Greener Urban Development –
The Ultimate Balancing Act

With cities now responsible for around 70-75% of all greenhouse gas emissions and around 80% of global energy consumption, the race is on to secure better ways to expand and maintain urban areas with human and environmental health in mind. Sustainable urban development, green cities, however you choose to term it, this philosophy is at the heart of future efforts that will allow humans to accommodate expanding populations while balancing the needs of nature.

Realising truly green cities is still a long way off, particularly in many of the world’s largest and unsustainable urban sprawls, but 2024 has already shown interesting advances on several fronts. From urban transportation and energy, to the spread of living roofs and deeper, more sustainable financing to support this increasingly influential design approach, green cities are setting their roots.

Thinking green for mass urban transit

Cities never sleep and the transportation of millions of people and vehicles in condensed cities’ arterial routes is frequently the cause of nightmare delays, needless emissions and worsening air pollution that affects the entire urban population. 

Recent years have promised big things on the smart urban transport front. From automated trains to flying taxis, there’s plenty to capture the imagination of city dwellers thinking about how they will make their daily journeys in the future. However, right now, the emphasis is on scaling up and interconnecting existing transportation systems so they can deliver sustainability benefits (economic and environmental) as quickly as possible.

Recent developments: Copenhagen recently reported that almost half of all trips to work or school are done on bicycles, up from a third just 10 years ago. Simple yet effective “bike-centric” infrastructure is partly behind the rise, as all expansions of the city factor in traffic calmed streets, painted bike lanes, curb-separated cycle tracks, and green routes to ensure that cyclists have safe, appealing routes to wherever they need to go.

Integration of EV charging is another vital aspect of greener urban transportation, and cities across the world are finding innovative ways to incorporate electric charger infrastructure into condensed areas. Nottingham, which aims to be the UK’s first carbon neutral city by 2028 is building wireless charging lanes on city roads, which allows EVs to drive over charging pads and recharge their batteries while on the go. This keeps traffic flowing without relying on space-intensive charging points.

Dubai is one of the world’s most ambitious cities for embracing green mobility, and even as it ramps up its own EV charging infrastructure – expanding the network by 175% to over 1,000 charging stations by 2025 – it’s looking ahead to new horizons. Last month saw Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) unveil their plans for a Floc Duo Rail system, a highly efficient, electrically powered and driverless train network that can adapting to peak and off-peak traffic volumes due to its double-track setup. At the same time, RTA has begun feasibility studies for a unique Railbus system, which is also autonomous and travels on solar-powered tracks to travel over many of the city’s bridges. 

Up on the Roof – Rooftops untapped source of green urban development

Whether you build out, up or down, expanding cities in a sustainable manner is never easy when space is in short supply and the act of building further only compounds the issue. However, all buildings in all cities share a common factor: they have a roof. Millions of buildings offer up tens of millions of square metres of roof space, space that is being eyed by sustainable city designers.

Recent developments: The EU Science Hub just released a new study into Rooftop photovoltaics (RTPVs) with findings that suggest emerging technologies will boost their efficiency by 30% in the coming years. This offers the immediate benefits of building decarbonisation, more energy for the city’s power grid, alongside job opportunities and greater public awareness of climate issues.

Alongside solar PV deployments, rooftops are fertile ground for gardens and greenery that can help cool buildings while drawing off carbon and providing much-needed spaces for peace wellbeing in crowded cities. Paris is, in fact, the world’s 7th most crowded city, and climate change is pushing its summer temperatures up to record highs of 42.6C. 70-80% of Parisian buildings’ rooftops are made of zinc, which raise the building’s temperature by absorbing the sun’s rays, and slope, making them more difficult to use for gardens. However, a trio of French architects – The Roofscapes team – are introducing wooden platforms fixed across the sloping panels to create roof gardens, terraces and even walkways. Once the design is perfected and scaled up, Paris rooftops will have a novel and sustainable method of stopping the zinc overheating, while increasing biodiversity and creating new outdoor spaces for residents.

Sustainable finance – Green currency for green cities

Money is invariably the key for unlocking faster sustainability gains, especially in a highly lucrative and competitive business such as urban construction. Designing, planning and executing greener cities requires substantial backing from the outset, especially in situations where there is pressure to build faster, wider and cheaper to satisfy demand.

Recent developments: Sustainable finance was a core topic at COP28, The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) spoke extensively about its current and future plans for encouraging all manner of international financial institutions to work with both regional governments and urban planners to directly finance greener cities. Its ongoing flagship Green Cities programme is currently supporting over 50 cities worldwide to tackle their most pressing environmental challenges through targeted investment, policy action development, stakeholder engagement and capacity building. 

State-level funding and development programmes are also essential, as nations form key partnerships to deliver sustainable cities of the future. On 2nd February 2024, Italy pledged an initial $6 billion as part of an ongoing effort to bridge Africa’s infrastructure gap of $68–108 billion annually, with smarter, greener cities at the heart of the pledge’s intended use.

Expansion without destruction – Green cities are an immediate priority

While population growth and faster urbanisation are almost taken for granted as ongoing trends stretching into the next multiple decades, determining how to expand cities while balancing the load environmentally does not figure into public debate and governmental policy nearly enough. Urban design is, by necessity, a fluid practice that must evolve to the rapidly changing needs and realities of cities and their inhabitants, so a longer-term vision must be introduced from above.

To create smarter, greener cities of the future that can accommodate the rising influx of residents without devastating the area’s biodiversity and degrading its overall environmental quality, both broader government policy and specific regulatory landscapes must catch up. Regulators have an invaluable role to play in directing construction and maintenance efforts – prompting the use of sustainable materials, embracing energy efficiency methods, etc – while governments must continue to set the green tone for the kind of future urban infrastructure systems they want to support and endorse.

As early 2024 proves, however, innovations and technological advancements are pushing cities towards sustainability gains. Tying these multiple sources of innovation and advancement together into an integrated green city setup will be the test of the coming years.