Life After Carbon: The Next Global Transformation of Cities

Life After Carbon: The Next Global Transformation of Cities

by Peter Plastrik, John Cleveland

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In Life After Carbon urban sustainability consultants Pete Plastrik and John Cleveland present a global pattern of reinvention from the stories of 25 "innovation lab" cities—from Copenhagento Melbourne. Plastrik and Cleveland show that four transformational ideas are driving urban climate innovation around the world: carbon-free advantage, efficient abundance, nature's benefits, and adaptive futures.

Life After Carbon presents the new ideas that are replacing the pillars of the modern-city model, converting climate disaster into urban opportunity, and shaping the next transformation of cities worldwide. It will inspire anyone who cares about the future of our cities, and help them to map a sustainable pathforward.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781610918503
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 12/04/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 987,664
File size: 437 KB

About the Author

Peter Plastrik and John Cleveland are cofounders of the Innovation Network for Communities. They were founding consultants to the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN), coauthors of several INC reports about cities and climate change, and coauthors of Connecting to Change the World: Harnessing the Power of Networks for Social Impact. Peter was manager of USDN's Innovation Fund. John serves as executive director of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission.

Read an Excerpt


Innovation Proliferation

Cities are standing up, taking action and using one single, unified voice to combat the effects of climate change.

— Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo1

When you spend time in some of the world's most prominent urban climate innovation laboratories, as we have, you can see the future of cities in the making. A whirlwind world tour of the labs would provide a set of unique urban experiences.

In San Francisco, we would visit a huge facility on a pier on the city's famous bay. We'd put on white plastic hardhats and roam through the noisy, solar-powered Recology building, around machines that sort 1.5 million pounds of urban waste every day — garbage, paper, food scraps, bottles and cans, computers, batteries, furniture, and much more — all destined for recycling, composting, and reuse. "A world without waste" is the plant's mantra.

In Copenhagen, we would take a bicycle ride during the evening rush hour that sends tens of thousands of bicyclists streaming home from work and school along a specially designed 242-mile street-and-road network that is a route of choice for commuters. It's a constant flow of people, young and old, managers in suits, women in high heels, parents hauling children — in a city that has more bikes than cars.

Alongside Boston's sparkling harbor on a clear morning, we would visit an eight-story, 132-bed hospital built on a waterfront site raised more than three feet above the existing ground level, with critical electrical equipment located on the roof instead of in the basement to avoid flooding from rising seas and storm surges. We'd walk around the building's exterior to see landscape walls that will serve as artificial reefs to buffer rising waters.

In Mexico City, we would ride one of the hundreds of red, articulated Metrobúses that move along bus-only corridors in the city's extensive bus rapid transit (BRT) system. Every day, nearly one million passengers, including many car owners, take the fast, reliable service, which didn't exist just ten years ago.

In Shanghai, inside a building on North Zhongshan Road, we would eyeball a huge, wall-mounted computerized board that displays trading prices for the city's cap-and-trade market for CO2 emissions of more than three hundred companies. You can monitor market activity on a smartphone, if you read Chinese.

One afternoon, in Vancouver's Southeast False Creek neighborhood, under the Cambie Street Bridge, we would tour the first pump station in Canada that mines sewage for heat to warm water that circulates into nearby buildings and heats thousands of residences.

In New York City, we would head offshore to see where the $60 million Living Breakwaters project is installing a half-mile-long underwater "necklace" of stone and bioenhancing concrete mounds and restoring oyster beds to protect a community and beaches destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. "Rather than cutting communities off from the water with a levee or wall," proclaim project designers, "our approach embraces the water."

In Rotterdam, we'd walk through the Zoho "climate-proof" district and into Benthemplein Water Square while it is dry — a large public space for mingling, events, and recreation that also serves as a giant rainwater collector, with a water wall, a rain well designed to visibly gush rainwater onto the square, and three basins that collect water and slowly release it into the ground.

We could show you much more of the climate-driven urban future.

In Oslo, we could visit the city hall where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded, then have a beer in a café on nearby, treelined Karl Johans Gate, the city's main street, in a historic business and office downtown area from which cars will be banned starting in 2019.

In Seattle, we could climb the wood-and-steel steps of the six-story Bullitt Center, described by owners as the "greenest commercial building in the world." The center is designed to function "like a forest of Douglas fir trees," explains Bullitt Foundation president Denis Hayes, a cofounder of Earth Day, "getting its energy from the sun, soaking up the rainwater, and serving as an incredible public amenity."

In Sydney, we could enjoy views of the iconic opera house and busy harbor from one of the downtown office buildings that have reduced GHG emissions by more than 45 percent, saving $21.6 million a year on electricity costs, and have cut annual water consumption by 36 percent, the equivalent of nearly two thousand Olympic-sized swimming pools.

In Minneapolis, we could ride on the eleven-mile-long electric light-rail, Green Line, opened in 2014 with eighteen stations, operating twenty-four hours a day through bustling neighborhoods and corridors and carrying an average of nearly forty thousand riders each weekday. Initial plans for the $1 billion line changed after community groups protested that low-income neighborhoods with majority African American and immigrant populations would be bypassed.

