Green cities can unlock a wealth of opportunity

By Ed McCue on 23.05.18 

What exactly is a green city? Should it involve more than the green lungs we commonly associate with gardens and parks, and if so, what?


Green cities are thriving metropolises striving to lessen their environmental impact by not only expanding its physical greenery, but by recycling, reducing waste and adopting circular economy initiatives, encourage the development of sustainable business, adopting green finance, developing sustainable energy infrastructure and reducing pollution and emissions.


Cities around the world are becoming greener. Barcelona is planning to expand its urban greenery and Madrid even plans to adopt garden rooftops on the top of the city’s buses. Paris is even launching a study to explore the possibility of going fully fare free on its public transport systems - Estonia have beaten them to it, recently announcing that it would be the first country to do so. Meanwhile, Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, recently set out London’s goal to make London a zero-carbon city by 2050, boasting cleaner air and more green spaces. Manchester is aiming to achieve this a decade earlier. 


Essen, in west Germany, has transformed from a factory town to a thriving green city. The city’s effort to clean its air and waterways, especially the Ruhr River, which only recently opened to the public after being closed for 46 years because of pollution, led to it being awarded the European Green Capital award for 2017.


A new city funded urban gardening project boasts 10 community gardens, and a 100km – long bicycle highway cuts through the city, contributing to its revitalisation. Local leaders coined the phrase “from green to grey to green again” - a phrase highly relatable for the pathway for Manchester.


Malmö in Sweden has made a similar remarkable transition from an industrial city to one rooted in sustainability. The transformation of the Western Harbour District into an eco-focussed one is exemplified by an abundance of renewable energy generation that can meet the demands of the town, local buses being run on biomethane, fully integrated cycle lanes and the countries first ‘climate neutral’ district – Bo01.


Green city’s concentrate on offering environmental benefits, but there has been less attention to the question of whether they are economically sustainable.


Tackling air pollution can reduce respiratory illnesses and the costs associated with it. Green spaces are shown to help decrease air conditioning costs and nature is found to increase worker productivity. A greener city will bring new markets and with it jobs. Socially, it will result in reduced poverty and improved health.


But estimating the monetary value and return of green investments can be difficult, often the high costs and long pay pack time of new innovative green designs discourages and unnerves investors. Over time these costs should come down as green infrastructure projects become mainstream – but it’s a risk being a first mover. On the contrary, being an early mover could in fact be beneficial for a smooth transition into a green economy.


Conventional wisdom would argue that green investments are all about short run sacrifices in return for long run gains, in monetary terms. But benefits to pollution, land use, water management, restoring degraded land and reducing waste can all be accrued in the short run. The notion that trading growth for greenery is often a misnomer and is supported by various studies.


A recent edie Insight report showcases ten tribalizing innovations that have the potential to help us achieve a sustainable future. From pollution absorbing benches to Seabins to hydrogen additives that can reduce emissions in engines by up to 80%, such glamourous innovations can steer cities towards a greener future.


The CityTree is an air pollution tackling, bench and hedge hybrid. Most recently installed in London, the 4-metre-high vertical garden does the job of 275 trees, filtering the air of dust, nitrogen dioxides, carbon dioxide and particulates. Built into its solar powered unit is a Wi-Fi beacon, a rainwater collection unit, and an irrigation system to allow the tree-of-the-future to water itself.


But it comes at a steady price – each CityTree costs £17,600. Combined with risk and the payback time involved with such innovations, businesses, local authorities or governments may be persuaded to play the waiting game when it comes to financing them, as previously mentioned. Strategic policy and stronger market signals will be key in allowing such innovations to be widespread.


Innovations here in Manchester, such as the discovery of Graphene at the University of Manchester, has the potential to strengthen the green economy. By combining graphene with other materials, research suggests far more efficient solar cells can be made than currently possible. The “supermaterial” could also replace heavier materials used in aircrafts, leading to substantial fuel savings, and used to create ‘greener concrete’ reducing emissions released from cement making.


But it is always tempting to see new technologies as the way forward. A new report, published by environmental think tank Green Alliance, is claiming that the fastest way to cut the UK’s carbon emissions is to in fact improve resource efficiency – a more indirect approach addressing carbon output from the process of making and using products.


“Putting less in” and “getting more out” of supply chains can be just as significant as more direct approaches, like targeting vehicle emissions, in order for the UK to meet its carbon budgets. By doing this, the report suggested that by 2032, the UK could reduce emissions by almost 200 million tonnes of CO2 (the amount of emissions we currently produce annually).


The green city is more than a low-carbon city abundant with green spaces. It should take a broader view of sustainable development to weigh environmental, social and economic factors together. Delaying action on green policies could only stymie the economic and environmental wealth that could be gained that our future cities need to flourish.