Putting cities at centre stage

The world’s cities can be laboratories of low-carbon innovation and need to be factored into a future climate-change framework, says London’s former deputy mayor. Isabel Hilton interviews Nicky Gavron.

Isabel Hilton (IH): What do you want from the climate-change talks in Copenhagen in December?

Nicky Gavron (NG): For the last seven years, I have led on climate change for London. I am keen that the business community recognises the importance of working with city governments very closely in order to make – and to strengthen – the case for the role of cities in delivering high national targets. City governments have huge responsibilities in relation to this, because most of the energy is consumed in cities, and therefore they are responsible for high carbon emissions.

Cities are very vulnerable, so citizens immediately come to city governments when there are floods and droughts and the sea-level rises. We have huge opportunities – and we want nations to realise that unless they put cities centre stage, they are not really going to be able to deliver what is needed, because cities have the levers. They do need more powers and more resources in order to do that.

IH: Are cities in the Bali road map? Are they acknowledged as agents in this process?

NG: Up to now, cities have not been acknowledged as agents in the process. But in fact, city networks all over the world believe that there can be no post-2012 framework which doesn’t include the role of cities in it, and also recognise that cities – in order to reach the high targets that are needed by nations – will need to be empowered and resourced.

Sometimes that will mean that national governments must unleash the power of cities by removing road blocks and barriers, and in some cases it will mean making a regulatory framework that makes sense for the cities to act. For instance, in London we want to generate at least one-quarter of our carbon dioxide savings from much more efficient locally-generated energy, combined heat and power and microgen – decentralised energy. But in order for us to do that, we want combined heat and power and cooling, and we want to use the heat from generating electricity, which is wasted by big power stations. But we don’t have a heat law. If London was in Denmark, or in the Netherlands, there would be a heat law and that would make it much easier for us. That is an example of where a national framework can make a big difference.

IH: Given that more than half the world’s population now live in cities, how is it that this vast process has got underway without cities being centrally featured?

NG: It’s an international process and I think it is a pretty complex undertaking to get all the nations on board and rowing in the same direction. I think that cities haven’t risen up the agenda for that reason. I have been very involved in the city movement and have realised that everything we were doing in London we have learned mostly from smaller cities, very innovative ones like Copenhagen, Stockholm, Curitiba – a brilliant city in Brazil – Seattle, Portland, Barcelona and so on. Big cities are very difficult to turn around, but they are already responsible for 75% of energy consumption – and about 80% of greenhouse-gas emissions.

Cities are also highly vulnerable – all cities, wherever they are in the world, but some more than others. Twenty of the 30 largest cities in the world, including all the financial centres, are on water and very vulnerable to sea-level rises. The recession really would pale into insignificance compared to what would happen if you had a four-metre sea-level rise. That would be the end of London, even though we have got the best flood defenses in the world. Everything we then rely on, in terms of trade and production and commodities and so on, would be as nothing – it would be destroyed. There really is a huge reason for seeing that cities have the responsibility: they have the motivation and they have massive opportunities.

We did some research in London, looking at per capita how resource-efficient or resource-wasteful we were, and we discovered that on water and energy we were much more resource-efficient – we used less per capita – than citizens outside of London, and also we produced less carbon dioxide in transport than elsewhere. This is because the density of the population and the activity. It shows that cities may be the problem, but they are also a huge part of the solution. Because of their urban form and concentration, they are more efficient in terms of resource management; but how much better could they be if they were given the powers and the resources?

The other thing is that cities drive national economies. Five cities in the United States would make up the fourth-largest economy in the world. Bangkok and San Paolo are about 10% of their countries’ population, which are responsible for about 40% of the GDP. You have a situation where cities anchor their wider metropolitan regions, which really do drive national economies. What we need is for nations to understand that there cannot really be national prosperity in the future without taking cities into account. If you believe – as many of us do now – that there is a massive task and opportunity in terms of aligning economic security with job security, climate security and energy security, then it is going to be the cities that should be centre stage in delivering that.

IH: Is it not up to national governments to empower cities to do this, rather than an international forum? It is already complicated internationally. Can’t national governments ask cities what they can deliver? Or cities ask their national governments to give them the tools to deliver?

NG: In terms of the specificity of what is been asked for, that is right. But in terms of making a general case, I think that has to be done at the international level – and has to be written into the road map and onto the framework. In fact, we would like to go a bit further: we would like the message put across that there can be no post-2012 framework that does not include the pivotal role of cities within it, but at the same time we should say we want you, as nations, to engage and empower and resource those cities. Then we want to get down to more specificity in some of the sub-clauses within the framework agreement – and talk about removing the roadblocks and barriers, giving financial incentives, allowing cities to have bylaws and so on.

IH: Do you want that spelled out? 

NG: We want it in the relevant paragraphs. Then it is up to cities themselves to negotiate and put propositions to their own nations. The other thing I think needs to be recognised by all nations is that cities can go further and faster, and therefore they should be allowed to trial national policy – to be laboratories for experimentation and innovation. There are very good examples of this around the world. Look at the way London has pioneered congestion charging. Look at the way Freiberg actually changed the law of the sphere of government above it by having an area of 3,000 passive homes. […] There is also research done by Portland showing how much has been saved – something London has emulated – by the way they have sought to collocate transport with development, to cut down the need for people to take so many journeys, certainly giving them very good alternatives to using their cars, getting them onto their bikes, their feet and the bus.

IH: How cities are designed and laid out has a huge impact.

NG: Yes, and I’m not saying that it is easy. But it’s much easier to integrate all of your environmental infrastructure with your transport and your public realm and your social infrastructure on a greenfield site. This is a big hope for China because they are still building cities. In fact, they are building the equivalent of two Manhattans, in floor space (not population) every year. But when you are talking about taking a city with a massive existing stock of infrastructure and buildings – like London, which was the first industrial, high-carbon mega-city – we have got to give ourselves the task of turning ourselves into a mega sustainable city, which means low carbon. These days, sustainable development must mean low carbon. And the only way we can do that is by learning from the rest of the world.

Nicky Gavron is the former deputy mayor of London and a member of the London Assembly.

Isabel Hilton is editor of chinadialogue.

Homepage photo by Larsz