In Portland, Oregon, sixty miles from the Pacific Ocean, we could jog over the Willamette River on Tilikum Crossing, the first major bridge in America for pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transit only — no cars or trucks. The $135-million span's design was raised three feet to accommodate future tidal surges on the river.

In Stockholm, we could peddle an electric bicycle through the Royal Seaport, a completely new low-carbon-emissions district that is just minutes from the city center and will have nearly fifty thousand housing and office units powered by renewable energy. Developers have had no problem selling apartments, and there was a waiting list for rentals.

The urban future lives online, too, in case you want to trek there without leaving home.

You can send emails to any of Melbourne's seventy-seven thousand publicly owned trees. Since 2013, many of them have received love letters from around the world. One tree got an email asking it how to solve Greece's financial crisis. The golden elm at Punt Road and Alexandra Avenue was saved from being removed to widen a road because it had received so many adoring emails from locals.

At the website for Cape Town, the first African city to adopt a climate-change strategy, you can listen to a catchy tune, "Get Your Piece of the Sun," a mix of traditional South African music and other music genres that was commissioned by the city government to promote the use of solar water heaters — a campaign that contributed to the installation of forty-six thousand of the devices.

Each of these examples is a city innovation in response to climate change. Promoting bicycling and walking, speeding up bus movement through a city, and banning cars from central districts are ways to reduce the urban flow of gas-powered cars and their GHG emissions. Cutting energy consumption in buildings and by industries, recycling waste, mining wastewater for heat instead of burning fossil fuels, and promoting solar water heaters also lessen damaging emissions. Redesigning buildings, public squares, and coastlines and raising bridge heights reduce a city's vulnerability to flooding and sea-level rise due to climate change, while caring for a city's trees soaks up excess storm water and helps cool streets subject to increasingly hot weather.

Many of these city innovations have received recognition and awards from organizations pushing for climate action. Many are being adopted by other cities. Taken together they amount to just a small fraction of the vast portfolio of innovations under way in these climate-lab and other cities worldwide. They are the leading edge of a rising wave of urban change.

When global warming appeared on the world's radar screen in the late 1980s, few people worried about what cities would do about it. Cities were widely regarded as environmental villains, not saviors. Even two decades later, says Sadhu Johnston, then Chicago's chief environmental officer, "Most environmental groups were not seeing cities as playing a role when it came to climate change and environmental benefits. Cities were still viewed as 'the evil city,' with pollution coming out and resources going in to be consumed."

It was widely assumed that a serious response to climate change was up to national governments cooperating internationally, as well as private investors and professionals like engineers and architects. Those who did think about a role for cities weren't sure how muchcities could do or would be willing to do to reduce GHG emissions. These types of concerns hindered advocates of city climate innovation for many years. Steve Nicholas recalls the first cabinet meeting of Seattle's newly elected mayor in January 2001, when he was the city's director of sustainability: "We were developing the mayor's first 100-day agenda. The mayor asked what should be in the agenda, what should he try to accomplish? I raised my hand and said, 'Mr. Mayor, what we need is a climate action plan.'" The suggestion got a vigorous reaction. "The idea drew more than a few chuckles from some of the mayor's other advisers," says Nicholas, now working at a nonprofit that helps cities develop and implement climate strategies. "They said things like, 'This is a 100-day agenda, Steve, not a 100-year agenda' and 'They call it global warning for a reason, Steve.' Even in a politically progressive city like Seattle, the feeling was that we don't have a dog in the climate fight, it is not our issue, and that there is not enough that we can do to make it worthwhile to invest the political and financial capital."

In 2009, mayors showed up in force in Copenhagen to influence national leaders negotiating at the United Nations conference to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but they were kept on the sidelines. "We had a tent in the middle of the town square," recalls Michael Bloomberg, then-mayor of New York City. "Mayors couldn't even get into the main conference hall." The talks failed, but six years later, when national leaders met in Paris to try again to reach an agreement, cities were in the spotlight. By then the UN had reported that as much as 70 percent of global GHG emissions was produced in cities: "Urban centres have become the real battleground in the fight against climate change." Its top executive, Ban Kimoon, had told his bosses, the world's nation-states, that the "struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost" in cities.

When the Paris talks opened, leaders from more than four hundred cities assembled at the Renaissance-era Hôtel de Ville (city hall) to press national leaders and pledge collective support for ambitious climate-change efforts. A year and a half later, when President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the US from the Paris climate accord to reduce GHG emissions, nearly three hundred American mayors rose up in defiance and pledged publicly to uphold the agreement. By then, membership in the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy exceeded seven thousand cities committed to achieve a carbon-neutral world this century. Meanwhile, a global network with a focus on the climate risks of urban areas, the 100 Resilient Cities, had expanded to cities that contained a total of five hundred million people.

The mounting urban uproar has helped turn up the heat on national governments to take climate action. More significant, though, has been the outpouring of urban climate innovations, which shows national leaders and everyone else that cities are doing a great deal in response to climate change — and could do even more.

