Book Review

Life After Carbon

The Next Global Transformation of Cities
Peter Plastrik and John Cleveland

This is an encouraging read. It appraises 25 ‘innovation lab’ cities which are now acting to address climate change, as they must since by 2050, cities will comprise 70 per cent of the global population. City authorities vie with national governments to comply with the 2016 Paris Climate Change Agreement. When President Trump withdrew from the agreement, the Mayor of Pittsburgh, a city built on coal, announced it would go 100 per cent renewable energy by 2035. The book reveals creative networks such as the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance: 7,000 mayors have committed to carbon neutrality in the 21st century. Mayor Gregor Robertson of Vancouver brands his city a leader for green living; Enrique Penalosa, the pioneering mayor of Bogota, created the first car-free day back in 2000, and Oslo Mayor Raymond Johansen is excluding cars from the city centre.

The authors focus on four transformative ideas. The first is carbon free city advantage. By reducing consumption and investing in renewables and sustainable travel, Vancouver, Stockholm, Portland and Copenhagen aim to be carbon neutral by 2050, 2040, 2035 and 2025 respectively. Copenhagen’s residents have been investing in offshore wind for decades. Vancouver requires new buildings to be zero-emission. New York targeted the 2 per cent worst performing buildings to reduce energy consumption by 45 per cent, and retrofitting is becoming mandatory.

The second idea is efficient abundance: cities build circular economies of zerowaste and well-being is focussed on quality of life, relationships, community solidarity and shared experience, rather than GDP. Waste is a resource and goods are re-used or recycled. San Francisco is leading the way towards zero-waste.

The third idea is that nature provides the context for development: the city within the ecosystem. Singapore has embraced biophilic urbanism with 50 per cent tree cover and 90 miles of tree corridors. Melbourne’s response to drought was an urban forestry plan focussed on green infrastructure. Every tree has a financial value and the city is busy converting roads to green space, regulating for and grant-aiding green roofs and façades.

The final idea is that of adaptive futures: this includes compact city forms, Transit Oriented Development, and the revaluation of people and public space. Portland’s neighbourhoods aim to meet daily needs within a 20 minute walk or cycle ride. Vancouver has removed two flyovers to build homes for 8,000 residents, green space, shops and businesses. Copenhagen’s monitoring shows people increasingly outdoors enjoying urban space. 40 per cent of New Yorkers were found to be ‘aspiring greens’: green banks, green business support, carbon awareness in the professions and academia, as well as public engagement, all build a city-wide ecology for innovative action.

The book is a reminder for urban designers that climate change will be the main driver and opportunity for future placemaking. With planning, life after carbon can radically enhance quality of life. Realisation and action haven’t reached a tipping point yet but the authors feel that it’s not far off. From Mexico’s Zocalo District to Stockholm’s Royal Seaport, this book, even though it lacks visual imagery, showcases liveability and provides encouraging accounts of city leadership. It’s a useful reference for those looking to learn from elsewhere.  

URBAN DESIGN 151 Summer 2019 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 151 Summer 2019

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Life After Carbon  Publication Urban Design Group
Island Press
Reviewed By
Tim Hagyard