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Image: Shutterstock / Time Out

21 amazing things cities are doing to fight the climate crisis

Urban forests, wooden skyscrapers and 3D-printed homes: these are the pioneering city initiatives that could help save the planet

Written by
Huw Oliver
,
Ed Cunningham
&
Sophie Dickinson
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We don’t want to point the finger, but cities have a lot to answer for when it comes to climate change. The explosion of outsize metropolises around the world has obviously brought untold benefits to billions. We wouldn’t have the jobs, lifestyle or world we have without cities. But then came the carnage...

There were the trees and wildlife we lost – and continue to lose. The steel-and-concrete buildings that pump CO₂ into the atmosphere. The sewage-blighted rivers. The traffic and factories that make the simple act of breathing quite a bit harder. Oh, and have you seen the foxes? Have you seen how sad they look?

If we are to go some way to undoing the damage humans have inflicted on the world, then real change is going to have to happen in massive burgs like London, TokyoNew York and all the rest. Happily, there’s already plenty of innovative, planet-friendly stuff going on in cities large and small. Here are 21 bright ideas from around the world that could help us preserve our lush metropolitan lives for centuries to come.

Cities leading the fight against climate change

Bogotá is going on a bike-lane-building spree
Photograph: VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

1. Bogotá is going on a bike-lane-building spree

During the pandemic, Bogotá ramped up its efforts to make bike travel the norm. In March 2020, the city laid out 84 kilometres of emergency cycle lanes to help essential staff get to work, and it will soon add another 280 kilometres of them. Thanks to this policy, the Colombian capital already enjoys the highest bicycle usage in Latin America – and it’s sure to become even more of a cyclists’ paradise in years to come.

 🚴 How Bogotá became a world-beating cycling haven

Barcelona is banning cars from entire ‘superblocks’
Photograph: Josep Lago / AFP via Getty Images

2. Barcelona is banning cars from entire ‘superblocks’

Barcelona is famously grid-like, and the city is making the most of its unique layout to ban traffic from huge, newly created ‘superblocks’: groupings of dozens of neighbouring streets. Cars are only allowed to drive round the perimeter of each block, essentially pedestrianising a vast swathe of the centre (and improving air quality significantly). The plan is to eventually create 503 superblocks that stretch right across the Catalan capital.

🚦 How Barcelona’s ‘superblock’ plan is carving out a post-car future

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Durban is changing lives with free cooking bags
Photograph: Wonderbag

3. Durban is changing lives with free cooking bags

The Global South is already bearing the brunt of the climate crisis. And women are disproportionately affected. But in the South African city of Durban, officials have found a way both to help the planet and combat gender inequality. Last year alone, it handed out 60,000 Wonderbags: essentially, big cloth holdalls you can put pots and pans in, so they continue to slow-cook food for hours after you take them off the stove. Lower carbon emissions, loads of water saved, less indoor air pollution: win-win-win.

🍲 These eco-friendly cooking bags are transforming women’s lives in Durban

Milan is being transformed into an urban forest
Photograph: Libero_Monterisi / Shutterstock.com

4. Milan is being transformed into an urban forest

Three million. That’s the magic number of trees Milan intends to plant by 2030. That amounts to one new tree per citizen, and the city is planting them on roads, in parks and even on skyscraper balconies. Unlike many other ‘regreening’ schemes, the city is thinking locally, pinpointing the areas with the highest temperatures and the places best located to create ‘green corridors’ to connect existing forests. Now it wants to inspire other cities to do the same.

🌳 How Milan is being transformed into one gigantic urban forest

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Paris is going car-free (in the centre, at least)
Photograph: Kiran Ridley via Getty Images

5. Paris is going car-free (in the centre, at least)

Paris added tens of kilometres of new bike lanes last year, making it easier than ever to ditch your car in the City of Light. Now it’s hoping to take things one step further – by banning most vehicles altogether in the first four arrondissements from 2022. That would mean cars would no longer be able to drive through a massive chunk of the city, stretching all the way from the Place de la Bastille to the Place de la Concorde.

🌿 How Paris plans to become Europe’s greenest city by 2030

Tallinn has made all public transport free
Photograph: M.Pakats / Shutterstock.com

6. Tallinn has made all public transport free

When Tallinn introduced free public transport in 2013, the climate crisis wasn’t the city’s main concern. The government initially wanted to increase the mobility of lower-income citizens, but as the emergency has worsened, the city is seeing the environmental benefits too. Tallinn has laid the groundwork for how cities can create a working, financially viable system that prioritises mass transport over private cars – a change that is necessary to dramatically reduce emissions worldwide.

