How sustainability will change the look and feel of our cities

Far-sighted innovators working in sectors such as property and logistics are aiming to make urban areas in the UK both more sustainable and human-friendly spaces


Buildings and motor vehicles are fundamental parts of the modern metropolis – and both are among the largest contributors to global carbon emissions, given the former’s need for heat and power, and the latter’s continuing dependence on the internal combustion engine. The good news is that sustainability concerns are at the forefront of several initiatives to shape the cities of the future.

Planet Mark is an organisation that’s committed to transforming society through the measurement of carbon and social data. It certifies businesses and properties for cutting their carbon emissions.

“To keep the certification, an organisation must reduce its carbon footprint every year,” explains Planet Mark’s founder and CEO, Steve Malkin. “On average, certified businesses make a 16% carbon saving per employee through efficiencies in energy, waste, water, travel and procurement.”

Malkin says companies that make year-on-year reductions can achieve benefits ranging from efficiency gains and cost savings to an enhanced ability to attract and retain the most talented people.

Mount Anvil is the first residential property developer to have achieved Planet Mark’s certification for new developments. The firm’s marketing director, Tom Beardmore, says that its goal is for residents to thrive in their homes.

“We know that healthy homes contribute to residents’ wellbeing,” he says. “We’ve put that principle at the heart of the homes and communities we’re building. Examples of this include the 5,000m2 of landscaped green space we’ve introduced at Royal Eden Docks in the London Borough of Newham and the biodiversity net gain we’re incorporating into The Verdean, our scheme in Ealing.”

Elsewhere, architectural firm Heatherwick Studio – famed for designing the new Routemaster bus and the cauldron for the London 2012 Olympics – is prioritising large urban projects with the greatest potential to benefit society. It states that some of these developments “use technology such as the solar panels and geothermal piles, but we also use nature. Trees not only sequester carbon; they also create a more human environment than the relentless monotony of hard surfaces.”

Underground transport as the future?

It’s not only the urban construction sector that’s developing innovative solutions to tackle climate change. For instance, Oxfordshire County Council has just collaborated with AI software firm Alchera Technologies on a system to support connected and autonomous vehicles.

The company’s co-founder and head of operations, Anna Jordan, says: “As cities adopt electric buses, tram systems, micro-mobility services or any other shared transport modes, having control of how these mechanisms get used for the benefit of citizens and commuters is becoming ever more important.” 

Consumer demand and legislation are also driving the development of greener transport and logistics systems. For instance, the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles will be banned in the UK from 2030. But, when it comes to the movement of goods, there is an alternative to electric vehicles. London firm Magway is developing a zero-emissions underground delivery network that claims to reduce the need for HGVs.

“It doesn’t rely on battery power and can, when connected to a renewable energy source, deliver goods without releasing any emissions,” says Huw Thomas, the company’s development director. “At the same time, by removing the need for vehicles, Magway also reduces city congestion.”

Thomas says that there has often been a focus, in planning new urban developments, on how cities work for drivers, rather than for other road users and pedestrians.

“Imagine a city where products are delivered through pipes, enabling most HGVs to be taken off the road: you instantly far less traffic to deal with,” he says. “Then, if you connect all the remaining vehicles in a network, they can move faster. Vehicles linked this way can travel at a more constant speed, as they know what those in front of them are doing. If people are also sharing vehicles, you reduce the need for car parking space as well. The land freed up can then be put to better use – converted into green areas for people to enjoy, for instance.”

Human-centric cities of the future

Although tackling climate change is clearly a priority, much of the sustainable development occurring in cities goes beyond the pressing need to reduce carbon emissions. Innovators see their work as a chance for cities to be reshaped into places of togetherness, according to Thomas.

“Sustainable cities should not just be thought about as being better for the planet – although they undoubtedly will be – but better for people living and working in them too,” he says. “With all these exciting developments, we have so much to look forward to with our cities. It’s an exciting time of innovation and action, with the goal of a cleaner, healthier planet within our reach.”