Playing the blame game doesn’t get us out of the current climate crisis. However, it’s a hard, cold fact that cities are very much responsible for the frightening warming of our planet. In a world where two-thirds of humanity – and 75 per cent in Europe – are urban dwellers, it is mainly in cities where the fight against climate change will be lost or won.
Luckily, pioneering cities across the globe may well reach their extremely ambitious climate goals on schedule. But what does that mean to people or businesses? Well, urban life is about to take a whole new shape sooner than most of us imagine.
We picked three cities transforming their cityscapes and living conditions right now – and imagined what life would look like if they played out their pioneering pledges in areas such as water management, energy, and material infrastructure.
Now, let’s travel to the future.
Essen becomes a glistening oasis with hi-tech hidden everywhere
It's a 2030s summer weekend in the German city of Essen, and the Ruhr and Emscher rivers are busy with swimmers, filling the clear air with the sound of splashing and chatter. Away from the riverbanks, miniature lakes provide cool liquid hearts for Essen's expanding array of green spaces. Here, if you listen carefully, you can hear the quiet gurgle of captured rainwater flowing from the roofs of nearby business hubs to provide rippling replenishment for each glistening pool.
Where once there was a pollution-blanketed landscape deadened by the grime of heavy industry, now there is a vista of green roof buildings, complemented at ground level by rain gardens and swales. These are shallow, broad areas of vegetation that take up excess rain, while also helping remove pollutants from the environment.
Back in the Ruhr river, fish are again reaching historic upstream spawning grounds thanks to a ‘fish lift’. It helps them over the 9 metre high weir which long blocked their path past Lake Baldeney in the south of Essen. It’s clever too: water is pumped into a vertical pipe that raises a ‘lift cabin’ only when its sensors detect a certain number of fish have gathered inside.
Video: Aliina Kauranne
How can Essen bridge the gap between now and the future?
Currently, the Ruhr region city of Essen – population around 600,000 – sits in a part of Germany historically shaped and scarred by heavy industry. Coal mining had long belched toxins deep into its land, water, and air. Yet, Essen is moving from grey to green by rethinking and reshaping itself – a transformation acknowledged when it was chosen as European Green Capital in 2017.
Essen’s approach to future city planning is something called ‘Blue Green solutions’. This refers to using nature-based solutions, such as integrating green spaces, trees, and natural waters, to solve urban sustainability issues.
We’re moving away from drainage systems made of concrete and replacing them with infrastructures that mimic natural processes.
This approach is key in developing Essen into the sustainable city of the future it aims to be. Professor Sarah Bell, Chair in Urban Resilience and Innovation at the University of Melbourne, is especially excited about cities becoming more water-sensitive – delivering reliable water services to all equally.
“We’re moving away from drainage systems made of concrete and replacing them with green infrastructures: water management systems that mimic natural processes,” she says.
An early example of a Blue Green project in Essen was the clean-up of the river Emscher, one of the most polluted rivers in Europe. The project began with a 30-year transformation from cesspool to a liquid city artery that welcomed the iconic return of trout in 2015.
However, implementing Blue Green solutions takes money. Thus, innovations are also needed in how water services are paid for to provide the resources to build and maintain these decentralised systems, notes Professor Bell.
“Innovative ways of charging provide landowners with incentives to reduce the amount of water going to waste. Some examples are rainwater harvesting, green roofs, ponds and swales,” she explains.
What else is going on in 2030s Essen?
- Emission fees. 2030s Essen neighbourhoods are part of a Social Urban Emission Trading System (SUETS) that uses calculations of each neighbourhood’s ‘ecological footprint’ to create emission certificates pegged to climate protection targets set by the city. Areas that fail to meet targets must pay a fee into the city budget.
- Urban food. With clean water and green space brought together in abundance, Essen is set to become a beacon of sustainable urban food production based on permaculture principles that emphasize ecology and self-sufficiency. Take Bonnekamphihe Permaculture Urban Farm, for instance. It’s a small self-sustaining ‘urban farm’ combining organic food growth with wise ecology in terms of things like pollinator-friendly planting and composting.
- Intense cycling. With car use slashed to a quarter of journeys, more and more people will travel by bicycle along the Radschnellweg Ruhr in 2035. It’s the first fast cycleway in Germany, like an ‘autobahn for bicycles’, consisting of over 100 kilometres of cycleways.