🚋 Tallinn made all public transport free – but did it help curb emissions?

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Basel is planting wildflowers on every flat roof
Photograph: Shutterstock

7. Basel is planting wildflowers on every flat roof

On top of every flat roof in Basel – new and old – you’ll soon find a thriving wildflower garden. For the past decade or so, the inner city has made it a requirement that all houses, offices and other buildings cover empty roof space with biodiverse greenery. All that natural insulation means lower energy bills, and the scheme has also made rare birds a more frequent sight throughout the city.

🌼 How Basel started a green-roof revolution in Europe

Tokyo is showing other cities how to cool the eff down
Photograph: Hirohito Takada / Shutterstock.com

8. Tokyo is showing other cities how to cool the eff down

In the lead-up to this year’s Olympic and Paralympic games, Tokyo trialled several types of cooling technology to counter the city’s sweltering summer heat. From solar-blocking paint and misting towers to cleaner forms of air conditioning and buildings made out of wood rather than steel and concrete (like the brand-new Japan National Stadium, pictured), many of those bits of tech proved successful in reducing the ‘heat island’ effect. As the world keeps getting warmer, the measures introduced in Tokyo are relevant to cities across the globe.

🥵 Tokyo is showing other cities how to cool the eff down

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Amsterdam is embracing a funny-named economic model
Photograph: Shutterstock

9. Amsterdam is embracing a funny-named economic model

In Amsterdam, the government and grassroots campaigners have united to embrace the so-called ‘doughnut’ economic model – and now it is influencing all city decisions and policy-making. The main goal is to create a viable future for the planet, while also meeting the needs of the human population: this sweet spot, the doughnut, is what all governments should be aiming for. The result? The city has adopted a raft of ambitious targets, ranging from renewable energy and green spaces to building sustainable food systems and reducing consumption.

🍩 How Amsterdam is embracing the ‘doughnut model’ – and why other cities should too

Austin is 3D-printing an entire neighbourhood
Photograph: BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group

10. Austin is 3D-printing an entire neighbourhood

Why is 3D-printed housing eco-friendly, you ask? Put simply, the world population is exploding and we’re going to need loads more homes, fast. Software and machine-based construction uses less energy, wastes fewer resources and builds properties to a higher spec than traditional building methods – so, in theory, the environment suffers far less. Austin in Texas is building an entire neighbourhood of 3D-printed homes, hopefully setting a precedent for a more efficient and sustainable solution to the global housing crisis.

 🏠 An entire neighbourhood of 3D-printed homes is being built in Austin

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Copenhagen is urging locals to grow their own food
Photograph: Anna Svetlova / Shutterstock.com

11. Copenhagen is urging locals to grow their own food

Copenhagen’s green-fingered citizens can help encourage biodiversity while growing their own (no doubt highly tasty) dinner. The city has one of the world’s biggest networks of public urban farms, including Byhaven2200, where volunteers and visitors can dine among vegetable and herb planters. There’s also Øens Have, which runs everything from communal gardening projects to agriculture seminars and yoga lessons. Coolest of all, perhaps, is Havhøst, where seaweed is grown on the harbourfront for humans and marine life alike.

🌾 How Copenhagen became the greenest city in Europe

Vancouver is making big buildings out of wood
Photograph: Delta Land Development / Perkins+Will

12. Vancouver is making big buildings out of wood

Building with steel and concrete produces heckloads of CO₂. So, in Vancouver, a host of pioneering architects have dedicated their careers to constructing buildings with reinforced timber instead. This wood requires much less energy to produce and can be sustainably sourced. It’s also surprisingly fire-resistant. There are several notable large-scale projects in the city, but the most impressive must be the 40-storey Earth Tower (pictured), which will soon be the world’s tallest wooden skyscraper.

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Curitiba has trained an army of 7,000 ‘bee guardians’
Photograph: Shutterstock

13. Curitiba has trained an army of 7,000 ‘bee guardians’

In the Brazilian city of Curitiba, bee pollination is responsible for maintaining a whopping 90 percent of plant species. To keep its city green, Curitiba hasn’t just reintroduced five different species of stingless bees to more than 50 sites (including parks, schools and museums). It’s also embarked on a campaign to educate all the residents about the benefits of bees. Curitiba even runs free monthly training courses in beekeeping, which have trained more than 7,000 ‘bee guardians’ in just two years.

