Cities are the only sustainable way forward

At first glance, it might still be unintuitive for some but the evidence is mounting that living in cities is actually more sustainable than in the countryside. Hélène Chartier goes further, arguing that sustainable living is “not viable outside cities.” Interviewed after the release of the most recent IPCC report, she says that “cities are the only sustainable way to house Earth’s growing population–but the importance of protecting them from climate risks has been totally underrated.”

The report shows that cities are key players in the fight against global warming, Chartier said. In the countryside, people are reliant on cars and live in larger buildings that are less efficient to heat and power, she explained. […]

Urban areas, on the other hand, offer an opportunity to service large swathes of the population with decarbonised public transport, cycling routes and sustainable energy, waste and water management systems.

Not today’s cities, mind you, but an evolution to help fulfil their full climate potential. Decarbonised, greener, more compact, and more resilient to the disastrous impacts of global warming.

Buildings account for around half of a city’s carbon footprint, so the solution is to eliminate operational emissions from heating and energy use as well as embodied emissions from materials and construction.

Not an easy proposition, but how to accomplish this is mostly known today and being worked on piece-meal in some cities. Those kinds of ideas and projects “just” need to be massively scaled up. Government-enforced growth boundaries to limit sprawl, and polycentric planning for self-sufficient 15-minute neighbourhoods with more walking and cycling, are some of the directions she suggests.

It must also become mandatory to assess climate risk and what kind of hazards any building site might be exposed to, under various scenarios, before permission to build is granted.

Construction in vulnerable areas such as flood plains and coastal shores should be banned or limited, Chartier said. And any new buildings should incorporate greenery as well as passive cooling and bioclimatic design strategies to protect inhabitants from heatwaves without the need for air conditioning.

Cities must become greener not only in today’s sense of “less impactful” but also actually greener; a lot more green spaces and permeable soil should be compulsory for every new project, as well as more green areas on roofs.

Major bonus point to keep in mind: when cities are built or re-organized this way, they are actually much more liveable and pleasant day-to-day, not just more sustainable and resilient.

Image: Piazzale Loreto in Milan, of the winning projects of the Reinventing Cities competition by C40 Cities.