The cities of the (near) future

Earth Day 2020

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It is clear that our world needs transformational change. And the current situation has shown that it can happen, with millions of people around the world quickly adjusting to the “new normal”. If this can be the case for the way we exist socially, can this be the case for our approach to the environment, too?

Our cities, communities and businesses, and ourselves as individuals, need to address the impact we have on the environment.

The lockdown regulations that have been putting in place in countries across the world have had a huge impact on the environment, as well as our lives. With bars, restaurants, gyms and cinemas closed, public transportation running less, and many businesses working from home, it is expected that these restrictions could lead to a 2.5 billion metric tonnes fall in carbon emissions from fossil fuels - the biggest drop in demand on record.

But we need to continue to reduce our carbon emissions once we are through the pandemic. And we need to do more. Across the globe, governments, businesses and individuals need to be held accountable for the environmental crisis; and we all need to take action. through bold, creative and innovative solutions.

With ambitions to be a carbon neutral city region by 2038, Greater Manchester wants to be known for its flourishing environment as well as its economic success. Earlier this week, our Director of Environment, Bev Taylor (virtually!) joined Greater Manchester’s Cycling and Walking Commissioner, Chris Boardman and Business Unit Director Environmental Liability Solutions at AECOM, Rachel O’Donnell for the ‘Talking Without Limits’ podcast episode, ‘Clean, Green, Healthy’.

All of our cities have numerous challenges to face to lower their carbon footprint, from improving air quality to tackling road congestion. But there are many opportunities to take advantage of, too, such as low carbon transport; integrating new technologies to help our buildings perform better; and adopting green infrastructure. And that’s just to name a few. Together, Bev, Chris and Rachel discussed the pathways that we can create to deliver more liveable cities that give back to people and nature.

In the last few weeks we’ve seen a culture change that we’ve not seen for a generation, and many, if not all of us, will have struggled with this. “We need to recognise things that have changed that we like, though, like parents taking their kids out on bikes” says Chris. “Forty per cent of the workforce are classed as ‘key workers’ and a lot rely heavily on public transport, but many have switched to bikes.” With fewer cars on the roads, people are taking to their bikes and trying cycling. “We need to think about how we utilise this to change things going forward.”

Some cities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, are way ahead of the curve when it comes to greener transport, due to taking a community approach to pedestrianisation. The streets have been turned over to people and while you can make a journey in the car if you want, it’s not easy. “We need to give people more space to make essential journeys by walking or cycling,” says Chris. “We could make one way streets for the pandemic and after lockdown ask if people want to keep it. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, if we don’t utilise it, the car will bounce back higher as less people want to use public transport.”

It’s important that the positive changes that we’re currently seeing are embraced, not lost, after the pandemic. “We’ve hit upon some things we like by default, such as cycling and utilising technologies, and it’s about trying to embed them into normal behaviours,” says Bev. “A lot will naturally integrate and businesses will see the benefits.”

Back in June 2019, the UK committed to bringing all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, with cities across the country making their own commitments. Bruntwood has always taken a sustainable approach to business, choosing to recycle buildings rather than rebuild, and bringing new value and life to buildings by realising their full potential.

But we know that we can do more. As we build communities across our regions, it’s crucial that we embed sustainability into everything we do. In 2018, we became the UK’s first commercial property partner to commit to the UK Green Building Council’s Advancing Net Zero programme with the target of operating at net zero carbon by 2030.

It is vital that our businesses and cities are held accountable on targets, no matter how far down the road they seem right now. Long term goals give people the opportunity to adapt and understand what changes they can make to help businesses, cities and countries to meet their carbon commitments. No matter what the target dates might be, we all need to start making changes now.

Often groups can be reluctant to take action for fear of getting something wrong. Making decisions on how to become more sustainable can sometimes take a long time, and groups can be reluctant to take action for fear of the consequences of getting it wrong. “But we don’t take into account that waiting is a choice,” says Chris. “We’ve built this culture to protect ourselves but it’s hurting us now. It’s costing us more than we’re gaining.”

The current situation puts the world at a fork in the road when it comes to sustainability efforts. “One road leads us to a greener, more resilient economy and a stronger focus on the environmental agenda, but the other road blows a hole in the Paris agreement and everything we’ve worked hard to achieve so far,” explains Bev. “Once we’re out of lockdown, there’s a real chance we’ll go back into our cosy ruts. I sincerely hope it doesn’t but it’s a risk.”

People are appreciating the outdoors, wildlife is venturing out, pollution is reducing. Our towns and cities are quieter and cleaner. There is currently an opportunity to trial green initiatives such as shutting down streets and prioritising pedestrians and cyclists. This is a great change to show people the benefits of getting out of cars and using cycling, walking and public transport, and the much bigger benefits it can bring to our cities. As people think about walking and cycling as ways to exercise in lockdown, we need to think about how we keep that going post-lockdown.

Creating sustainable environments is of utmost importance to Bruntwood, as we know that we can only fulfil our purpose of creating thriving cities if we deliver sustainable and environmentally conscious spaces that support our customers, colleagues and communities.

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