Earth convention: sustainable cities -

20 May 2021

t the moment, 55% of the population live in cities and the UN estimates that 68% will live in cities by 2050. We have to live somewhere and cannot simply build houses all over the countryside so the question is, how can we make cities sustainable? Cross bench peer Rosie Boycott chaired the panel of experts: Rohan Silva, Chris Boardman, Kate Elliot and Isabel Dedring.

Rohan Silva, founder and CEO of Second Home

At Second Home, our aim is to bring as much nature into buildings and cities as possible. We’re trying to green the places we work, and where we spend so much of our time. This has been our goal since we founded the business in London in 2014.

But in truth, London was challenging. Local councils made it very difficult to be innovative. When we opened our office space in Spitalfields, we planted eight fruit trees in front of the building and the local council told us to chop them all down as ‘fruit trees make a mess’. We didn’t do that, our little act of civil disobedience. But in London everything was always a fight. We packed up and went to Los Angeles instead.

In LA, you can pretty much do whatever you want when it comes to design. So, we took a two-acre derelict parking lot and a historic building (that was going to get knocked down), and we made it into a network of offices surrounded by 6,500 trees. According to the Mayor of Los Angeles, it’s the densest urban forest in the city. We’ve pushed some of the boundaries of sustainable urban design and shown what’s possible.

As Richard Rogers once said, everyone should be able to see a tree from their window. There’s something very good for us about being surrounded by nature. Roughly 60% of the office campus is outdoors and we have 150 different species of planted trees, huge numbers of animals, hummingbirds, possums and butterflies. To go from a grey derelict piece of asphalt to this urban jungle really shows what’s possible.

"Bringing nature into our buildings or bringing our buildings out into nature is great for the environment and great for sustainability, but it’s really great for us too."

The historic building on the site was due to be knocked down which was sad, partly because of the lost history - the building was designed by Paul Williams, the first African American to be admitted to the Architects Association of America. And partly because by knocking the building down and building a new one, even if that new one is energy efficient, the amount of water, energy, carbon and materials used to construct the building is vast and the energy-efficient standards don’t take that into account. In my view, it’s always better to make do and mend, so every Second Home is a refurbished derelict building.

Another reason to care about sustainability is the word biophilia, the innate connection all of us have to nature. Being surrounded by plants and trees is a world away from the sterile cubicles of typical offices. Bringing nature into our buildings or bringing our buildings out into nature is great for the environment and great for sustainability, but it’s really great for us too.

Chris Boardman, Olympic gold medallist, entrepreneur and active travel advocate

In 2005, I led the British Olympic team’s R&D programme, technically known as the Secret Squirrel club. Our cunning plan was to use this wonderful measuring device - a wind tunnel - to generate data and evidence to develop clothing equipment to make the team go faster. An amazing three years followed which led to the production of 1,743 pieces of equipment that would, according to the evidence, improve the athletes’ performance by a staggering 7%.

The year before the Olympics, I went to a qualifying event in Holland where I gave this new equipment to the athletes and told them why they should change what they were doing. Then I went up to the stands and watched 80% of the athletes carry on doing exactly as they did before. I couldn’t believe it! In my arrogance and ignorance, I had completely discounted the human factor - that they had spent years, blood, sweat and tears, working towards something, and I had just come along and said ‘oh you don’t want to do it like that, you want to do it like this’. Despite the evidence, they chose to stick with what they knew; the penny dropped.

I rushed back to the UK and cut a hole in the ceiling of our wind tunnel so an overhead projector could project data onto the floor. Then we invited the whole Olympic squad to try it out. We didn’t tell them what to do, we simply showed them live data in a format they chose. They experimented and they watched the numbers change, and then they began to ask questions. When asked, the experts advised, and eventually all of the athletes changed their positions and adopted the new equipment because this was no longer someone else’s plan or decision, it was theirs and they owned it.

This unlikely experience was invaluable 15 years later when I accepted the position of Cycling and Walking Commissioner for Andy Burnham, when he became the Mayor of Greater Manchester. The mission there was essentially: get cars out of the region. But how do we get people to change? The answer is: you can’t, it has to be their choice. What we needed was a wind tunnel for councillors and officers, a place where they could explore.

