Our cities are hotbeds of inspiration, connection and
breathtakingly brilliant ideas. They have given us so much – but they also account
for 80% of global carbon emissions, and are growing fast. Millions of people
leave the countryside every year, packing their bags and heading off in search
of work, education and opportunities. Everyone has the right to a better life.
But this dash to the city could fuel the climate emergency, creating yet more
However, if we challenge the worst features of our cities –
make them greener, calmer, more equal and less impersonal – perhaps we can turn
them into beacons of hope that lead, not delay, climate action. This won’t just
tackle Sustainable Development Goal 11, better cities and communities, but all
of today’s biggest problems.
At Ashden we scour the world to find people and
organisations reducing emissions while making cities better places to live,
work and travel, honouring the very best at our annual Ashden Awards. Our
rigorous research and judging process has uncovered scores of brilliant sustainable
energy innovators right around the globe.
Their success shows the power of working towards systemic
change, rather than tweaking what feels familiar and comfortable. This approach
is the only way we can tackle the climate emergency with the limited time we
have left. Creating liveable cities is a virtuous circle – as people embrace
the benefits of sustainable energy, and see real, fast improvements in their
own lives, they’ll open their minds (and wallets) to support further climate
Bold initiatives by companies, local governments and
community groups are transforming the fabric and rhythms of our cities. By
re-thinking the building blocks of urban life, these innovators show us what a
city can – and should – be, overturning four urban myths along the way.
Myth one: Cars are king of the road
Twentieth century cities were designed for the convenience
of drivers – but this approach has brought us clogged streets and deadly air
London Borough of Waltham Forest has taken a radical approach to boost
active travel such as walking and cycling, powering on despite initial public
opposition. Road closures and re-designs, bike storage and awareness campaigns
have created better health and an environment local people are proud of. This
work has raised the life expectancy of children in the borough by six weeks,
according to research
by King’s College London.
India has some of the most polluted cities on earth, and
growing use of private cars is making the problem worse. SMV Green is encouraging
the use of electric rickshaws, a cleaner form of transport. The enterprise help
some of India’s most marginalised urban residents – including women – earn a
living as rickshaw drivers.
SMV Green is creating radical change in an often exploitative
industry. A supportive loan system means drivers can eventually own their own
vehicles, and women customers feel safer too. Across India, cities are banning
or limiting licenses for new diesel rickshaws – while the electric rickshaw
market is expected to grow by 9%
Myth two: Trees are a luxury
After enduring years of high crime and violence,
the Colombian city of Medellín faces a
new threat – rising urban temperatures. The city’s response brings communities
together, planting vegetation to create a better environment.
The Green Corridors project is lead by the city’s dynamic
mayor. It shades cyclists and pedestrians, cools built up areas and cleans the
air along busy roads. The city’s botanical gardens train people from
disadvantaged backgrounds to become city gardeners and planting technicians,
and former rubbish dumps once haunted by drug dealers have been turned into
children’s playgrounds. Temperatures have fallen by two or three degrees
Celsius in places, with bigger reductions expected in the future as the trees
and plants grow.
Myth three: Old buildings can’t be green
Cities change fast, often shaped by property developers
focused on profit. Too often old homes, streets and even whole neighbourhoods are
left to rot – tenants face physical and mental health problems as they shiver
through winter, while gleaming high-rise blocks spring up just down the road. Some people claim such change in
the name of sustainability, with inefficient buildings written off in favour of
new, greener designs. But putting these up has a huge carbon impact.
is an innovative approach to improving poorly insulated and draughty social
housing, making it more energy-efficient and comfortable. Off-site manufacturing
allows whole-house retrofits to be done quickly and with minimum disruption to
tenants. The work comes with a 30-year energy performance guarantee – and
creates an attractive, warmer home people are keen to live in and which is
better for their health. The work has been completed on about 5,000 homes, with
plans to tackle 20,000 more in Europe and North America.
Myth four: Offices must be miserable
As our cities grow, more people face the
prospect of working in stuffy, hot or freezing cold offices. Poor heating and
cooling is bad for our mental and physical health, and inefficiencies lead to
wasted energy, as well as dwindling productivity. Surging use of air
conditioning is contributing to outdoor air pollution that causes 4.2 million
early deaths a year.
Chinese software company Equota Energy uses artificial
intelligence and ‘big data’ technology to make buildings including huge
shopping malls and high rise blocks more energy efficient. Better heating and
cooling creates happier staff, lowers energy bills and cuts pollution in cities
– all without any intrusive equipment or installation work.
Building better cities
These companies – all winners of Ashden Awards – have ideas ready
to be scaled up or copied in cities around the world. But in many cases, this
will only be done with support from committed investors willing to back
radical, system-disrupting innovation. We need these investors to take risks
and step up – and we need governments and civil society to create an
environment that supports them.
City leaders need to step up too, and realise that smart
climate action can be a people-pleasing vote winner, especially when it brings
other benefits such as better health or more jobs. The free Ashden Climate
Toolkit is a great place for authorities to start – it’s packed with case
studies, resources and practical advice. The changes it suggests can bring huge
benefits for the most marginalised people in our cities, ensuring a ‘just
transition’ where decarbonisation happens fairly – and even reduces inequality
and social problems.
With their unstoppable dynamism, cities have always fostered
progress. Think of the scientific breakthroughs in 9th Century
Baghdad or 15th Century Florence, or demands for workers’ and
women’s rights sweeping the meeting halls of US cities in the 19th
This tradition continues today, with the Sunrise Movement in
the US and Extinction Rebellion protests in the UK and beyond. And the best
cities are responding to calls for action. San Francisco has put addressing the
climate emergency at the heart of its budget decisions, while New York is
showing leadership with offshore wind projects, grid modernisation and a pioneering
bill aimed at cutting building emissions.
Cities have brought us huge benefits. Today’s
urbanisation can still bring those benefits, but we need to tackle some massive
problems head on. If we do, we can create fairer, happier, more sustainable
cities – cities we are all proud to call home.