Here’s how planning can help build resilient cities

Cities are central to the climate emergency, but is the current approach to urban climate action enough to deliver the radical transformation needed? By Karim Elgendy, Associate Fellow, Chatham House & Martina Juvara, Research Member, International Society of City and Regional Planners | May 11, 2022

In recent years, many countries have pledged to cut their emissions to zero by the middle of the century in order to contain the climate emergency and limit global warming temperature to 1.5°C.

These goals cannot be achieved without climate action in cities. Cities today are home to more than half of the global population, and account for 67-72% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

In the UK – which aims to decarbonize by 2050 – cities play a disproportionate role, with 84% of the population living in urban areas, making it impossible to imagine a pathway to decarbonization where urban climate action doesn’t play a major role.

Instead of the fragmented and piecemeal approach to urban climate action currently implemented by local authorities and developers in the UK, cities need radical multi-sectoral transformation.

Climate summits have created space for discussions on the role of the built environment in recent years, but these discussions have largely focused on buildings’ energy efficiency and alternative transportation systems. Great hopes were often pinned on electrification and technologies such as heat pumps and hydrogen cell. Such measures are of course of huge relevance, but they only scratch the surface of the systemic change needed in cities.

Planning is central to climate action

How cities operate has always been linked to how they are planned. Yet the role of planning in decarbonization has only recently started being explored. The latest IPCC Assessment Report dedicated a chapter to Urban Areas where it highlighted the role of city planning in reducing carbon emissions and provided guidance for different city types. Article 8 of the Glasgow Climate Pact also urged signatories to “further integrate adaptation into local, national and regional planning”.

The UK planning system is a key tool we already have for managing urban environments and is central to integrating climate change mitigation and adaptation in cities. Yet we believe this tool is largely being ignored by the climate action community, and this could be a costly mistake. Although there are indications of increasing awareness of this blindspot, action remains sectoral and fragmented.

For example, the UK’s 2021 Transport Decarbonisation Plan indicates the need to embed transport decarbonization principles in spatial planning and make carbon reductions a fundamental part of transport planning and funding. Unfortunately, no practical action has been put in place to change standard transport assessment methodologies.

Transforming UK planning policy to deliver sustainability and resilience 

The current planning system has given us cities with dangerously high carbon emissions, and produced neighbourhoods and lifestyles dominated by cars. It has also failed to address damage to biodiversity, increased resource scarcity and inequality.

In England, for example, the current focus of urban planning is about expediting the delivery of housing. This trumps all other efforts in rethinking the system of the city, including decarbonization, climate resilience, and social justice. Within local authorities’ Planning Departments there is little time and few resources to do things differently even when there is will and commitment.

Only a few major cities within the UK can afford to develop strong and ambitious planning frameworks or have resolved to join networks such as C40. Most other UK cities do not possess enough means or expertise to move beyond routine.

Academic planners have been calling for a new paradigm for planning for decades, one that puts people and wellbeing at the centre of the planning system. What they meant was that only a new mindset would do.

A new planning policy mindset should focus on finding a balance with nature and contributing to climate action in an inclusive manner. While conceptually simple, implementing this balance requires a profound and radical change.

A new planning policy should promote a deep reorganization of the existing urban districts. This includes creating opportunities to work and access services closer to home, within convenient walking and cycling reach, an idea recently popularized by the City of Paris as the ’15-minute city’. This requires a fresh examination of urban densities and traditional segregation of land uses.

It also requires the integration of local transport plans and development plans within the same coordinated strategy, which is essential to move towards active travel and reduce congestion.

Planning policy should additionally include a review of the role of green land itself as a host for Nature Based Solutions. It is insufficient for UK green belts, for instance, to be merely a measure for containing urban growth and avoiding sprawl. Our cherished green belts could also help in capturing carbon through regenerative planting, imbed Ecosystem Based Adaptation by storing water and preventing floods, and support the city’s food and biodiversity systems in a more structured way.

Green belts should be more than a measure for containing urban growth and avoiding sprawl / Unsplash.

Can urban resilience be spatially planned?

Beyond climate adaptation, integrating resilience into planning still has a long way to go in the UK. If some countries have at least emergency recovery plans (for example in case of earthquakes of flooding), this is not a strength for the UK.

During the pandemic, ambulance services in London were rapidly reorganized and redistributed to ensure the service could function in emergency conditions. Similar ‘what if’ scenarios should inform the location and organization of essential services and infrastructure and ensure that emergency responses can remain effective in extreme climate events. For example, ensuring that healthcare centres remain accessible in critical situations, that emergency shelters can be rapidly arranged or that the vulnerability of poorer neighbourhoods is reduced.

Preparing for emergencies is no longer an absurd concept, it is about integrating responses to increasingly plausible events into the structure of cities and their spatial plans.

Easy wins for climate action 

Radical planning reforms will take time, yet climate action is urgent.

Fortunately, there is a lot that the UK Government could do straight away to encourage integrated climate action in cities. While cities need autonomy to respond to their needs and available resources, national urban policy guidance is essential for consistency and to ensure that cities learn from one another.

These are our top five actions the Government could put in place right now:

  1. Embedding climate action in planning policy through an update of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), as advocated by Article 8 of the Glasgow Climate Pact.
  2. Setting common standards and methodology for local authorities to assess and publish annual carbon budgets and mandatory reduction trajectories in a common and comparable format. This approach is already in place for housing targets and should be replicated for carbon emissions.
  3. Requiring local authorities to prepare climate action strategies for their city, infrastructure and services to deliver the carbon reduction trajectories and sit alongside the Local Plan. These strategies should have powers to guide public and private investment, including development, economic growth and infrastructure.
  4. Establishing an interim support service to help local authorities understand climate change and carry out the tasks above. This could be a central service similar to Locality for Neighbourhood Planning.
  5. Aligning government funding opportunities with the implementation of the climate action strategy.

None of these actions are substitute for the radical transformation required in the planning system. The planning system remains our key tool for managing the urban natural and built environment, locating services, guiding land-use, and investing in infrastructure.

At present, its scope is narrow and inadequate – but with short-term Government action and thoughtful long-term reform it could become an unparalleled instrument for managing a comprehensive change in UK cities. They may not know it yet but UK planners can write a new chapter in the history of these islands, where cities are sustainable, resilient, inclusive, and just.

 

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