Low carbon cities hold key to meeting climate change challenge

Tom Armour

Green infrastructure is no longer a "nice to have" says Arup’s Tom Armour

This week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sent out a stark warning to the world that climate change effects were being felt globally affecting agriculture, water supplies, human health and ecosystems. More worryingly it concluded that the planet is “ill prepared for the risks of the changing climate.”

At the same time urbanisation is driving people into cities at a pace never seen before and against this backdrop consultant Arup in its new Cities Alive report says that cities of the future must have the natural environment integrated into planning and design.

“The quality of our urban environment is at extreme risk and if you think that three quarters of people are going to be living in cities by 2050 we need these places to thrive,” says Arup landscape architecture group leader Tom Armour.

He says that essentially this means using the power of nature to create more balance in the urban environment which is too often ignored or given too low a priority in economic planning.

“The idea that green is ‘nice to have’ has got to stop now. We have to respond properly to these pressures on urban environments. Practically, we need to make sure that when schemes are produced the landscape design and greening of structures is taken as a priority and regarded as essential and not just considered an add on extra.”

Armour and the Cities Alive report highlight a range of examples from London’s Olympic Park with its regenerative legacy effects to the green roofs of city buildings in The Netherlands that provide stormwater storage.

“Slowing down stormwater on the surface puts less pressure on the city drainage systems but the key to all of this is multifunctional design,” says Armour.

“You are building in flood protection but you are also building in biodiversity. You are building an area in the city that helps you to resist climate change and is also attractive for people to use and drives redevelopment.”

"Practically, we need to make sure that when schemes are produced the landscape design and greening of structures is taken as a priority and regarded as essential and not just considered an add on extra.”

Creating more green space is essential, he adds and points to Madrid as a leading city thanks to its green tramways and its decision to bury a major motorway.

“They have buried 43km of their southern motorway and built a park on top which is just amazing. If we want more space on top why don’t we start looking at some of our major roads and putting them underground? Technologically we can do that. We have the engineering skills.”

He says authorities need to take a longer term, more joined up view on the benefits that green cities can offer and says that the results can create major cost savings. He points to Copenhagen’s cycle superhighways which have created a 10% rise in cycling and made the population healthier saving the health service an estimated £12m per year. The report also says that living in a greener neighbourhood makes people more than three times more likely to take physical exercise.

“This is about creating the urban environments that we want in the future. I’d like to see people really understand the value of the natural environment and what it brings us and make it more influential in the way that we plan and design our cities. If we can achieve that it would be a major step forward but it is a hard battle.

A lot of people see the landscaping as non-essential but they need to see that it is as fundamental as the pipelines and wiring that makes up a city.”

Cities Alive is a collaborative initiative by our Landscape Architecture practice and our Foresight + Innovation + Research team. The initiative is supported by the UK Landscape Institute and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, who have been reviewers and contributors.


  • Read the full Arup Cities Alive report here
  • Read the IPCC report here
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