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Green Cities

Across the world cities are facing the challenge of the climate crisis. Read on for four examples of ways cities are taking action.

Climate change no longer feels like a future problem—especially for those living in cities. The record-breaking heatwaves that blister across the continents hammer the reality of the climate crisis home. In the summer of 2022, Paris, London, and Frankfurt saw temperatures reach over 40 degrees Celsius. Recent studies found that extreme heat globally affects 2 billion people living in cities—and that’s now, not in a future global warming scenario, in which heatwaves are only expected to increase, and last longer.

Green Cities
© okalinichenko —

Cities face even higher temperatures than their rural counterparts due to building density, which traps heat in the walls and the surrounding air, in cities. The combination of high, densely built structures, more pavement, more air pollution, and extreme temperatures intensifies what is known as the urban heat island effect.

In recent years wildfires blazed across Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas placing hundreds of cities and people at extreme risk. Severe droughts in Europe exposed riverbanks and the underbellies of lakes, and grassy areas were singed brown from the sun in cities across the continent.

But heat, drought, and wildfires aren’t the only challenge that cities will have to deal with due to the climate crisis. Rising sea levels and increased likelihood of flooding, long predicted by scientists, pose an especially difficult challenge for cities situated along the coast.

But cities are learning quickly how best to adapt to—and mitigate—climate change.

How are cities adapting to climate change?

There are plenty of ways that cities can, and already are, adapting to climate change. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are some innovative and effective examples of cities making the green transition:

1. Zürich: The "Sponge City"

Zurich, the "Sponge City"
© Lumixera —

A common problem in many cities is that there is more pavement (concrete, asphalt and tar) than natural soil, which disrupts the natural flow of water. Pavement causes water to run off rather than be absorbed, so water can’t be naturally absorbed and has nowhere to go except to flow into the streets or in sewers. On the one hand, this can cause flash flooding when it rains too hard/too suddenly, and on the other hand also wastes much-needed water during drier seasons.

Inkoh biochar in Zurich
Inkoh biochar in Zurich ©

To address this problem, one solution many cities are turning to is the so-called “sponge city” concept.

The sponge city concept sounds abstract at first glance. But really, how it works is in the name: the city is redesigned to act as a sponge and store water. Instead of diverting water away into sewers, a sponge city supports natural drainage and soaks the water into the ground.

A sponge city can be achieved in many different ways, such as permeable paving, rooftop gardens or underground water storage systems, but the main idea is to have more green spaces, and have a city that works in conjunction with nature instead of combatting it.

Zurich is one of the latest cities looking to join the ranks of sponge cities .

It has recently closed its storm drains to divert the water to a sponge zone, doubled the size of its tree pits, and planted native insect friendly plants throughout its streets.

Zurich is following Stockholm’s lead by amplifying the sponge effect of its green areas by mixing biochar into the city’s soils. Normally used for agriculture for its nutrient-rich and water storage effects, biochar is also a good solution for cities transitioning into a sponge city as it can retain up to 5 times more water than its own weight.

In addition to this, this month Zurich became the first Swiss city to commit to a circular economy strategy .

2. London: The 15-Minute City

Cities represent nearly 70% of global emissions. One way of reducing these emissions and the heat island effect in urban areas is to reduce the immediate pollution from too much traffic and cars in cities.

While cities like Amsterdam are already well-equipped to support more sustainable methods of transportation such as bicycling, many other cities are not. But that could be changing: Just this past summer in Tübingen, a small city in south Germany, bicycle paths were moved to the center of the road, making it safer and easier for bicyclists to travel, while buses can move along the sides of the street to stop and pick up passengers.

Other cities like London are re-envisioning infrastructure to cut back on travel by decentralizing cities so that everything one needs; groceries, pharmacies, doctors, etc., is all within a 15-minute walking or biking distance. This “15-Minute City” change was originally due to the COVID-19 pandemic to contain the virus, but it has had additional positive environmental effects as well: less transportation emissions and more walkable areas.

In addition to this, shared mobility initiatives, which allow users to rent and share transportation, is another option that is gaining speed in cities. More initiatives like this can make a big difference for urban areas looking to be more sustainable and reduce emissions.

3. Genoa: The Solar City

Rethinking basic infrastructure to be more efficient is another way cities are adapting. For example, integrating renewable energy into newly built infrastructure is a smart way for cities to become more sustainable by powering themselves.

In Genoa, Italy, solar panels have been integrated along the support beams of a newly reconstructed bridge. This simple addition utilizes the space effectively and allows the bridge to power its own lighting, sensors, and other systems. By generating its own power, the bridge leaves minimal impact on the environment.

Solar-powered bridge in Genoa, Italy
Solar-powered bridge in Genoa, Italy © Nazario —

In general, solar power in Italy has taken off and is one way that cities like Genoa can reduce emissions. Photovoltaic panels can be an expensive upfront cost, but with energy costs rising exponentially, self-generated renewable energy could be a worthwhile investment for sunny cities.

Recent reports also found that the costs for renewable energy technology have been steadily decreasing over the past decade, making it more realistic for cities to begin implementing into their infrastructure.

4. Jakarta: The Mangrove City

Planting mangroves on Java Island
Planting mangroves on Java Island

Flooding for cities along the coast is an inevitable reality of global warming and rising ocean levels.

No city is more aware of that than Jakarta, Indonesia. It is sinking—and fast. While the government is looking to build a coastal sea wall, project developers are also looking to rebuild the island’s natural coastal sea walls: its mangrove forests. In its past, Indonesia relied on its thick mangrove forests as a reliable buffer against flooding, but over the last 30 years, nearly 40% of its mangroves have been lost. Restoring the mangrove forests can protect villages and cities like Jakarta along the coasts from extreme climate events like typhoons.

For example, one such mangrove project on Java is already restoring these important carbon sinks. Mangrove forests are known to absorb more carbon per hectare than inland forests and can help to mitigate climate change in general. If cities look to the direct causes, it can sometimes lead to finding natural solutions to a changing climate.

Sustainable Cities: is it possible to make large cities sustainable?

Yes! The developments over the past few years are promising and the concept of a sustainable city is evolving in exciting new ways. Beyond the examples above, more innovative technologies and creative ideas are available to integrate climate mitigation and adaptation into city infrastructure. Within the next few years, urban areas could undergo a complete sustainable transformation.

For example, fully-recycled carbon-storing, concrete can be used in newly constructed buildings, and roads. New, sustainable electric ferries might be speeding through Stockholm and Hamburg for their residents’ daily commutes.

But it will take a mixture of technologies and approaches and considerably more ambitious action across all sectors to make cities sustainable.

And of course, sustainable cities are only attainable if cities themselves also take the first steps. First Climate looks forward to helping cities disclose their climate data and setting them on their journey to net zero. Contact our consulting services to learn more.

Authored by:

Savannah Spotts, Marketing and Communications Specialist



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