. As F. Jodidio wrote in his recently published Green Architecture Now, “green is the name of the game”. “Sustainable” is everywhere from consumer products to professional talks, and urbanism is no exception. Sustainability has been an issue in urban planning for many years, but now it is top of the agenda.

It is remarkable how global environmental concerns have given an extra impulse to sustainable development. In many ways they have added complexity to the subject and have become a reason for heated discussions among urban planners. Nevertheless, nobody denies the significant role of a sustainable approach. Urban planning has actually evolved to a point where sustainable development is recognized as a key factor in controlling continuous urbanization. It attracts so much attention that it has the potential of becoming the next BIG IDEA in urbanism after Modernism.

What is important to remember is that “sustainable” has two interconnected meanings. On the one hand it signifies “sustainable planning” - adapting to future  conditions without compromising its vitality and quality, while on the other hand it also includes “green planning” - aiming to reduce levels of CO2 and a general improvement in ecological balance.


Sustainable planning, aiming at creating sustainable communities, has a history long enough to learn from its own mistakes. Evolved a few decades ago as a reaction to post-war rapid city expansion, it confronted the problems that it encountered. From the very beginning it focused mainly on understanding social, cultural and economic factors behind new developments and the way they change in time. It became an approach with long-term thinking and a vision for creating pleasant lasting environments where people could live and businesses could flourish.

One might argue that sustainable planning is common sense and has always been on the minds of urban planners. It is true, but it used to be taken for granted and, on many occasions, has failed. Hasty post-war urban planning with good intentions led to social exclusion and isolation, a waste of cultural resources, monofunctional development, and a loss of respect for regional character. While these problems are widely recognized, the planning models behind them are still deeply imprinted in the way development business is organized. Even today, many developments follow similar patterns, pursuing short term investment returns without seeing the bigger picture. In the continuing pace of urbanization, it is becoming a serious issue that keeps destroying social fabrics and bringing economic burdens on regions that are not easy to resolve.

Sustainable master planning is addressing these challenges with viable and equitable ideas on how to make places work. For example DIVERSITY is a model that supports mixed uses and social variety, and has been proven to be a vital model compared to post-war single use zoning. The decline of dirty industry and the emergence of the service economy nowadays allows for integration between employment and residential activities without harming residents. Added to which, the concept of diversity in line with New Urbanism thinking goes even further with its use of time and place: diversity of activities means that places remain active and in use for the most part of the day.

ADAPTIVITY is another example. It explores the possibility of an easy change of activities in the future without major investments. Principles like The City As Loft, as a place that requires minimum resources to change it to another function, are widely adopted by Dutch KCAP and applied in their master plan projects in London, Rotterdam and Hamburg. Adaptivity of a certain place can be envisioned and planned for the next phase of development. It can also serve as a flexible component that can accommodate a different function when social and economic situations change.

Getting LOCAL understanding of regional cultures and taking them into consideration when creating a meaningful modern IDENTITY are contextual components that give heart and soul to a sustainable development. It has been seen in many cases that without reaching out to local communities and understanding how they live and work, it is impossible to achieve lasting success. In cases where identity is connected to the local culture, the transformation into a new development is becoming a more natural and sustainable process. It is more of an evolutionary than a revolutionary model.

DENSITY is another important strategy in sustainable planning. Quality of public space and effective TRANSPORT solutions are among many other vital concepts extensively researched at Urban Matter for the Algarve Energy Park. All these ideas of sustainable master planning take into account shifts in market and social dynamics. Meanwhile, the original meaning of being sustainable in urban design is changing since the global environmental concern has become high on political agendas. It is getting a green edge.


Green planning is a relatively new movement that is not only high on political agendas, but recently has gone mainstream. General public awareness has never been greater since world figures like Al Gore with “An Inconvenient Truth” drew attention to the environmental issues. In the last decade the volume and quality of environmental legislation (international, national and local) has expanded hugely, and international agreements such as the Kyoto protocol have not only raised the profile of environmental change but also begun to drive a global policy switch. For urban planning it means the change from “nice to have” to “must have”.

From the inside, green urban design is largely propelled by green technologies and an understanding of ecology at micro and macro levels. Environmental sustainability issues like energy, water, green, waste, transportation and sustainable construction are matters of concern. SMART GRIDS for the cities, compact energy plants, RENEWABLE TECHNOLOGIES and intelligent transport solutions help to minimize impact on the environment.

The amount of green information recently is overwhelming and, to a certain extent, causes confusion. In the world of commercial real estate hardly any European development similar to the Algarve Energy Park is done without the requirements of being eco-friendly. In fact its absence is becoming equal to development   suicide. Trying to keep up with eco requirements, it is easy to get lost in an overflow of “greenformation”. How to navigate in the green  jungle of master planning and how to benchmark one green against another?

Making green MEASURABLE will help. When looking for the green references in urban design there are a few established assessment institutions like LEED and BREEAM that set higher standards and measure both site and building environmental performance. Both started in the 1990s and every year gain more ground internationally and in Europe accordingly. In 2009, in Europe alone, BREEAM has been responsible for over 110,000 projects certified, and over half a million registered for certification. The International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) has also adopted BREEAM as an assessment system for their retail portfolio. LEED, on the other hand, is increasing its international presence elsewhere in the world, becoming even more competitive outside its home base in the United States. The process will be even more interesting with Europe slowly moving to one  common regulatory system and a choice will be made between the assessment methods.

Making green MANAGEABLE is another solution. An actual environmental performance can only be achieved when it becomes a core value. Being on a wish-list of green enthusiasts is not enough. One of the keys to successful implementation of green is setting up objectives in the beginning of the project and evaluating them further in the process. This  requires comprehensive management. Mastering the sustainable agenda and considering it in economic decisions have to become everyday tasks of the  project management. Better understanding of the complexity of environmental relations also helps to make green manageable. This begs for a more integrated approach.

An integrated, or a HOLISTIC APPROACH as it is often called, is especially crucial in long term projects like urban planning. The consequences of the initial decisions have a lasting impact, and strongly  determine the eventual ecological performance. Though the work of urban designers has always been a creative synthesis, the vastness of the environmental themes today requires more integrated  thinking. From the early stages of the planning, urban designers, architects, ecologists, environmental engineers, traffic specialists and other specialists should look for smarter solutions for the benefits of our environment. This crossover thinking has already proved to be successful. Michael Braungart and William McDonough and their Cradle to Cradle message is the most well-known example of such cooperation. Even more important is that a holistic approach extends itself to include both green and sustainable planning.


At Urban Matter we believe that sustainable (as in sustainable communities) and green approaches cannot be seen separately. These two main strands of sustainable master planning are woven together and one is not sustainable or green without the other. If the  development is poorly planned and needs a major transformation in twenty years’ time, it is hard to call it green after all, however ecofriendly it might have been originally. The whole issue is really about the balance between nature with its resources and human activity. That makes a true sustainable approach an ethical approach. It puts the land into an ethical equation of individuals and groups and the way they evolve modes of cooperation.

True sustainable master planning, combining green and sustainable approaches, possesses the power of innovation and creative energy needed to meet the  urban challenges ahead. It connects global expertise with local experience. It works in social, cultural, economic and environmental dimensions to develop vital planning models perceptive to changes and with minimum impact on the environment. Urban Matter applies this approach to the Algarve Energy Park and aims to be an exemplary sustainable initiative.

Article data:

Research: Sustainable Master Planning - How Did It Become Green
Written by: Alexander Chemyakin
Article year: 2009
Photographs and images: Urban Matter
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