We took a blank map of the area, some felt-tip pens and an expert who asked the right questions. Everyone could agree that more walking and cycling would be better, but who was most prepared to make those changes? Perhaps kids on the school run? We worked out where families lived, where they wanted to get to and any barriers on their journey, such as roads, canals and trains. How could we get across them? Routes were drawn onto the map and eventually, a plan was devised for each of the 10 boroughs. Importantly, it was their plan - the councillors and officers - they were literally and figuratively holding the pen. That exercise has led to a 180-mile joined-up plan for a region.

My experience has shown me that we are creatures of instinct and will always opt for the easiest thing, even if it’s to our own long-term detriment. It’s instinct and emotions that we must appeal to if we want change.

Kate Elliot, deputy head of ethical research, Rathbones Greenbank

Over half of the world’s population - that’s around 3.9 billion people - live in cities, and if they’re poorly planned and poorly managed, they can be massive drains on natural capital and require huge amounts of resources to house, feed, transport and entertain their residents. However, cities also present a huge opportunity for change and leadership on sustainability issues because if you invest in sustainability innovations in denser populations, you get more bang for your buck.

Estimates vary, but up to $5trillion in annual infrastructure investment is needed to support the growing urban populations around the world. Some of that money will come from public spending but that alone can’t fill this gap. We need private capital, we need investment, that’s the key to meeting the funding gap. And there are two ways you can generate impact through your investments. Firstly, you can really know where your money is invested and understand if and how it’s helping us shift towards a more sustainable world. Secondly, there’s the impact of you or your investment manager as an investor.

"Estimates vary, but up to $5trillion in annual infrastructure investment is needed to support the growing urban populations around the world. "

Innovations are incredibly important but we’re not going to achieve the change we need just by focusing on new ideas. We need to think about how we can encourage change from within the existing urban environment and within the existing infrastructure. For example, how can we retrofit existing buildings to make them more energy-efficient? How can we get companies to think in a more circular way about how they use and dispose of resources?

This comes back to my second point about how investors can create impact and generate positive change in the world. That might be something as simple as a letter sent to the CEO of a company asking them how they are thinking about an issue or encouraging them to be more proactive on sustainability. Or it could be through voting at AGMs, and in-depth dialogue with senior management to get them to think strategically about sustainability and long-term value creation.

The main message that I want to get across today is investors can play a pivotal role in helping cities become more sustainable. They can help to direct capital to support innovation and sustainable opportunities and they can use their influence to shift behaviour towards more responsible practices. We need real ambition, not just to address sustainability within cities, but to address sustainability within the broader environment too.

Isabel Dedring, global transport leader at Arup

Why aren’t we doing all this stuff already? I have five observations. Firstly, transformational change - we don’t want one hydrogen bus or ten hydrogen buses, we want thousands of zero-emission buses on the network. The technology exists and the business models exist and yes, sometimes it’s a bit more expensive but often it isn’t that much more. But to achieve transformational change, you need real focus, tenacity and a secret coalition behind the scenes between the private sector, public sector and journalists, an alliance for change. There are lots of great ideas, but we fall apart when it comes to seeing them through. Simply having another good idea isn’t that helpful.

My second point is, know your audience. A lot of people involved in city policymaking tend to be very progressive, idealistic and morally motivated - they want to do the right thing. And we tend to design policies for people like us. But that isn’t what motivates a lot of people who may want to save time, money and do what their neighbours are doing. That’s what we need to tap into and embrace. So the fundamental challenge is listening, which we aren’t very good at.

Thirdly, there’s a real focus on new technology and flying cars, which are always coming next year. Why aren’t we talking about the hundreds of kilometres of cycling infrastructure we need? And how can we get thousands of buses to be converted to electric? There’s an obsession with the new technology rather than rolling out the thing that’s right in front of us. We need to focus on the boring stuff but it’s so much easier to talk about flying cars.

The fourth point is around equity. In LA for example, 75% of people voted to add 0.25% on the sales tax to invest in public transport, that’s how bad public transport is in LA. Over 30 years that created a huge bucket of money that can be invested in transit, walking, cycling. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had that kind of money? But there’s been big issues in a lot of communities around equity, gentrification and displacement. The issue is: how do we design schemes which aren’t just disrupting communities and are actually enhancing existing communities? We won’t be able to get to grips with public transport until we start to tackle those kinds of issues.

Finally, cities need to bring together the right skills and attitudes and the right emotional stance. We are seeing the beginning of that change now and by tackling that, we can make change happen.

Read our latest Planet Paper: the economic ecosystem on how businesses, societies and investors can work together.  

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