Cities determined to take ambitious climate action have had to invent nearly all of what they've done. "When we did the first global warming analyses, realizing how huge the issue was, we wondered how we could ever reduce our emissions," recalls Susan Anderson, director of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability in Portland, Oregon. She participated in one of the earliest efforts to figure out what cities could do, the 1991 Urban CO2 Reduction Project: "I used to live on the ocean. Huge ships would go through the channel between the coast and an island. If they wanted to shift the direction of these gigantic tankers, they had to start doing it a mile ahead of time. That's how we city people felt: we have this huge world running on fossil fuels and we see this end point to get to. But how do we move the tanker?"

Even traditional responses to climatic risks, such as building bigger barriers to prevent flooding, won't work in cities threatened by seas rising many feet and a sharp increase in intense downpours. "We can't just keep building higher levees, because we will end up living behind 10-meter [30-foot] walls," explains Henk Ovink, a globetrotting Dutch urban planner who serves as his nation's Special Envoy for International Water Affairs. "Big gates and dams at the sea" will not be enough to protect cities from the climate turbulence that is coming, he says.

Despite the challenges, a great surge of climate innovations designed, tested, and implemented by cities is sweeping through the world. Mayors assemble several times a year to share and promote the thousands of actions their administrations have taken. Nearly every day, clusters of city-government staffers worldwide meet online, by phone, or in person to exchange information and advice about climate policies and practices that no city worried about just a few years ago. An online stream of city climate news from Daily Climate, Citiscope, CityMetric, and other sources regularly surfaces inspiring stories about what cities are doing.

C40 Cities, a global network of megacities, reported in 2015 that sixty-six member cities had taken more than 9,831 actions to reduce emissions or adapt to climate change since 2009 — half of them implemented citywide and a quarter of them costing more than $10 million each. Researchers looking at a mix of ten large cities in different regions and climates, and with different socioeconomic conditions, calculated that in 2014–2015 alone they spent more than $6 billion to adapt to climate changes.16 In 2017, the 100 Resilient Cities announced its member cities had taken more than 1,600 actions, many of them aimed at climate adaptation. A year earlier, the Urban Sustainability Directors Network found that about ninety of its members, all North American cities, were planning or had implemented projects to protect bicycle lanes on streets, switch municipal fleets to low-carbon fuels, help commercial buildings improve their energy efficiency, and install LED streetlights. That same year, in China, twenty-three cities that altogether contain nearly a fifth of the nation's population committed to achieve long-term reduction of GHG emissions by pioneering green and low-carbon development. And 189 cities around the world — more than fifty of them in the US — measured and publicly disclosed their GHG emissions using the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) system.

The content of this city-driven profusion is incredibly broad. In December 2016, C40 Cities recognized leading climate actions by more than thirty cities. When the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance's twenty cities met in July 2017, it had to limit each member's update on accomplishments to just a few minutes or risk spending hours just sharing news.

• Berlin was phasing out use of coal in the city.

• Copenhagen was developing one hundred megawatts of wind power and will be using electric public buses.

• New York City had installed one hundred megawatts of solar power and wanted to increase that amount by tenfold.

• Rio de Janeiro had built a ten-mile metro line and added a fifteen-mile bus rapid transit line.

• Stockholm had decided to phase out its last coal-burning plant by 2022, years earlier than planned.

• Toronto had adopted a ten-year plan for its bicycle network, dedicating about $12 million a year to implementation.

• Washington, DC, has designed a city Green Bank to finance local renewable energy and energy-efficiency projects.

As eye-opening and impressive as the variety, inventiveness, and global volume of city climate projects may be, it only begins to reveal the deeper pattern of urban transformation that's occurring. To see more, you have to study the world's urban climate innovation laboratories.


Urban Climate Innovation Laboratories

In the course of the past 2,500 years, a small number of relatively large cities have functioned as hotbeds of revolutionary creativity.

— Åke Andersson

Urban climate innovation labs are cities that have come to understand themselves, their place in the world, in a new way and act boldly on their changed awareness. They take to heart the challenge of climate change. They publicly commit to do more about it than many national governments have pledged. They immerse themselves in figuring out what they can do. And they start doing it, despite the many technical, political, economic, and social difficulties involved.

They are changing just about everything in "the city" — the buildings, streets, neighborhoods, and other physical infrastructure; the supply and use of energy, water, transportation, green spaces, and other land; as well as the consumption of resources and the disposal of waste. They are changing the economic opportunities and the costs of doing business and living in the city. They are changing the minds and habits of their residents. They are changing the identities of their cities.


Excerpted from "Life after Carbon"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Peter Plastrik and John Cleveland.
Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Creation Stories
Part I: On the Innovation Pathway 
Innovation Proliferation
Urban Climate Innovation Laboratories
Goals, Systems, Clusters, and Waves
Making a Better City
The Rebel Alliance 

Part II: Toward Global Urban Transformation
The Power of Transformational Ideas
Carbon-Free Advantage
Efficient Abundance
Nature’s Benefits
Adaptive Futures

Part III: Challenges of Urban Evolution
The Edge of City Climate Innovation
Assembly Required
The Next Urban Operating System
Going Global

Epilogue: Life After Carbon
About the Authors
General Index 

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