How can we make cities climate and human-friendly?

In 15 years, more than 60 per cent of the global population will live in cities and rapid urban expansion is predicted to continue. In making urban growth more sustainable and inclusive, and cities more climate-resilient, there are many opportunities to be seized.

Cities are key contributors to many environmental problems, such as air and water pollution, and more than 70 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to cities according to UN HABITAT.

The risk to cities from climate change

At the same time, cities are highly vulnerable to climate change impacts, due to the fact that many urbanised settlements are located in highly exposed coastal areas and riverbanks, prone to sea level rise, storm surges, tropical cyclones, flash floods, and landslides.

Climate change is turning cities into “harsh and sweltering hotspots” as Grist illustrated through its piece on New York. The urban heat island effect is when an urban area is significantly warmer than its surrounding rural areas due to the modification of land surfaces and other human activities. This effect can be particularly harmful during a heat wave, as it deprives urban residents of the cool relief found in rural surroundings during the night.

thermal-discomfort

Thermal discomfort in the Spanish city of Valencia during a summer night based on surface temperature and relative humidity data. The lighter the area, the stronger the discomfort is. The white border is the administrative border of the city (the eastern part of the city is missing because the satellite sensors can detect only a limited area during one overpass). The rectangular marker indicates a large park that is a cold spot inside the city and the triangle indicates the airport that is a hot spot in the rural area. The related study can be found here.

Green is the new black

One of the best ways to mitigate the urban heat island effect is to increase the amount of well-watered vegetation, for example, by building green roofs, creating urban gardens, and planting trees around the city. There are plenty of examples of successful urban community gardens (BudapestLisbonBerlin), green roofs, and even green rooftops on buses.

Valencia

The Spanish city of Valencia has a particular story on choosing “the green” over “the black”. To avoid flood damage that occurred time to time in Valencia, local authorities decided in the 1960’s to divert the Turia river at the border of the city, and turn the old riverbed into a main traffic axis with multi-lane roads and rails. However, thanks to active citizens, the original plans were never turned into reality: instead of creating an asphalt jungle in the heart of the city, the new public space was transformed into a garden that serves as one of the most popular recreational area till today. “The Turia riverbed is part of my life; I run there almost every day”, one Valencian citizen, Eduardo, says.

Greening public spaces

Greening public spaces is a key element of climate-friendly urban planning. Numerous studies (for example, on the cooling effect of urban greenery, on the  benefits of visiting green spaces and on the positive effects of biodiversity) have shown that urban vegetation, in addition to purifying the air and beneficially modifying the urban climate, has a positive psychological impact too. A green living environment reduces stress, increases cognitive abilities, and academic performance. According to the internationally recognised biologist and author, Edward O. Wilson, human beings have an inherent emotional bond with all living organisms, so they seek connections with nature, which he calls biohilia, the “love of life or living systems”.

The Biophilic Cities Project

The Biophilic Cities Project is based on the biophilia concept and was established at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture. The project aims to foster the cultivation of urban life through documenting best practices in biophilic urban design and facilitating dialogue between researchers, urban planners and policymakers. European cities (Birmingham in the UK and Vitoria Gasteiz in Spain) are also part of the international network of Biophilic Cities. For example, Birmingham, the one-time industrial giant, aims to be the UK’s first “natural capital city”. It has plenty green space with many local nature reserves, like the Moseley Bog (famous from J.R.R. Tolkien spending lots of time there as a child), or the 1 000 hectare Sutton Park (the first urban National Nature Reserve in the UK). In addition, the city revitalizes its canal system that provides pleasant waterfront atmosphere—vital during hot summer days.

copenhagen-before-after

Before and after image of a street in Copenhagen (Denmark) from the gallery of urb-i. More images can be found here.

Tackling air pollution from transport

To make our cities more healthy and livable, reducing the emissions of air pollutants is crucial. Transport is alone responsible for one quarter of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions, to which urban traffic has a major contribution. Reducing car traffic and promoting cycling culture has a well-known tradition in Northern European countries. Tina Saaby, the chief architect of Copenhagen—recognised as “the most livable city”—explained in a lecture how they turned their focus from a car-oriented to a human-oriented city design.

The paradigm shift started in the 70’s when Jan Gehl, a Danish architect, raised the questions: What is the effect of the built environment on people’s activity and behaviour? Does the urban space attract the residents? After studying people’s behaviour on the street of Italian cities and in Copenhagen, he started to better understand the patterns of life which were taking place in public spaces, and began to collaborate closely with the city planners. The core of his concept is that the urban space should function as a forum for social interaction rather than a temporary intermediary space to move from A to B by car.

Through years of meaningful dialogue between architects, the municipality, local businesses and the citizens, more and more pedestrian zones were created in Copenhagen, turning the focus from cars to people. The idea of “making cities for people” has become more and more influential, catalysing projects all over the world to reduce car traffic in cities.

budapest-before-after

Before and after image of a street in Budapest (Hungary) from the gallery of urb-i. More images can be found here.

The Brazilian urban planning start-up called urb-i came up with a brilliant idea to draw attention to the importance of human-friendly, green urban planning in a simple but spectacular way. Using the time machine feature in Google Street View, they have been mapping thousands of examples of pubic space transformations which prioritize people over cars. More than 3000 photos from over 50 countries show how simple transformations can change the way we see and feel about the public space.

Green design and human-oriented urban planning is essential to ensure the well-being of urban residents in a warmer world. Exciting transformations of the urban space are happening all around the world—how about your place?

Check out the before-after pictures and get inspired!

This article was written by Annamária Lehoczky of the Centre for Climate Change, URV.

