Sustainable cities rebuild the UK but what does this mean for businesses?

According to the World Health Organisation, 66% of the world’s population is expected to live in cities by 2050. This makes cities a perfect hub to transform society and rebuild a world with rich biodiversity and a balanced climate.

On a global scale, sustainable city developments are well underway. And the UK has joined this sustainability race, re-designing our urban world.

In this article we’ll take a sweeping tour of top sustainable city developments across the UK, focusing on London, Manchester, and York. We’ll then consider how businesses can adapt to work in tandem with the green cities of our future, presenting key takeaways from each case study. 

Let’s jump straight to it!

What are sustainable cities?

Sustainable cities are urban areas adapted to reduce the social, economic, and environmental impacts of development. 

They are cities built from a dream that society can live in harmony with nature, re-designing industrialisation intertwined with Earth’s fabric.

We know from Martin Luther King that dreams instigate revolutions, and today we’re talking about a green revolution. 

Cities account for 75% of resource use, 60-80% of Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions, and 50% of global waste. Also, the urban population is expected to grow to 66% worldwide by 2050. This makes cities ideal test hubs to transition into a more sustainable future. In a relatively small area, you can test innovative ideas, and quickly grasp if it’s worth scaling up.

This is important as we face two wicked problems. Wicked in their interconnectedness, with many feedback loops and requiring cross-sector collaboration. 

Yes, I’m talking about climate change and our biodiversity crisis. 

Transforming our gas-guzzling metropolises into sustainable utopias requires innovation and adaptation. How we act now will govern the state of the world handed down to our children. 

Based on our current trajectory, the following narrative describes our future:

  • 2030: The destruction of the Amazon rainforest into a dry savannah via a process known as dieback.
  • 2040: Permafrost will thaw in the north by 2040 exacerbating our climate crisis. 
  • 2050: Extinction of coral reefs and the crash of fish populations. 
  • 2080: Extensive decline of pollinating insects on which our agricultural industry depends. Extreme and unpredictable weather patterns. 
  • 2100: Global food production will enter a crisis. Our planet will become 4°C (39.2°F) warmer making large parts of the Earth uninhabitable. 

A 20th-century sixth mass extinction event is well underway. This is not a dream, this is a nightmare. 

But we have an opportunity. An opportunity to wake up, and take action. And part of that action depends on you, and our businesses. Here is what you can do.

Sustainable city developments across the UK and key takeaways for businesses

London: Business leaders need to be innovative and solution-focussed 

Like many cities, the population of London is growing, projected to increase from 9 million to 11 million by 2050. With this growth, comes the exacerbation of environmental issues via increased consumption and demand for space. 

Despite the challenges, across London we witness positive green developments, each fighting to accelerate human advancement into a more sustainable world. These developments symbolise what can be achieved through innovation and a solution-focused mindset. 

Let’s take the concept of green roofs and green walls as an example. During their early adoption, both were considered expensive and unreliable ornamentations. Yet, despite this negative stigma, architects, engineers, scientists - classic innovators - persisted to perfect and refine the technology which now brings substantial societal, economic, and environmental benefits. 

These benefits - as outlined by the European Federation of Green Roof and Green Walls in their report Living Roofs and Walls from policy to practice - include:

  • Surface water management: E.g. by replacing impermeable urban concrete surfaces. Studies show green roofs in New York retain 70% of summer rainfall and 28% of winter rainfall.
  • Urban cooling: E.g. green roofs can cool the microclimate by 2-5°C mitigating Urban Heat Island effects.
  • Biodiversity support: By providing habitation and linking together urban habitats. Eg. green roofs have had a positive impact on London’s Redstart bird populations.
  • Economic benefits: With no direct economic benefits, green roofs and walls were considered an expensive investment. However, with technological progressions, a cost-benefit analysis becomes favorable. Eg. in Toronto, if 50% of flat roofs were greened, it would transition to savings between $41.8-118m from avoided green infrastructure costs.

There’s a need for a more mainstream and comprehensive approach to planning and financing urban green projects. The development of green roofs and walls in London shows what can be achieved through investment, persistence, and innovative thinking. Once disregarded, their refinement means green roofs and walls are now a vital cog for the development of more sustainable cities. 