In Nottingham, almost every human act is harnessed to generate energy
In 2030s Nottingham, a data scientist is working at her desk, lit up by a glowing 3D hologram of the city. There’s a faint ding from her computer as she receives a new batch of real-time data from several blocks of flats.
Two things catch her attention. Firstly, thanks to the recent sunshine, residents would now be comfortable with a slightly lower temperature in the C building. Secondly, there’s been some congestion around the roundabout in the mornings due to the newly opened exercise centre.
On her hologram, the data scientist zooms into the neighborhood and starts trying out ideas. What would happen to the level of pollution if she altered the rhythm of the traffic lights next to the roundabout with 0,3 seconds? How about 0,4 seconds?
At the end of the day, she leaves work and glides through town on a tram running along green energy electric rails. Meanwhile, her spouse, one of few still driving, parks their electric car at a car port with solar panel roofs. Each parking port generates enough electricity in a day to power two nearby homes.
The couple lives in a traditional Nottingham house that once was an energy guzzler, but today a giver. Every house in their neighbourhood sports rooftop solar panels which feed sustainable energy into a city-wide network underpinned by a collection of Europe’s largest communal batteries. Even better, excess power – often available thanks to superb insulation – is sold back to the national grid, earning the data scientist’s family, as well as all other residents, a small-but-steady green dividend.
How can Nottingham bridge the gap between now and the future?
In 2021, Nottingham set the most ambitious carbon neutrality commitment of any UK city. With a 2028 deadline, it far outstrips the UK’s national target of net zero by 2050. To reach the bold goal, Nottingham trusts in research and high technology.
“Our research is developing new business models that improve energy efficiency in existing housing while creating new energy positive communities at the same time,” says Professor Mark Gillott, Chair in Sustainable Building Design at University of Nottingham. He adds: “Changes in behaviour, particularly how and where we live and work are key to reducing urban sprawl and reinhabiting our city in a post Covid world.”
In 2021, Nottingham set the most ambitious carbon neutrality commitment of any UK city. With a 2028 deadline, it far outstrips the UK’s national target of net zero by 2050.
One key technology to Nottingham is that of digital twins – creating a visual replica of a real-world artifact, in this case a city with its infrastructure, energy and drainage systems, and traffic. These 3D visualisations are based on data collected real-time from the real world counterparts, and they can be used to simulate various situations in city planning before deciding on the best solution.
“Data science is going to drive significant change through the creation and use of city-wide digital twins that will act as planning, delivery and operational tools to gain maximum value from asset and infrastructure investments,” says Professor Gillott.
Currently, Nottingham is well on track to hit its ambitious goals: By 2020, it had cut its carbon emissions by 41 per cent in the preceding 15 years and surpassed its target of sourcing 20 per cent of its energy generation from low-carbon sources.
What else is going on in 2030s Nottingham?
- Clean air. The air has been cleaned of harmful nitrogen oxide emissions that once spewed from the old gas boilers – now long gone to provide scrap metal for re-use. Innovative technology helps remove exhaust fumes from fossil-fueled buses.
- Thriving urban ecosystems. Biodiversity principles rule, with nature spots designed to create whole ecosystems rather than city parks that were once often little more than grassy eco-deserts.
- Local food. A sustainable food system sees places like restaurants and schools sourcing locally to cut food miles, and slashing food waste. This means preserving a vital resource and cutting emissions of climate-worsening methane from decaying food in landfills.
Video: Aliina Kauranne
Adelaide tackles deadly heat with sci-fi roads and roofs
Walking under the Australian sun in 2030s Adelaide, not much in the cityscape seems to have changed in a decade. That’s smoke and mirrors. While many European cities are now struggling with heatwaves that are becoming deadlier and deadlier, Adelaide has found salvation in surprising places: the city’s roads, roofs, and walls.
In fact, every square metre of the city’s fabric is now pressed into the battle against the once deadly urban ‘heat island’ effect caused by old-school concrete and asphalt, which continues to harm billions of people worldwide in places that have not adapted to rising temperatures. Constantly evolving new infrastructure materials throughout 2030s Adelaide not only create a far more comfortable living environment but also slash the city’s energy usage that once went on things like air conditioning.