“Greening the city” is a panel discussion taking place on 30 October at Climate-KIC’s Climate Innovation Summit in Milan and will explore many of the concepts referenced in this article, such as: nature-based solutions for urban planning, biomimicry and bio-based construction, local materials and vernacular architecture, and connecting urban and rural areas. Register today!

 
Location
Related Focus Area
Urban Transitions
Related Goal
Goal 2: Create green, resilient cities
Articles you may be interested in
In our community
Strengthening community ties and supporting each other through the COVID-19 ...
Strengthening community ties and supporting each other through the COVID-19 crisis
Opinion
The Corona canvas: How to deal with the crisis as a founder
Marc Mogalle & Anje Kluth Business Buddies & EIT Climate-KIC
The Corona canvas: How to deal with the crisis as a founder
In The News
Lilium completes funding round worth over €224 million

EIT Climate-KIC supported Lilium, a Munich-based aviation company developing...

Lilium completes funding round worth over €224 million
In The News
TWAICE raises €11 million series A to power internationalisation efforts and...

EIT Climate-KIC supported TWAICE, a Munich-based battery specialist, has...

TWAICE raises €11 million series A to power internationalisation efforts and scaling
In our community
Madrid: A city turning eco-fictions into eco-futures through systems innovat...
Madrid: A city turning eco-fictions into eco-futures through systems innovation
In The News
EIT Community shines on Forbes 30 under 30 Europe list

Eight EIT Climate-KIC innovators are featured in the prestigious...

EIT Community shines on Forbes 30 under 30 Europe list
Opinion
Trees as infrastructure: Part two
Dark Matter
Trees as infrastructure: Part two
Opinion
Trees as infrastructure: Part one
Dark Matter
Trees as infrastructure: Part one
Opinion
Could COVID-19 usher in massive systemic change?
EIT Climate-KIC Italy
Could COVID-19 usher in massive systemic change?
Opinion
Working during corona lockdown: EIT Climate-KIC Italy sets an example
EIT Climate-KIC Italy
Working during corona lockdown: EIT Climate-KIC Italy sets an example
Innovation Spotlight
How to improve building energy performance without up-front capital

Air-conditioning equipment, office furniture, lighting systems and even floor coverings are being leased, so why can’t a...

How to improve building energy performance without up-front capital
In The News
EU Taxonomy shows the way to net zero by 2050

The Technical Expert Group (TEG) on Sustainable Finance has...

EU Taxonomy shows the way to net zero by 2050
In The News
Regine Kreitz new EIT Climate-KIC Director of Marketing and Communications

Regine Kreitz will join EIT Climate-KIC, the European Union’s...

Regine Kreitz new EIT Climate-KIC Director of Marketing and Communications
In The News
KICs tackling water scarcity in Southern Europe

How EIT and KICs are working to address one...

KICs tackling water scarcity in Southern Europe
In The News
EIT Climate-KIC and partners launch Massive Open Online Course on e-waste

EIT Climate-KIC, together with its partners the UN, the...

EIT Climate-KIC and partners launch Massive Open Online Course on e-waste
In The News
Five EIT Climate-KIC innovators featured in Global Cleantech 100

Five EIT Climate-KIC supported innovative ventures included in the...

Five EIT Climate-KIC innovators featured in Global Cleantech 100
In The News
The journey to zero-emissions transport – part three

The transport sector already accounts for a quarter of...

The journey to zero-emissions transport – part three
In The News
The journey to zero-emissions transport – part two

The transport sector already accounts for a quarter of...

The journey to zero-emissions transport – part two
In The News
The journey to zero-emissions transport – part one

The transport sector already accounts for a quarter of...

The journey to zero-emissions transport – part one
In The News
Malaysia and Estonia win Climathon Global Awards at ChangeNOW summit

The city of Penang, Malaysia, and a team of...

Malaysia and Estonia win Climathon Global Awards at ChangeNOW summit
Opinion
Redesigning venture capital (part III): A hypothesis
Dominic Hofstetter Transformation Capital, EIT Climate-KIC
Redesigning venture capital (part III): A hypothesis
Opinion
The Long Time
Beatrice Pembroke & Ella Saltmarshe Co-founders, The Long Time Project
The Long Time
In our community
Mariana Mazzucato on big-picture, high-ambition innovation missions
Mariana Mazzucato on big-picture, high-ambition innovation missions
In The News
Circular Cars Initiative launched at WEF Davos

The Circular Cars Initiative (CCI), supported by EIT Climate-KIC,...

Circular Cars Initiative launched at WEF Davos
In The News
EIT Climate-KIC CEO selected as a top expert to advise the European Commission

Yesterday, the European Commission announced EIT Climate-KIC CEO Kirsten...

EIT Climate-KIC CEO selected as a top expert to advise the European Commission
In our community
Net zero requires just, inclusive and radical transformations
Net zero requires just, inclusive and radical transformations
In Detail
New report: Is Germany ready for the future?

E3G´s new report “Is Germany ready for the future? The case for action in a climate-changed world.”, supported by EIT Climate-KIC, finds that Germany...

New report: Is Germany ready for the future?
Opinion
Redesigning venture capital (part II): A blueprint
Dominic Hofstetter Transformation Capital, EIT Climate-KIC
Redesigning venture capital (part II): A blueprint
In The News
EIT Climate-KIC’s work in Slovenia

Last November, the Slovenian parliament passed a motion to...

EIT Climate-KIC’s work in Slovenia
In The News
Slovenia adopts EIT Climate-KIC Circular, Regenerative Economies Deep Demonstr...

The Slovenian parliament passed a motion to adopt an...

Slovenia adopts EIT Climate-KIC Circular, Regenerative Economies Deep Demonstration