People have been living together in towns, cities, countries ever since we can remember. Perhaps most fascinating is that the architecture, the infrastructure, the picture of a city evolves as a result of the people living in it, even before people were actively studying city planning. All this happened over a long period of time. Most of the time these changes are slow, so slow that we often don’t realize when a city is changing around us. When it comes to sustainability though, action and changes are required immediately. So how do we manage to make slow moving cities adjust quickly, so they meet the heavy environmental demands needed to save our environment? Many local governments have already set reduction or net-zero targets for the near future, so let’s see what they have in store for us.
You have probably already heard of some approaches to sustainability in cities. Amsterdam renovated lots of old buildings to increase energy efficiency. They also have around 400km of bicycle lanes and electric garbage trucks collect the trash throughout the city. Copenhagen started implementing #smartcity ideas into their city planning at the beginning of the 20th century, and is one of the first cities to tackle the challenges of the future. 40,000 people in Copenhagen live in a sustainable community that is seen as an example of what sustainable cities could look like in the near future. In Seattle, people that renovate their houses to improve energy efficiency are rewarded by reduced property taxes.
So far, cities are still mostly left alone with their climate ambitions. Therefore the range of approaches are still unique and haven’t reached the scale necessary for a global rollout of sustainable city development.
70% of global greenhouse gas emissions originate in cities. That is why a government involvement in the development of sustainable projects is absolutely essential to reach global emissions targets. In 2016, the United Nations agreed on the New Urban Agenda, a framework developed to support cities on their way towards a greener future. Of course, UN proposals are not legally binding, but the EU already implemented some of the aspects, including better financial structures for local governments and support of a research project including 100 cities that are being tested for future sustainability solutions on a large scale. This way, the biggest drivers for green cities are evaluated on their potentials. And this is only just the beginning. This year, the EU brought the whole project on a new and higher level. We can expect further implementations in the upcoming years.
Transportation is a never-ending story in the world of city planning. Not only does it account for a very high percentage of global emissions, but it is also a complex challenge to change transportation flows within a city. While for some cities it may seem impossible, there are great examples out there, for instance Jakarta in Indonesia won the Sustainable Transportation Award for their public transport system in 2020. An infrastructure of 250km of bus lanes ensures that there’s nothing easier than taking a bus, even if you live in a residential area far from the city center. Not only does this enhance climate action, but also benefits social and economic development, as transportation is a main connector among people as well as between people and jobs.
But it is not going that well everywhere. Public transportation is often not accessible at all or of poor quality. The UN therefore started its “Share The Road” initiate in 2008. It puts a huge emphasis on public transport as well as development of pedestrian roads and bike lanes. It provides a framework that supports cities with their ambitions, especially for regions lacking safety and accessibility, two main necessities for future-proof sustainable transportation strategies.
As you can see, these are great starting points. Rethinking the way we live in cities is becoming more and more important, with the majority of people in developed countries moving from rural areas to bigger cities. At the same time, developing countries are struggling with city infrastructures. International programs intensively tackle the challenges, cities often face and they are constantly being expanded upon. We cannot wait to see how cities will change in the upcoming years, especially in the transportation space. The solutions are definitely out there, they are only waiting to be implemented.