City lights

What we can do to make our cities greener

Interview with Professor Andy Jonas
Hot town, summer in the city. Back of your neck getting dirty, getting gritty. There’s nothing like blue skies over your favourite street, but changing climates mean we need to watch just how hot it’s getting.

A quick fact check on cities. Half the world’s population now live in one, they account for 75% of all global energy consumption, 80% of greenhouse gas emissions and most are built on sea level. 

So cities are contributing to climate change more than anywhere else. No huge shock there. The thing is though – between being densely populated, fixed in place and built for yesterday’s environment – cities are also the places that’ll feel the effects of climate change more than anywhere else.

But what can we do before Armageddon hits? Professor Andy Jonas, an urban political geographer at the University of Hull, has a few suggestions.

Cities need to focus on their own

Nation states have a lot on their plates. Just look at the UK Government: there’s Brexit, the economy and counter-terrorism to handle, and that’s just on a Monday.  

The people running your city, however, are burdened only with domestic concerns. They’ve healthy budgets, an army of skilled professionals within city limits and a local incentive to sort things out quick, explains Andy.

“We can all see little changes in our cities, whether that’s pollution getting worse or floods rising higher every year. It gives cities themselves – their mayors, councillors, experts and citizens – a scope to solve the issues we’re all facing. We need to look within.” 

Better educate their citizens 

If half the world’s population live in cities, where better to educate future generations about making a change? From big picture ideas like fully utilising renewable energies, down to everyday decisions like keeping plastic out our waterways, we need everybody doing their part.

Public transport 

Yes tubes are sweaty in the summer, buses run late and there's never a bike at the share point when you need one. But if we’re to cut the pollution that’s already killing us in our cities – while halting flooding and rising temperatures from killing of our plants and wildlife – then we need to stop being so self-absorbed and trade our cars for a bus pass.

“If the majority of people start using public transport, rather than driving, the system in your city would naturally improve,” said Andy. “More incentive and more income would mean more research into better trains or extra buses. It’s in our best interest in every way.”

And that’s before you even consider the idea of – shock ahead – more walkable cities. Pedestrianised roads, car-free city centres and free water points have all been trailed in cities and proven to get more people out of their cars and up on their legs. And who doesn’t love a stroll through their city?

Denser urban living 

We might bemoan how the latest sky scraper is ruining our city’s sky line. Or how  cramming new buildings among old ones is sacrilege. But the fact is that creating denser urban areas is significantly more environmentally friendly than sprawling ever-outwards into green belt land.

Not only does building within our city limits generally mean less plants, trees and wildlife being uprooted… it also means less, road, pipes and infrastructure having to be laid, all of which take their toll.

At the end of the day, we choose to live in cities and it’s only fair we best use what space we’ve already claimed, rather than dig up someone else’s. 

Greener, smarter cities

This is where mitigating climate change can actually be kind of fun. Cities are desperate for economic, effective ways to clean up their act and its opening up whole new opportunities while they explore. 

In Singapore entire sky scrapers are being built with vertical gardens running up their side, while Melbourne is using the structure of termites nests to design modern buildings that stay cool without the need for air conditioning. In Japan, kinetic energy pads are being placed under pavements to harness footsteps and power train stations.   

Not that it takes technological advances to make a difference, says Andy. “Even schemes such as local community gardening groups can have a huge impact on a city. We’ve just got to do it right. For instance, a lot of our parks were designed for the needs of 19th century society. Pretty flowers and endless grass isn’t always energy efficient, but trees will always be a city’s lungs.”

All-in-all, what it’s really going to take to avoid total disaster is for all of us to do our part. Whether that’s starting a gardening club, picking up litter or petitioning your council to focus on environmental issues… we can all do our part. It’s either that or eventually escape to the countryside. And who wants that right?



Written by Daniel Humphry – award-winning writer and founder of OFF LIFE, the UK’s only street press comic.