Key business takeaway: Be out-of-the-box thinkers to develop a business model that works in an alternative, green future. Ask the question, where will my business be in 2050? With that question in mind, continue to invent, invest and innovate in sustainable, green design. As the pay-off in the long-run will be worth it. Incorporate green tech solutions into your business and adopt the mindset of lean thinking and continuous improvement

Manchester: Business leaders need to revalue their businesses 

Businesses should also bring in any costs currently externalised from their business model, such as the impacts of extreme weather, high adaptations costs for future generations, health costs of direct air quality, etc.” said Paul Allen, knowledge and outreach coordinator for Zero Carbon Britain

In July 2019, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority declared a climate emergency. Prior to this announcement, the city radically acted to decarbonise the region. This bore a number of projects investing in nature-based solutions, such as Manchester’s IGNITION project.

IGNITION is a ground-breaking scheme aimed to develop innovative financing solutions for investment into Greater Manchester’s natural environment. The project is backed by the EU’s Urban Innovation Actions initiative and brings together 12 partners from local governments, universities, NGOs, and businesses. 

IGNITION attracts companies with strong green aspirations, placing these organisations on a pedestal for city-wide support. 

Green organisations also get backing from customers and employees.

85% of UK shoppers describe themselves as environmentally friendly. In addition, a report by professional services company PwC found 65% of people across China, Germany, India, UK, and the US want to work for organisations with a strong sustainability conscience. 36% of HR professionals are adapting their hiring strategies around their organization’s social and environmental performance.

Key business takeaway: It’s clear the business landscape is changing. Within cities, policymakers and consumers are demanding organisations address economic, social, and environmental business facets. To stay ahead of the curve, businesses need to embrace change and shift from an outdated shareholder focused capitalism to stakeholder capitalism. This will create value for employees, customers, partners, society, the local community, and the city at large.

York: Business leaders need to collaborate across multiple levels

It is the people that make great cities” - Tony Garcia, Street Plans Principle

The creation of sustainable cities needs collaboration, which works in 3 directions; downwards, upwards, and sideways. 

At every hierarchical level within a city, from the residents to the policymakers sitting at the top, there needs to be strong cross-collaboration channels between all groups. 

Such collaboration has been championed in the city of York. According to a study by Music Magpie, York is the UK’s greenest city measured by city resident habits. 

This study took into account a host of factors such as the tendency to buy refurbished items, recycling rates, methods of travel, and even time spent in the shower. 

One Planet York is a collaborative movement built using principles such as:

  • Health and happiness: Active, social, meaningful lives are encouraged to promote good health and wellbeing. This is an example of downward collaboration as city policymakers work with organisations to help them reduce their carbon footprint. 
  • Culture and community: local identity is nurtured, and communities are empowered to live sustainably, working with museums and performance venues to help them measure and reduce their carbon footprint. This is an example of upward collaboration as city residents are encouraged to take action and relay their support to local businesses and NGOs. But also cross-collaboration between one city resident to the next to promote sustainable living. 

Key business takeaway: Just as York championed multiple collaboration channels between policymakers, NGOs, businesses, and city residents, to be truly sustainable, organisations must follow-suit. Communicate and encourage employees and customers to share knowledge and adopt more sustainable habits. For instance, offer basic carbon literacy training for all decision-makers and high-level managers (downward collaboration). Lobby upwards and collaborate with city policymakers (upwards collaboration). Share actions, and build alliances with other organisations (cross-collaboration). 

Our sustainable cities need sustainable businesses, so let’s act

We’re facing the collapse of the living world. Around us, species extinction is rife, and our climate is tipping from its delicate balance. This is our world, a world that we’re completely reliant on. 

But there is hope. Through innovation and advancement, we can all draw up solutions to live more sustainable lives, create more sustainable businesses and build sustainable cities. 

I’m confident that we can draw from our wisdom to complete human development for a greener future. A future that supports our businesses, society, and the rich and wonderful world we inherited.