Reinvent Cities to Stop Climate Change

My professional training as a city planner is without a doubt part of the reason this topic idea caught my eye, but the consensus that about 70-80% of current carbon emissions are linked to cities is what convinced me to share this with the rest of you.

It is not a big surprise that cities are so linked to climate change pollution. Over 50% of the global population live in cities now — up from 3% in 1800, 14% in 1900 and 30% in 1950 — and in developed nations, the biggest contributors to climate change, about 74% of the population live in urban areas.

The bottom line is, if we are going to address climate change, one of the best things we can do is address how cities are organized and used.

“If the cities of today are the biggest threat to the climate, tomorrow’s cities may well be the solution,” Lasse Gustavsson, Secretary General of WWF Sweden says.

An analysis by Booz & Company predicts that $350 trillion, 7 times the current global GDP, will be spent on cities — on urban infrastructure and operations — in the next 30 years. How that money is spent will have a large impact on the state of the climate, the state of the world and the quality of life of humans everywhere.

Image Credit: MorBCN Barcelona is one of the most innovative and climate friendly cities in the world

Barcelona is one of the most innovative and climate friendly cities in the world

Much of this money is expected to be spent on small and fast growing cities, places that could really experiment with different patterns of development.

A new report by WWF, Reinventing the City, argues that the goals these cities and others need to achieve are dramatically reduced need for and use of energy, support for clean and climate friendly development in developing countries through innovative financing strategies, and broad use of new, clean technology.

In particular, cities need to promote the use of bicycles, efficient mass transit, and people’s own two feet for transportation purposes, getting away from the auto-dependent or auto-oriented style of development that dominated urbanization in the past 50-60 years. Currently, transportation is the leading net contributor to climate change pollution in the United States. Our style of development needs to change and, furthermore, it shouldn’t become the norm in other places around the world.

Even if cars become cleaner (i.e. start running on solar-powered electricity or hydrogen), they are still highly inappropriate for and inefficient in urban areas. Take a look at the great image below to get an idea of how many more materials and how much more space is needed to accommodate cars than other modes of transport.

Image Credit: Natasha Lloyd Space required to transport 60 people

Space required to transport 60 people by car, bus or bicycle

Additionally, creating buildings that make the most use of passive solar energy and natural lighting, that use energy very efficiently, and that generate their own energy through renewable means when possible (through the development of better urban building and design codes) could go a long way in cleaning up the city.

Lastly, for now, integrating food production and cities is a critical issue. Food is a necessary, everyday part of life. It should be grown on the tops of buildings, when possible, in urban and community gardens, and locally produced food should be promoted (either through subsidies, taxes on non-local food, innovative land use planning, outlets for local food retailing, public education campaigns, and other creative measures).

There is much that can be done. This post is by no measures a comprehensive view of what is possible but more of a statement that the ways in which we view, organize, develop, and use cities as a whole is a critical piece of the “Solutions to Climate Change” puzzle. It is not just about our energy companies and fuel sources.

  • Becky

    Great post, Zachary! The food production bit really struck me…I think it’s going to be more and more important that folks eat locally produced food for so many reasons! It reminds me of what folks are doing in Havana and to a lesser degree in Detroit.