Blog Post

How can we build sustainable places?

Achieving the Mayor of London’s ambitious target of net zero carbon emissions by 2030 will require substantial changes to London’s built environment. At a recent roundtable, supported by KPF, we looked at what this means for our neighbourhoods and how to create and deliver a collective vision for net zero that supports sustainable communities. 

Knowing the rules before running the race 

Every race has its own set of rules. The global race to net zero requires not only discipline, but a clear and holistic definition that can be adopted and acted on by all.  

Net zero targets currently tend to be focused exclusively on carbon. However, a wider understanding of how the reduction of carbon emissions, particularly embodied carbon connects with other environmental concerns such as air quality and biodiversity, will be key to building sustainable neighbourhoods. A holistic understanding of net zero will also mean changes to how we live and what we consume, not just the buildings we live in. It should be easy for people to live sustainable lifestyles. Such a broad and inclusive definition of net zero can only be achieved when delivered in partnership with a diverse group of people- from landowners and utility providers to the government and communities themselves. It will also require different sectors to work together according to a shared vision, with language that can be understood by all.  

Reports such as Capital Consumption, published in 2009, are a reminder that a lot of good work has already been done on this. As one attendee remarked, “we’re not aware of what we already know”, and so it’s important to build upon existing knowledge and gather examples of best practice.  

Working with what already exists  

80 per cent of the homes that London will have in 2030 already exist. Though achieving net zero in new developments is a relatively easier task, refurbishing these existing buildings and infrastructure should be prioritised. New builds and retrofitting can go hand in hand. A useful way to bring the two together is to erase the red line drawn around sites in planning applications that prevent the benefits of new developments spilling over into surrounding areas. Doing so ensures that communities in older and often poorer parts of a neighbourhood aren’t left behind by regeneration and can expect the same standards as new builds. Local authorities can play an important role in delivering retrofits and in some cases have proved to be more credible than national government. They should be supported to develop their own retrofitting programmes and to coordinate work with other local authorities who don’t have enough capacity or resources. 

Making the best use out of what already exists also means ensuring that buildings and places are adaptable and long lasting. London has a mix of areas, some of which have buildings that have existed for over 200 years, and other commercial areas with buildings that have a lifespan of 30 years. As some uses such as retail change it is worth considering how adaptable they are to more relevant uses. 

Valuing London’s green and blue  

How can we ensure that our understanding of the built environment is as expansive and inclusive as our goal for net zero? Our roundtable discussion highlighted the need to bring the ‘non-built environment’ such as agricultural land and water catchment areas into the wider conversation. London’s landscape could then be seen as a functional aspect of the city’s urban environment, rather than just an attraction. The Greater London Authority’s CLEVER Cities project for example explores nature-based solutions to issues such as the urban heat island effect in the Thamesmead area. There are also modelling systems that research how making areas greener, by planting more trees for example, can mitigate wind and sun effects. And green and blue landscapes can also be used to join places together in a meaningful way that encourages healthier and more active lifestyles. This can be a useful way of getting people out of their cars, and creating places that people want to spend time in. 

Projecting into the future 

What kinds of places and neighbourhoods will be fit for purpose in 2030? How will we be living, working and travelling? What type of infrastructure will we need to support sustainable and diverse livelihoods? These questions are of course difficult to answer. However, developing schemes that have multiple uses and are adaptable will enable future resilience and build sustainable communities. This is especially important now given that many projects and developments already in progress will only reach completion at the end of this decade.  

Moving forward there was a consensus between attendees that the urgency of reaching net zero should be communicated better to those who need more convincing. Some suggested that scenario planning of what London would look like in the future without interventions could create a political imperative for change. Others also suggested that London could sign up to the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TFCD) in order to make the business case for action. We know that the solutions already exist, as do the levers that can be used by the Mayor and local authorities. What we now need is urgent collective action to get us to the finish line. 

Nikita Quarshie is a Researcher at Centre for London. Read more from her here