The Fight Against Climate Change Starts in Cities

Urban design can help to solve our most pressing environmental challenges.

The global challenges we face today — climate change, population growth, and the degradation of the natural environment — threaten not only our way of life, but the survival of our planet. To address these interconnected issues, we should start by looking at cities.

Looking at cities holistically

Animated clip from a video introduction to RegenCities, an SOM research initiative seeking to balance equitable economic development with sustainability and public health. Image © SOM


Cities are very complex organisms. We have to consider not just built structures — roads, infrastructure, buildings — but also the natural environment, economic resiliency, social equity, and cultural history. City planners and architects don’t have all the answers. We need to start a broad dialogue with experts from many fields, and work together to invent solutions.

Three key areas have enormous potential to transform the sustainable impact of cities: energy, transportation, and technology.

How will clean energy transform cities?

Charenton-Bercy Masterplan
In Paris, the master plan for the Charenton-Bercy redevelopment applies a holistic energy strategy at the scale of a city district — combining a range of systems and new technologies to lay the groundwork for a “net-zero” future. Image © SOM

New, large-scale urban development projects could implement even more progressive measures beyond net-zero. If a majority of new developments can aspire to become “net-positive” and produce more energy than they consume, this could help overcome deficiencies elsewhere, and allow cities and nations to reach key targets more rapidly.

How should we reinvent urban transit?

Autonomous electric vehicles (A-EVs) seem to promise sweeping changes to the very nature of the city itself. Because these vehicles could be used more efficiently, they open up the opportunity to reclaim urban space for any number of other uses — an idea we explored in a design study for repurposing the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in New York City as a green corridor for people and nature.

SOM’s proposal to rethink mobility in the City of London prioritizes walking and autonomous “microtransit” within the city core. © SOM

Employing efficient forms of “microtransit” is another strategy that deserves attention. Small, energy-efficient shared vehicles can fill in the “last mile” mobility gaps between mass transit systems, providing more options for mobility while reducing a city’s overall carbon footprint. By creating finer-grained networks throughout extended regions, suburbs can become more sustainably connected to the urban core, while traditional city centers can be reinvented. Our studio recently explored the potential of these ideas and more in a study for the City of London. By encouraging walking, cycling, and shared microtransit, we could reduce emissions, improve air quality, relieve congestion, and reclaim street space for people.

Holistic urban design can tie all of these threads together into a complete, coherent vision.

How will we define the “smart city”?

The responsibility for harnessing this information falls on the shoulders of both citizens and city leaders. Data can help us measure and understand the individual and collective impacts of energy use — and this type of awareness can influence decisions and empower individuals to embrace their role in creating a more sustainable future.

We’re all in this together

Dan Ringelstein, an architect and urban designer, leads SOM’s City Design Practice in London.