Updated: May 6
I had the privilege of joining the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit in New York City earlier this fall. Amongst the many tracks at the event, my focus was on Infrastructure, Cities, and Local Action — how to bring climate solutions to bear in cities that are on the front lines of emissions, impact and action. As the creators of cities and the urban context, our profession plays an integral part of any climate crisis solution and must be actively involved in driving the world forward.
My key take-away from the summit is the broader societal success that will result when our cities transform into zero-carbon economies. Zero-carbon cities will be healthier, cleaner, more connected, more resilient, and the drivers of innovation and green economic success. They will be the places where you want your children and grandchildren to live. It’s hard to argue against that.
It is of utmost importance for the design industry to elevate the discussion around these greater societal benefits, especially in these times of disagreement over the urgency of the climate crisis. Focusing on the non-climatic benefits can drive greater change while we reap the environmental benefits. There are stories and threads for every audience — be it economic growth, resilience and security, human health, ecosystem restoration or social justice.
What can we do, as city designers, in a context where, as Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif, executive director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, said at the summit, 75% of the 2050 infrastructure has yet to be built? Here are a few ideas:
Bring long-term thinking to our projects. All our current buildings will be around in 2050 — are they able to make the transition and meet the 2050 goals for zero carbon?
Utilize full-cost, life-cycle accounting in our decision-making, bringing in the cost of carbon and societal impacts and evaluating them from construction to decommissioning.
Focus on the human experience — zero carbon means little if our projects aren’t wonderful places for people.
Focus discussions around non-carbon benefits to build stakeholder support.
Don’t look for a “new tech silver bullet” — the solutions we need, from heat pumps to solar and wind energy, are here, now.
Lead from within.*
While getting to zero carbon by 2050 is a daunting task, it is achievable. We see tremendous growth in action and commitment across the public and private sector — whether it’s Amazon’s recent Climate Pledge, New York City’s buildings’ carbon emissions law or the consortium success of the C40 Cities Initiative.
I’m bullish about our capabilities and the passion and talent across the AEC industry and beyond. Together, we can drive this exponential curve to zero carbon and enjoy a beautiful and healthy future in our cities — cities that will house 5 billion of us by 2050.
“Getting there [to zero carbon cities] will be the growth story of the 21st century.” —Lord Nicholas Stern, London School of Economics
* Here are a few of the things NBBJ is doing:
More than a decade of commitment to the Architecture 2030 Challenge
Leaders who are active in their communities, from driving local code changes to serving on national and international boards and committees, including the Living Futures Institute, the AIA’s Energy Leadership Group and ASHRAE
Founding sponsorship of and membership in Targeting 100! with the University of Washington
Our Legacy Project in partnership with the Nature Conservancy