Urban design is the process of shaping the physical features and functions of cities, such as buildings, streets, parks, and transportation systems. Urban design can have a significant impact on the environment and the climate, as it can influence the energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and vulnerability of urban areas. In this essay, I will argue that urban design can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance climate resilience by improving energy efficiency, reducing car dependence, and increasing natural capital. I will also discuss the challenges and opportunities of implementing low-carbon and climate-smart urban solutions.
Greenhouse gas emissions and climate change
Greenhouse gas emissions are the gases that trap heat in the atmosphere and cause global warming. The main greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and fluorinated gases. Greenhouse gas emissions are mainly caused by human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, agriculture, industry, and waste management. Climate change is the long-term change in the average weather patterns of the Earth due to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change can have multiple impacts on the environment and human well-being, such as rising temperatures, melting ice caps, sea level rise, extreme weather events, droughts, floods, wildfires, biodiversity loss, food insecurity, water scarcity, health risks, and social conflicts.
Urban areas are both major contributors and vulnerable victims of climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), urban areas account for 71-76% of global energy use and 71-76% of global CO2 emissions from final energy use. Urban areas are also exposed to multiple climate hazards, such as heat waves, storms, floods, landslides, and sea level rise. Therefore, urban design should aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance climate resilience by creating more sustainable and adaptable cities.
Urban design and greenhouse gas emissions
Urban design can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by improving energy efficiency, reducing car dependence, and increasing natural capital. Energy efficiency is the ratio of useful output to energy input. Car dependence is the degree to which people rely on cars for their mobility needs. Natural capital is the stock of natural resources and ecosystems that provide benefits for humans.
One of the ways that urban design can improve energy efficiency is by creating more compact and mixed-use neighborhoods that reduce the need for heating, cooling,
and lighting. Another way that urban design can improve energy efficiency is by incorporating renewable energy sources into buildings and infrastructure.
One of the ways that urban design can reduce car dependence is by creating more walkable and bikeable neighborhoods that provide safe and convenient access to destinations. Another way that urban design can reduce car dependence is by enhancing public transit systems that offer efficient and affordable mobility options.
One of the ways that urban design can increase natural capital is by creating more green spaces that conserve and restore natural resources and ecosystems.
Urban design and climate resilience
Urban design can enhance climate resilience by improving adaptive capacity, reducing exposure, and increasing sensitivity. Adaptive capacity is the ability of a system to cope with or adjust to the impacts of climate change. Exposure is the degree to which a system is subject to or affected by climate hazards. Sensitivity is the degree to which a system is harmed or benefited by the impacts of climate change.
One of the ways that urban design can improve adaptive capacity is by creating more flexible and modular buildings and infrastructure that can accommodate changing needs and conditions. Another way that urban design can improve adaptive capacity is by fostering social learning and innovation
that can generate new knowledge and solutions for climate change.
One of the ways that urban design can reduce exposure is by creating more resilient and robust buildings and infrastructure that can withstand or resist the impacts of climate hazards. Another way that urban design can reduce exposure is by relocating or protecting vulnerable buildings and infrastructure that are located in high-risk areas.
One of the ways that urban design can increase sensitivity is by creating more diverse and redundant buildings and infrastructure that can provide alternative options or backup systems in case of failure or disruption. Another way that urban design can increase sensitivity is by enhancing ecosystem services and human well-being that can buffer or compensate for the impacts of climate change.
Challenges and opportunities
Implementing low-carbon and climate-smart urban solutions poses various challenges and opportunities for urban designers and stakeholders. Some of the challenges are technical, economic, social, and institutional. Some of the opportunities are technical, economic, social, and institutional.
- Urban Planning and Urban Design, a chapter from the Urban Climate Change Research Network’s Second Assessment Report on Climate Change and Cities that provides an overview of the role of urban planning and design in addressing climate change. The source is the Urban Climate Change Research Network, a consortium of over 800 researchers and practitioners from various disciplines and sectors working on urban climate change issues.
- Designing sustainable cities, a news article by Stanford University that introduces a new software for designing sustainable cities that visualizes the links between nature and human well-being. The source is Stanford News, the official news service of Stanford University that covers research, teaching, campus life, and more.
- The new neighborhood: creating new community around sustainability and social inclusion, a news article by the United Nations Environment Programme that showcases some examples of sustainable community development around the world. The source is the United Nations Environment Programme, the leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda and promotes the coherent implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development.