If you were mayor of your city, what urban climate solutions would you put in place to cut carbon emissions and improve the quality of life? Here’s a checklist
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Let’s say you’re the mayor of a city. You know climate change is a challenge. How are you going to handle it?
You have to ensure that your city has a climate strategy to adapt to climate change, as well as to decarbonise your city and bring it to carbon neutrality. But don’t make it just a strategy that has lofty goals – make sure it has tangible actions which can be monitored and linked to investments. And make sure that you prioritise investment, because your budget can’t cover everything at once. (Adaptation, of course, is the word used to describe projects that help deal with the consequences of climate change. When you cut carbon emissions, it’s called mitigation.)
To make this happen, you have to reorganise your city administration to ensure that you have a climate team in place. That team will be linked to all departments in your municipality. So that climate thinking is applied to every sector of the city government.
Voters like urban climate solutions
You’ll need to make sure that you bring the voters along with you. It’s no good putting some good measures in place, and then, because you haven’t sold it to the electorate, you get voted out in favour of some idiot who ruins everything you’ve done.
So let the voters know that you’ve improved air quality by cutting emissions from cars, for example. Voters might complain sometimes about restrictions on cars for the sake of the climate, but if you can show them that there are fewer kids with asthma from the dirty air, they might just vote you in for another term. Same goes for green areas. They may not be so aware that they reduce temperatures in the summer – the “heat island effect” – but they might be impressed if they see it also brings more play areas for kids.
Then, look at transport in your city. Don’t worry—I’ll talk about transport in detail on another episode. But for your city, you’ll want to give people a better range of options for travelling, including public transport, walking, cycling, and of course driving using zero-emission cars. This will need a real push to get people onto public transport, to avoid the need to build large roads through urban areas that use up valuable green space. So you’ll boost electric buses, metros and trams, renewing the rolling stock with new trains. And for people who still want to use cars, you’ll make sure only zero-emission cars can access the city, and you will institute tougher parking restrictions.
Sustainable, cleaner, greener urban climate solutions
Last time I spoke to you, I told you what to do to become more energy efficient. As mayor, you’ll start a renovation programme for public buildings to make them energy efficient. And you will use your planning powers carefully, giving permissions for new buildings or districts if they introduce circular economy measures into the new construction designs. For example, reusing parts from old buildings, like steel joists, in the new ones. Or, you might require them to connect to a local energy grid fed from renewable energy. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, energy efficiency not only helps the climate and reduces fuel poverty, it will improve energy security as well.
Part of your reason for doing all this is that cities are changing anyway. The changes can be used as an opportunity to make them more sustainable, cleaner and greener.
What kind of changes do I mean?
In the 1970s, activity in cities moved from the centre to the suburbs. Shopping malls outside towns mean people drive further. Highways cut through the cities. Your cities are engineered towards efficiency in the age of the car, rather than quality of life.
But you’ve experienced a pandemic. People have been ordering goods online. So maybe you don’t need to drive out to the mall anymore… There’s a shift towards neighbourhood shops. And housing that doesn’t just face onto a street for the sake of car access. Instead, you’ll have public space for people to use. After all, people will be spending more time around their homes, because they aren’t all commuting every day any more. Some are working from home at least part of the time. That means you don’t have to live in the big city. You can move to a small town, which improves the quality of life in those towns.
Urban climate solutions for the 15-minute city
But if you stay in a big city, the chances are you’ll soon be living in a 15-minute city. What is a 15-minute city? It’s an urban concept that is gaining steam. As the name suggests, the idea is to create or reorganise cities so that everything a resident needs is within their reach in 15 minutes by foot or bike. That means that even though you live in a big city, you won’t have to take a bus for 45 minutes just to get to work or a shop. You’ll be able to live and work, learn, shop and enjoy yourselves as well as get healthcare in your own neighbourhood. This leads to more vibrant communities, stronger social connections locally, all generating a better ‘sense of place’.
And you’re not the only one who is going to feel better when you don’t have to spend half your day commuting. The planet will get better too. Moving around less will also mean lower carbon emissions.
Things are changing already. Paris is working to create as many open spaces as possible. These spaces are not supposed to be used for anything in particular, but rather to serve as places where people can meet up and socialise. The idea is to bring amenities closer to people, and to bring people together… to make them more active in their own neighbourhoods.
Paris has already banned high-pollution vehicles, restricted areas around the Seine to pedestrians and cyclists, as well as creating a bunch of mini green spaces across the city. More than 40 Parisian school grounds have transformed into parks open to the public. And just since the pandemic started, more than 50 km of bike routes have been added.
Paris is even better than you think
Cities around the globe are emulating Paris and making walkability and accessibility their priorities. The thing is, you will have to introduce these measures everywhere, not just in the expensive districts. The poorer parts of cities need to be included into these plans from the get-go. And it’s not just about capital cities like Paris, Amsterdam or Vienna – more than 370 European cities applied to be one of the EU’s “100 climate neutral cities” and thousands of cities across the world are members of the Global Covenant of Mayors.
All this is good for society too, not just for stopping climate change. There are cities in some countries where you don’t see old or young people in a neighbourhood—it’s just for professionals. While other places are dominated by the old. All the measures I’ve just advised you to take, as mayor of your city, are designed to create an equilibrium, a mix of people and a mix of business and residential buildings. You can expand on that by adding affordable housing for key workers, for example.
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