The road under your tyres or feet may look much like it did in 2022 but it is everything but. Revolutionary road surfaces, such as the Australian innovation Reconophalt, not only cool the surface of every street by reducing heat absorption, but also constitute a triumph of waste recycling. A kilometre of two-lane road built with Reconophalt integrates 500,000 plastic bags, 165,000 glass bottles and toner from 12,000 used printer cartridges that would otherwise have gone to landfill.
While many European cities are now struggling with deadly heatwaves, Adelaide has found salvation in surprising places: the city’s roads, roofs, and walls.
While you can’t see it from the street level, on rooftops, cool-coloured materials reduce ambient daytime temperatures by up to 12 degrees Celsius through reflecting 35 per cent of sunlight. Pure white roofing, allowed in places it won’t create eye-hurting dazzle, brings rooftop temperatures down by dozens of degrees thanks to bouncing back 80 per cent of the sun’s blistering radiation. Cool materials on walls and pavements complete the climate mitigating fabric of 2030s Adelaide.
You can feel the benefits everywhere. Cool roads and roofs not only push back against the urban heat island effect, but lower temperatures also slow formation of ground level ozone – a key catalyst for smog, a threat to respiratory health, and a powerful greenhouse gas, too. Buildings constructed with cool materials reduce electricity demand, while still promoting improved indoor comfort.
How can Adelaide bridge the gap between now and the future?
In order to reach its ideal future, Adelaide needs to literally cool down. The city is putting its hope on the many scientists across the globe who are currently developing innovative cooling materials to alleviate the painful heat island effect.
One of them is Dr. Ronnen Levinson, Leader of the Heat Island Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California. He shares that scientists at Berkeley Lab have recently developed a Temperature Adaptive Radiative Coating that releases heat when warm and retains heat when cool.
“Meanwhile, researchers at the University of New South Wales in Australia are developing ‘quantum dots’ that use fluorescence to create new types of non-white materials that stay cool in the sun.”
Other urban-cooling technologies in the research pipeline include special films that can reflect waste heat from building cooling equipment to the sky, improving the efficiency of refrigeration and air conditioning systems. “In future cities, we would also like to see widespread use of shade trees in wet climates and architectural shading features in dry climates,” says Dr. Levinson.
What else is going on in 2030s Adelaide?
- Holistic water management. Adelaide is developing Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD), which treats all water resources – rainwater, drinking water, groundwater, and waste water – as a singular amenity to be carefully nurtured. Innovative WSUD actions include rain gardens that not only minimise damage from storm flooding, but include plants chosen for their effectiveness in removing pollutants.
- Recycled water. Toilets across the city, meanwhile, are being converted to use recycled water – also used increasingly to irrigate city parkland.
Sidebar: Pioneering cities’ climate pledges encourage businesses to step up, too
It feels refreshing to focus on the glimmering future visions of Essen, Nottingham, and Adelaide for change instead of virtue-signaling pledges and complex climate agreements. In 2022, there's a lot of work ahead in terms of fulfilling cities’ climate pledges – but there's hope.
Christian Hoffmann, Energy Transformation expert at UPM, is optimistic that cities will come up with effective responses to climate change. “The innovation space is exploding with solutions we never dreamed of even 10 to 20 years ago, applying new technologies and different processes.”
As cities spearhead climate action, they goad businesses to improve energy efficiency, too. For this, creating flexible approaches to power generation will be vital to mitigate against the climate crisis. An example of this is UPM's Beyond Spot, a digital energy optimisation service that helps fields such as the energy sector and heavy industry find efficient, economic, and ecological answers to sustainability challenges.
With UPM’s deep roots in forestry, Hoffmann also spotlights the multiple benefits of urban green spaces to tackle various climate problems. “Urban green spaces are not only important in terms of absorbing emissions, but also in boosting wellbeing and improving the visual aspect of cities,” he says.
While we have looked ahead into the next decade, Hoffmann is aware of how cities will change step by step. “It’s a process – and city mayors will focus on the two or three things most important in their city. They take the biggest items first and show businesses how change and innovation can work. The change will come.”
Norman Miller is an award-winning journalist specialised in fields including science, design, and business. His work has appeared e.g. on BBC, Guardian, and New Scientist.
Main illustration: Aliina Kauranne