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How greenness will define future cities

Cities are placing increasing emphasis on parkland and green spaces in a bid to tackle environmental challenges, improve quality of life and prepare for future growth.

September 05, 2019

London was recently named the world’s first National Park City, pledging to boost its green credentials, including outdoor space and wildlife.

“London already has strong green infrastructure, which makes it a good testbed to see how cities can start to enhance biodiversity, reduce carbon, and plant more greenery,” says Jessica Herman, Sustainability Executive at JLL UK.

Organisers of the initiative aim to name at least another 25 cities across the world by 2025, with Newcastle and Glasgow already launching campaigns.

“Designations like the National Park City status could encourage a greater sharing of information between cities in terms of implementing green measures,” says Jeremy Kelly, Director, Global Research at JLL. “By drawing awareness to the need for green space in cities, the hope is that these initiatives can catalyse for more sustainable cities.”

The need for green infrastructure

Expanding green spaces could both improve cities’ biodiversity by attracting a greater range of birds and insects and help tackle environmental concerns such as plummeting air quality that affects over 90 percent of the global population. 

“With the threat of climate change, city governments are placing increasing emphasis on green infrastructure that can alleviate pollution and help mitigate climate-related risks such as flooding,” says Herman.

Shanghai, for example, is aiming to counter changing weather patterns by replacing concrete pavements with wetlands and gardens to capture increased rainwater and reduce its flood risk.

With many cities now grappling with more extreme heatwaves, tree-planting is becoming a way to cool urban centres and reduce heat islands, where roads and buildings soak up and radiate heat to increase already high temperatures. Melbourne, for example, plans to double its tree cover by 2040, while Milan aims to plant 3 million trees

Improving city life 

Greener spaces have significant benefits for humans too, from making urban centres more visibly attractive to cleaner air and having a better impact on physical and mental health.

“City governments are having to focus much more on liveability and sustainability to not only satisfy residents, but to attract and retain talent and businesses,” says Kelly. “People want to be able to relax outdoors without smog masks or cycle to work through parks instead of congested roads.”  

Ambitious proposals are needed to re-introduce nature into cities. In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan plans to make over 50 percent of the city green by 2050 in addition to planting more trees and investing in large-scale green development projects. Meanwhile, the Ultra Low Emissions Zone aims to lower pollution in the city centre.

It’s not the only European city looking to a greener future. Oslo was named the continent’s Green Capital this year for its eco-friendly city planning focused on preserving nature and wildlife, while Paris has unveiled a $84 million project to add 30 acres of green space and 20,000 new trees by 2020.

More sustainable cities?  

Such investments in creating green spaces can also help cities meet broader sustainability goals such as reaching net-zero carbon emissions.

London is one of 19 cities to pledge that all new buildings will be net-zero by 2030, while eight European cities including Madrid and Wroclaw are part of a EU-funded scheme to decarbonise all buildings by 2050.

“City governments are taking the lead when it comes to climate mitigation measures, because we’ve seen that some national governments such as the U.S. are pulling back,” says Kelly.

The challenge is that reaching net-zero and green targets will require radical changes to urban operations. “Net-zero targets will significantly impact city design, from how buildings are built to how we use resources,” says Herman. This could not only be costly - for the UK, reaching net-zero is estimated to cost up to £70 billion a year – but also come at the expense of other civic infrastructure.

Yet with nearly 70 percent of the world’s population predicted to be living in cities by 2050, overcoming these hurdles will be increasingly crucial.

“The measure of a city’s success is now based on many sustainability criteria, including biodiversity,” Kelly says. “We’re seeing massive migration to urban centres and there’s a real challenge as to how these cities can not only absorb this growth but reduce their environmental impact.”

In the face of rapid urbanisation, green infrastructure isn’t about beautifying cities; it’s about future-proofing them. 

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