Buenos Aires is powering homes with landfill
Photograph: Shutterstock

14. Buenos Aires is powering homes with landfill

Methane has 80 times the short-term global warming power of carbon dioxide – and one of the mains places it comes from is landfills, when food and organic waste start to decompose and release gas. The CEAMSE power plant in Buenos Aires pipes that methane into biogas plants, not only preventing it from spewing into the atmosphere but also helping to solve the city’s energy problems.

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Freiburg is leading the way on eco-friendly design
Photograph: Shutterstock

15. Freiburg is leading the way on eco-friendly design

Freiburg is probably best known as one of Germany’s most famous university towns, but it’s also at the forefront of eco-friendly urban design. A stronghold of the German Green Party, the city is transforming the way its buildings consume energy and resources. From football team S.C. Freiburg’s solar-powered stadium to Vauban, a ‘sustainable district’ in the suburbs (pictured), the city is successfully establishing itself as a green beacon in the foothills of the Black Forest.

Hong Kong is making energy-efficient skyscrapers
Photograph: Shutterstock

16. Hong Kong is making energy-efficient skyscrapers

Hong Kong has 1,500 skyscrapers – and they consume around 90 percent of the city’s electricity, making them pretty much an environmental nightmare. But the tallest of them all, the ICC, is actually pretty green. The building’s operators use a wireless network of sensors to work out which areas need power and those that don’t. That means there’s basically no waste (and saves 10,000 tonnes of carbon emissions per year). Many new high-rises in the city are now following suit.

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Helsinki is helping people go out better
Photograph: Yiping Feng / Ling Ouyang

17. Helsinki is helping people go out better

Step one of planning a trip to a new city is working out the genuinely cool things to do, right? Helsinki officials agree, so they’ve created a guide that allows you to find fun stuff and make sustainable choices. The city is aiming to be carbon-neutral by 2035, and the My Helsinki directory lists the greenest bars, clubs and cultural spaces to support that goal. Entries include the supremely edgy Amos Rex gallery and Flow Festival, one of the world’s first carbon-neutral music festivals.

Ulaanbaatar is educating the masses with outdoor art
Photograph: Amnat Phuthamrong / Shutterstock.com

18. Ulaanbaatar is educating the masses with outdoor art

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, is notorious for its heavy reliance on coal. The city’s industries use the energy source to run basically everything, so the annual Nogoonbaatar Eco Art Festival stepped into educate locals and (hopefully) inspire change. The programme features a mix of international artists and local designers, and includes street art exhibitions and school outreach, with many events taking place in rubbish dump-turned-park Mountain Lake. The organisers have even come up with their own plan to cut carbon emissions, which the city is now implementing.

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London is issuing ‘green bonds’ to fund rewilding
Photograph: Willy Barton / Shutterstock.com

19. London is issuing ‘green bonds’ to fund rewilding

The London borough of Islington has declared a climate emergency – and come up with an innovative plan to tackle it. Residents can buy bonds that allow the local authority to fund green initiatives like rewilding projects, solar panel installations and electric-car infrastructure. Investors make around 1.55 percent in interest, but apparently a good chunk of people are donating that cash back into the scheme. You can put in as little as a fiver, which will hopefully yield a profit and all manner of great green ideas.

Vizag is showing the world how to do conservation
Photograph: Shutterstock

20. Vizag is showing the world how to do conservation

Have you ever seen hordes of baby turtles making the trip from their beachy nests to the ocean? It’s extremely cute, but also extremely treacherous. In the Indian city of Visakhapatnam – Vizag, for short – officials are restructuring oceanfront infrastructure to help. Gone are the distracting bright lights and polluting factories. Instead, turtle hatcheries have been installed, and fishermen have been tasked with aiding the conservation programme. ​​By supporting the hatchlings, the city has helped other species – both marine and terrestrial – bounce back from the brink.

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Kigali is getting Africa’s first eco-neighbourhood
Photograph: Shutterstock

21. Kigali is getting Africa’s first eco-neighbourhood

Rwanda is one of Africa’s most densely populated countries and Kigali, the capital, is especially packed. In an effort to counter both the booming population and the climate emergency, the city is building Green City Kigali, the first sustainable neighbourhood of its kind in Africa. Built on Kinyinya Hill in the city’s Gasabo district, the development will contain 30,000 affordable homes and promises to have a minimal ecological footprint.

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