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Transforming cities is essential to save our planet, and transport professionals have a key part to play

The 20-minute neighbourhood is not an optional or woke cappuccino culture thing: it is essential to reduce travel and ensure that in the event of climate shock we can still function, argues LTT’s COP28 correspondent Martina Juvara

08 December 2023
From left: Susan Bridge, President of Royal Town Planning Institute; Dr Maimounah Sharif, Chief Executive of UN Habitat; and Martina Juvara, official observer for the International Society of City and Regional Planners and LTT’s correspondent at COP28
From left: Susan Bridge, President of Royal Town Planning Institute; Dr Maimounah Sharif, Chief Executive of UN Habitat; and Martina Juvara, official observer for the International Society of City and Regional Planners and LTT’s correspondent at COP28

Yesterday was a day of rest and reflection at COP28, meaning that there were no official meetings and the venue was closed. So, a group of us went ‘around town’ from event to event, talking to friends and fellow COP participants. I was lucky enough to share the floor at a Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) reception with Dr Maimounah Sharif, Chief Executive of UN Habitat, and Susan Bridge, President of RTPI.   

I talked, in simple terms, about the scientists’ message to us built environment professionals: there are two likely scenarios for the immediate future:

1. The 1.5C Overshoot Scenario, in which we will exceed the safe limit of 1.5C and enter irreversible damage, to land back – through effort and intense collaboration – to a new and transformed but stable world at around 1.5C. Today we already have reached 1.1C average, with a 2C average temperature rise in cities, and the carbon to ‘overshoot’ has already been emitted.

2. The 2.5-3.0C Temperature Increase Scenario, in which we move from natural catastrophe to catastrophe, with massive loss of life, climate migration and costs – but somehow, through human ingenuity we manage to cope.

 Scientists invited us to consider the difference 2-3C makes on our body temperature: a person is healthy and active at 37 degrees but unable to function or even in danger at 40 degrees. The same happens with nature, infrastructure and our homes.

This is why we must limit emissions as fast as possible, while we can still function, while we are at the onset of planetary illness, but also stock up and prepare for the illness is sure to come.

For my colleagues in the built environment professions, and transport professions in particular, we need a drive and ambition that we never had before. We have been talking for years… but it is now the time for massive action, and at speed. No room for complacency and no time for populist acquiescence.

Ministers and city leaders gathered officially for the first time ever under the COP process to discuss the future of urbanisation and transport. The message was clear: transformation in cities is essential to save our life on this planet. One hundred years of bad urbanisation needs to be undone. 

City leaders are braver than their governments in most large nations, where vote-seeking policies result in mixed messages and caution, when action is needed. The Coalition for High Ambition Multilevel Partnership (terrible UN language… but shortened to CHAMP) was launched at COP28 to recognise the role of cities and their right to direct funding to unable action. It has been endorsed by 65 countries so far.

Transport professionals have a fundamental role to play in all this.

First must come the recognition that we need deep and systemic change, not localised initiatives. This means we built environment professionals, of all backgrounds and affiliations, must work together and understand the synergies and cumulative effects of choices we make in planning, transport, architecture and landscape. We have to work around the imperfect and siloed way of working we have developed, in which transport plans are separate from development plans, for instance.

Second, we have to work at scale. One delegate said it clearly: the best mobility is the one we do not need – what we in the UK call, Reduce the Need to Travel. This needs urban restructuring, co-location of jobs, services and residential and must be done across each and every district of the city as quickly as possible.

The 20-minute neighbourhood concept is not an optional or woke cappuccino culture thing. It is essential to reduce travel and to ensure that in situations of climate shock we can still function: we can work, take kids to school, reach a local safe space or even simply buy food. Warsaw and Ghent worked in this direction.

Public transport must be 100% electrified within a few years and used as the routine way of travelling. Car use should be exceptional. Milan, Italy, already has 75% electric or hydrogen public transport: this required working with vehicle suppliers, changing routes and depots, retraining staff, change the whole operation and maintenance of the system. We must look again at each city, looking at key destinations present and future and plan accordingly.

Private car transport should not only be electric, but also shared and minimal. Demand for electricity will surge, and as a society we cannot afford to drive and leave essential services without power.

The logistic sector should restructure for maximum efficiency and zero emissions. Logistic hubs will change and operations too. IKEA has made massive strides across Europe and thinks the UK is unprepared.

Long distance travel should be by train, leaving air travel (which will be carbon neutral by 2050, according to the industry leaders) for international trips only.

None of the above is new in the UK, thank goodness. But what we need is ‘speed and scale’. That means consistent and integrated government policies – ministers for urban development, transport, environment, finance should work together for coordinated and integrated transformation plans.

Cities should have the certainty of long term structural funding to be able to engage in long term strategies and engage the private sector. Mixed messaging should be eliminated and public opinion should focus on wanting to reach a safer space.

While all this happens, we professionals have to work around an unpropitious system. We have to be excellent communicators to the stakeholders and communities we work with. We need to abide by current regulations, but at the same time be creative with new and more appropriate assessments of benefits and long term impacts of everything we do. We have to envision the new future and anticipate it.

Martina Juvara is Director - Master Planning at Urban Silence

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