Cities and nature are often thought of as separate entities when thinking about the environment and the climate crisis. It’s time to change that thinking, according to an Australian architecture expert.
With cities responsible for over 75% of greenhouse gas emissions, designing smart and sustainable cities is the single most pressing challenge in confronting climate change, said Adrian McGregor, founder and chief design officer at McGregor Coxall, an urban design, landscape architecture and environment firm located in Australia and the UK. To decarbonize our cities, we must first realize that cities are “spectacular living, dynamic systems that evolve with us.”
He argues that to do this, cities should be reclassified as a form of “novel nature,” or a human-modified biome. City officials should even consider replacing the word “city” with “biocity” in planning documents.
“If we can understand that cities are part of nature — even if they don’t really look like nature — that means we’ve got to change how we plan with them, how we work with them, and what our future looks like on spaceship Earth,” said McGregor, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of Canberra.
His new book, Biourbanism: Cities as Nature, lays out a pathway for cities to decarbonize and increase their resilience to the climate crisis using the Biourbanism urban planning and design model. The concept of Biourbanism, as explained by the International Society of Biourbanism, “focuses on the urban organism, considering it as a hypercomplex system, according to its internal and external dynamics and their mutual interactions.”
McGregor proposes structuring cities into 10 interconnected systems: citizens, economy, energy, infrastructure, mobility, technology, water, waste, landscape and food. Together, the interaction of these systems can determine a city’s health and prosperity. He is also a proponent of using digital twin technology to forecast how resilient the city is to the climate emergency, and to set science-based targets that can monitor performance through data.
Bloomberg CityLab spoke with Sydney-based McGregor about how cities are the answer to the climate crisis. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What do you think needs to change first in order to decarbonize our cities?
I think the one thing that needs to change really rapidly is that currently federal governments around the world are effectively creating their carbon targets. They’ve met commitments to decarbonize, but what many countries don’t realize, including Australia, is that 75% of those emissions are generated by cities. So there’s a policy gap between a federal government making decarbonization commitments and actual city policy. They’re not really thinking clearly about where the emissions are coming from and therefore how to target them. That’s a really big gap that needs to be addressed.
What are some ways that cities can make their own climate policies?
I talk about what’s called a resilience action plan in chapter four of the book. And that’s a way that cities can begin to plan for the climate impact of some extreme events starting to occur. There are 10 systems that a city can use to set up KPIs and targets. And those targets are different for each city.
Each city will have its own challenges and priorities depending on whether it’s a coastal city or a riverside city or a desert city. The impact of climate change on each city will be different depending on its location and the impact that extreme weather is going to have. So that allows you to set the KPIs, set the targets and then measure progress along your journey as you try to increase resilience through design.
A key element of your Biourbanism model is the development of a digital twin. Can you tell me a bit more about this?
The first step is to create a digital twin of the physical city which is linked to real-world, live data. A user, whether it be a citizen or government official can use the digital twin to simulate changes to the city to see what happens, because it would be shared publicly. This means you could also test for the impact of a project over its lifetime, especially in terms of things like water or energy use. Ultimately, we hope these digital twins will be integrated into the metaverse.
How new is this idea?
Digital twins are already becoming more and more relied upon for decision making. And we’ve only fairly recently been able to really build these things. What we’re able to do now is to bring in satellite data, remote sensing and other smart city information to build very sophisticated and intelligent models. And now with AI, even we can start to run analysis through the model to work out the best ways to deal with certain challenges.
These models really are quite powerful in enabling planners, designers and governments to be able to undertake climate impact testing and also plan for resilience by prioritizing investment and infrastructure spending in the right places. This information would be freely available on a decentralized, open-source dashboard which can then be used to make policy and look at how we can most quickly reduce carbon emissions.
In the real world, what are some tangible things people in cities can do to mitigate the impact of climate change?
One of the ways it can be done is to make information around energy consumption more available. And that means introducing things like smart meters more widely, which are now starting to move into homes and businesses. If we understood where energy was being used, we could begin at a city level to prioritize the biggest energy consumers and encourage them to reduce their emissions.
If as planners and scientists we were able to understand where emissions are coming from, then it could give us a picture of the city. But that would require federal governments to make sure that power companies make this information and data available.
What is the role of business?
Whether you are a large owner of property, or whether you’re a government that owns huge numbers of assets, then what you need to do is disclose climate risk to your assets. And that’s going to change over time. There are huge unreported costs that are sitting off balance sheets. They’re externalities at the moment, but we need to move those externalities back onto balance sheets so we get accurate reporting about the real state of the businesses and government assets.
If you project forward there’s $186 trillion worth of risk to our GDP due to climate change, which is double today’s current global GDP. If you are not accounting for and working out how to adapt to and mitigate these impacts to assets on your balance sheet, then I don’t think you’re running a very good business. I think that we can use our current economic system, but it must account for natural capital instead of considering it to be a system of externality. And that will start to really change where the values are and the cost that’s coming in terms of risk to assets from climate.
And it’s coming at us already — 70% of cities report that they’re already impacted by climate today. So it’s a rapidly growing risk.
If you were the mayor of Sydney, what would be the first thing that you do?
I would ask the Australian government to set up policies for cities to help them. The first thing would be carbon and energy disclosure so they can understand and see where their emissions are coming from. And then to work with them on carbon abatement, carbon trading and scope one, two and three emissions abatement. That’s where I would start.
To contact the author of this story:
Keira Wright in Sydney at email@example.com
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