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: Nurture nature-based resilience for cities
Articles you may be interested in
In The News
Circular Slovenia named in 100 Climate Policy Breakthroughs

The peer-to-peer learning platform for governments, Apolitical, included EIT...

Circular Slovenia named in 100 Climate Policy Breakthroughs
In The News
New tool uses satellite imagery to accelerate sustainable agriculture

Supported by EIT Climate-KIC and developed by its partner...

New tool uses satellite imagery to accelerate sustainable agriculture
In The News
EIT Climate-KIC at the Climate Adaptation Summit 2021

EIT Climate-KIC will be taking part in the Climate...

EIT Climate-KIC at the Climate Adaptation Summit 2021
In The News
Green Invest from Stuttgart and Start Park from Florence win Climathon Awards ...

A total of 140 teams of citizen finalists applied...

Green Invest from Stuttgart and Start Park from Florence win Climathon Awards 2020
In The News
Biden’s Opportunity for Reinventing Climate Innovation

Joe Biden will be sworn in today as 46th...

Biden’s Opportunity for Reinventing Climate Innovation
In The News
EIT Climate-KIC’s Open Accelerator: collaboration, not competition

It is no secret that to tackle climate change...

EIT Climate-KIC’s Open Accelerator: collaboration, not competition
In The News
New platform inspires sustainable Nordic wood construction

This week marks the launch of NoMuWood.com, an EIT...

New platform inspires sustainable Nordic wood construction
In The News
European Union launches Pact to support citizen-led climate action

On Wednesday 16 December, the European Commission is launching...

European Union launches Pact to support citizen-led climate action
In The News
“An avalanche of hope and energy”: The power of Paris

Our Climate Champions 2020: Melissa Capcha. Five years on...

“An avalanche of hope and energy”: The power of Paris
In The News
“Let’s find ways to take action within our abilities”

Our Climate Champions 2020: Gopal Kumar Mohoto. Five years...

“Let’s find ways to take action within our abilities”
In The News
“Climate change is outpacing us, there is no time for excuses”

Our Climate Champions 2020: Cristina Aleixendri Muñoz. Five years...

“Climate change is outpacing us, there is no time for excuses”
In The News
COP26 gives Scotland “a platform to showcase… what’s possible”

Our Climate Champions 2020: Kit England. Five years on...

COP26 gives Scotland “a platform to showcase… what’s possible”
In The News
COP26 might be postponed but “climate action cannot wait”

Our Climate Champions 2020: Melani Furlan. Five years on...

COP26 might be postponed but “climate action cannot wait”
In The News
A climate service for flood risk mapping in urban areas

The SaferPlaces project, supported by EIT Climate-KIC, has created...

A climate service for flood risk mapping in urban areas
In The News
Raising climate awareness through art in the Glasgow City Region

The Glasgow City Region uses arts as a means...

Raising climate awareness through art in the Glasgow City Region
In The News
Helping Europe achieve a circular economy transition

EIT Climate-KIC, EIT RawMaterials, EIT Digital, EIT Food, EIT...

Helping Europe achieve a circular economy transition
In The News
EIT Climate-KIC and EASME host WCEF event on circular economy

The World Circular Economy Forum brings together business leaders,...

EIT Climate-KIC and EASME host WCEF event on circular economy
In The News
Citizens across globe eager to contribute to a post-COVID recovery

Over 4,500 citizens from around the world will join...

Citizens across globe eager to contribute to a post-COVID recovery
In The News
Transformative climate action and COP26: Join our webinar

Are you working to deliver transformative change for a...

Transformative climate action and COP26: Join our webinar
In The News
Madrid, Amsterdam and Milan: Three cities putting citizen participation at the...

The Extinction Rebellion or Fridays for Future global actions...

Madrid, Amsterdam and Milan: Three cities putting citizen participation at the heart of climate action
In The News
EIT Climate-KIC selected to become a member of the European Circular Economy S...

EIT Climate-KIC circular economy expert, Cliona Howie, will join...

EIT Climate-KIC selected to become a member of the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform
In The News
Partnering with EIT Climate-KIC on the New Accelerator: Call for Expressions o...

We are looking for new and existing EIT Climate-KIC...

Partnering with EIT Climate-KIC on the New Accelerator: Call for Expressions of Interest
In The News
EIT Climate-KIC leads collective efforts to accelerate Madrid’s transition t...

A cross- KIC (Knowledge and Innovation Community) initiative is...

EIT Climate-KIC leads collective efforts to accelerate Madrid’s transition towards carbon neutrality
In The News
The Human Capital project is the EU educational sector’s answer to robots ta...

Supported by the European Institute of Technology (EIT) and...

The Human Capital project is the EU educational sector’s answer to robots taking over jobs—and AI has a role to play
In The News
New online magazine Branch explores the sustainability of the internet

This week saw the launch of Branch magazine, a...

New online magazine Branch explores the sustainability of the internet
In The News
Four EIT Climate-KIC innovators nominated for EIT Awards

Four EIT Climate-KIC innovators have been nominated to win...

Four EIT Climate-KIC innovators nominated for EIT Awards
In The News
EIT Climate-KIC selected to advise European Commission on sustainable finance

The newly created EU Platform on Sustainable Finance brings...

EIT Climate-KIC selected to advise European Commission on sustainable finance
In The News
bound4blue’s innovative wingsail technology gathers recognition across Europe

Cristina Aleixendri, Co-founder and COO of the Spanish start-up...

bound4blue’s innovative wingsail technology gathers recognition across Europe
In The News
EIT Climate-KIC and Glasgow City Region join forces, helping the region innova...

Home to one third of Scotland’s population and provider...

EIT Climate-KIC and Glasgow City Region join forces, helping the region innovate to become climate resilient
In The News
Cassetex from Bangladesh, Sosei from Uruguay and Carbon Craft Design from Indi...

More than 3,000 entrepreneurs from 56 countries participated in...

Cassetex from Bangladesh, Sosei from Uruguay and Carbon Craft Design from India win the seventh edition of ClimateLaunchpad