University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine
Photo of Nadine Ibrahim.
Photo by Khaled Elsharkawi

How to Build a Sustainable City

Can Toronto cut emissions by 80 per cent? If it’s up to Nadine Ibrahim, yes

As a structural engineer, Nadine Ibrahim (BASc 2000, MASc 2003) initially planned to build bridges – literally. Now she’s focused on building bridges of a different kind: bringing people together to create innovative solutions for climate change. This PhD candidate in the department of civil engineering is focused on strategies to help cities lower their carbon emissions.

When Ibrahim discovered that bridge construction and repair were not for her, she decided to look into environmental consulting and moved to Egypt, where she became involved in assessing the environmental and social impacts of The Grand Egyptian Museum, being built on a desert site on the outskirts of Cairo. “It’s an incredible project and incredible location; you can see the pyramids in the background,” she says.

Now back in Canada, she currently works with the Sustainable Infrastructure Group, a research team in the department of civil engineering. “We take a holistic approach, looking at social, cultural, environmental and economic sustainability for healthy communities,” she says. “While there are alliances of cities that follow a common approach, there is still no global approach to quantify greenhouse gas emissions and set strategies to reduce them. There is no process in place to ensure that targets will be met in the future.”

So, using Toronto as an example, she’s working on a model that shows how the city could build on data in its greenhouse gas inventory, budget and climate plan to make cost-effective decisions to meet its emissions targets of 30 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050.

“There’s no magic involved in achieving targets,” says Ibrahim. “Conservation and demand management are low cost strategies.” She cites London, a city that came up with successful policies such as more bike lanes and incentives for electric cars, as a good example.

And let’s not underestimate the power of youth, says Ibrahim, who has volunteered with organizations such as Engineers without Borders, Sprout/Ideas and TakingITGlobal, and mentored students at the university. “Young people think they know it all – and they do in their willingness and the driving force that they have,” she says. “Even older people should look up to that.”

What’s coming down the pipeline? “I’d like to work with a global organization such as the United Nations to improve living conditions in cities around the world – whether it’s in environment, health or education,” she says. “Engineering has taught me the fundamentals of problem-solving and I get to take that with me wherever I go.”

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  1. 4 Responses to “ How to Build a Sustainable City ”

  2. Barbara Falby says:

    Thank you for publishing such a hopeful article. I like to think that the U of T Magazine will publish at least one such article on climate change per issue ad infinitum.

  3. dean says:

    A great initiative by a powerful woman!

  4. Nadine says:

    Very nicely put Donna! Thanks for so eloquently shaping the story.

  5. DP says:

    My pleasure – and it’s easy when the story is so good