Fundamental focus on social inclusion vital to future of sustainable cities, says new report

Equality and social inclusion must go hand in hand with climate protection and economic growth to ensure the long-term success of sustainable cities and a green recovery post-pandemic, says a new report published today.

The Rethinking Sustainable Cities report, produced by Gowling WLG in partnership with Jacobs, London Transport Museum, and PTV Group, highlights how the pandemic has resulted in a greater imperative to unify efforts and change our cities for the better, so they not only protect our planet but people, too.

Lockdown and social distancing measures have exposed limitations to our existing urban design. The inability to work and socialise safely has rendered many city centres empty. While a lack of access to green spaces in residential zones has caused a sense of claustrophobia.

In response, the report highlights that cutting carbon emissions is only one important piece of the puzzle when it comes to creating sustainable cities. Success also hinges on social inclusion and the wellbeing of residents being prioritised alongside both climate protection and economic growth.

The report explores the opportunities and challenges to achieving this balance and encourages governments, city planners, policymakers and businesses to seize this opportunity to fundamentally rethink how our cities work for people now and in the future.

It recommends the creation of a new unified blueprint for inclusive and environmentally sustainable city design which can be localised or replicated at scale. To deliver maximum value across all the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, this will not only require rethinking the design of transport, infrastructure, housing and development projects, but also how impact and success is evaluated.

Rethinking Sustainable Cities draws on digital roundtable discussions with industry leaders, policymakers and academics throughout 2020 as part of Interchange, London Transport Museum's thought leadership programme.

The report's recommendations for establishing a blueprint for inclusive, sustainable cities include:

  • Redefining value to prioritise wellbeing and inclusion – For a green recovery to be successful, public and private sectors must commit to building inclusively. This is essential to ensure developments in technology and infrastructure do not unintentionally widen the wealth gap. Investing in less 'desirable' and often overlooked areas would improve value perception and promise fair and sustainable growth long-term. But to achieve this, a shift in how we evaluate projects is needed. Success can no longer be measured by immediate cost-benefit. Instead, value must be looked at through multiple lenses. These include social inclusion, reduced congestion, better air quality, improved health and environmental change.
  • Educating and empowering individuals to change their behaviours – Community engagement is essential to the long-term viability of sustainable cities and ensuring residents are not left behind. It must start early in the development process and focus on educating and empowering people to understand the long-term benefits of sustainable infrastructure projects, verses short term disruption. If individuals are personally contributing to positive change, they should personally profit from it, too. At a consumer level, new social digital currencies and tools that allow people to understand and change their behavior - and reward them for doing so - should be embraced as powerful drivers for change.
  • Overhauling institutional governance to encourage new ways of working – Policy decisions have the power to change behaviour at every level. But more urgency is needed to drive us rapidly away from business as usual. The success of the plastic bag tax proves people are willing to make changes when it is made easy for them. By offering clearer taxation and pricing incentives, policymakers can make inclusive and sustainable options more attractive and widely available. In the UK, for example, reducing stamp duty for low-carbon homes could help to drive new market demand for existing housing stock to be retrofitted much more rapidly to reduce carbon emissions.
  • Repurposing existing urban infrastructure for multi-purpose use – To increase social value for residents and reduce waste, city planners should invest in adapting and building flexible multipurpose spaces. One suggestion is to build around a platform model, whereby work, leisure and residential spaces are connected digitally to optimise their usage and value. All new and retrofitted developments will need to be built with sustainability standards in mind, whether public or private, small or large-scale. For this to be successful, market demand and commercial expectations need to be aligned to new, unknown architectural models. City-makers will need to be trained to design differently. Individuals will need to have their minds changed about what a home or office looks like, too.
  • Harnessing the power of natural infrastructure – The pandemic has revealed how rigid our current city plans are, with distinct work, leisure and residential areas. Harnessing natural infrastructure within sustainable urban design offers an enormous opportunity to address this. Hardworking urban green spaces minimize pollution. They also control temperature and regulate air and water quality. But they can also be designed to deliver community cohesion, reduce crime rates and better mental health. For investment in natural infrastructure to take off though, a shift in mindset is needed. A shared and accepted language for the value of green infrastructure is essential. New funding must also be redirected to pilot projects to prove and quantify the added long-term value of holistic social, health and wellbeing.

Giles Clifford, Partner at Gowling WLG said, "Achieving sustainability is no longer optional for mankind, but essential. Doing that effectively and rapidly in the city environment, where individual needs and collective actions have such a complex relationship, is a massive and intensely practical challenge. Just as in deploying the COVID vaccines, we need to move fast from abstract policy targets to the nuts and bolts of delivery. It is about individual and collective priorities and motivation, removing barriers and aligning objectives to a common goal. Dry-sounding concepts such as law, taxation, governance and subsidy can become the tools to forge the future – or if misused can thwart, confuse and hinder progress. It has been fascinating to be involved in the debates that have formed this report – these are issues that we must all engage with, hands-on and not just in theory."

Sam Mullins OBE, Director of London Transport Museum said, "The pandemic has been a defining moment in modern history, exposing limitations to the way we currently create and use our city spaces. Coupled with an impending climate emergency, it is clear we need to act quickly to rethink our vision of sustainable cities. Now is the time to take these learnings and apply them to transport, infrastructure and city-making projects before it is too late, creating value for the people who live in our cities now and in the future."

Download the full report