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How do we reconcile the liveable and sustainable agendas in the urban age?

Global urban population is set to reach 6.7bn in 2050. Kisa Zehra, RICS Sustainability Analyst, examines how we can mediate between the demands of liveability and sustainability.

Kisa Zehra, RICS Sustainability Analyst
24 June 2022

In the next 30 years, urban and rural green spaces will come under increasing pressure. Around 55% of the world’s population lived in urban areas in 2020, but this figure is set to grow rapidly by 2050 – the year that global emissions must become net zero.

Around 68% of the global population – a staggering 6.7bn people – are forecast to be living in cities by 2050. Striking the balance between dense, low-impact urban development and liveable, green, and human-friendly city environments is now, therefore, essential.

Sustainability was a prominent theme in every session at the World Built Environment Forum Dubai 2022. The discussions ranged from the ways finance can help support sustainable and climate-resilient cities to the importance of digitisation to collect relevant data and measure building performance.

Conversations among experts made it clear that there are many obvious synergies between sustainability and liveability. When thinking about designing zero-carbon smart cities, policymakers must adopt a human-centric approach, focusing on citizens’ health and supporting social cohesion.

WBEF Dubai shed light on four major issues relating to sustainability that also underpin liveability: standards, data, digitisation, and societal planning.

Standardising sustainability

The role of the private sector in financing the transition to net zero continues to be discussed at length.

Perhaps a pivotal step in this direction was at COP26, when more than 450 financial institutions from 45 countries pledged around $100tr of finance to help economies transition towards net zero, as part of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ). However, this might not be nearly enough in itself, all the firms in the group must draw up near-term plans and commitments detailing exactly how they will fulfil this promise.

Experts at WBEF Dubai discussed the need to nudge the private sector towards more sustainable practices. Appropriate standards and effective regulation are necessary to provide this nudge.

To achieve measurable impacts on both sustainability and liveability, these standards must be as consistent as possible. Enforcement is equally important, and policymakers must work with industry to develop standards that strike the right balance between stringency and practicality. 

Commentators at the summit also stressed that cities would continue to be essential for sustainable development. They can be highly efficient when it comes to providing energy, services, and accommodation.

Government, industry, and city authorities from across the planet need to work more closely together to set universally recognised standards and regulations for liveable and sustainable cities. These standards will have to be flexible enough to enable application in all countries. Setting minimum environmental and social standards for cities around the world could be an effective approach. Those countries or cities wishing to go further would have the opportunity to add additional requirements where they wish.

The building blocks for such standards are already in development. For example, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and Arup have together developed a Guidebook. The document features a framework and key principles to design net-zero and people-centric neighbourhoods. The next stage will be to take such frameworks and develop them into standards.

“We need to radically transform how we fund, create and manage assets to meet net zero. There is a clear collective will across societies and global markets to help deliver positive change."

Ann Gray
FAIA, FRICS, RIBA, RICS President-Elect, speaking at the summit opening

Supporting the net-zero transition with clear data

Various panellists at WBEF emphasised the lack of available information about how firms plan to get to net zero. Transparency and honest disclosure on this issue is critical.

Policymakers do appear to be taking action to address this problem. Earlier this year, the UK became the first G20 country to mandate that more than 1,300 of its largest companies disclose climate-related risks and opportunities, in line with the recommendations of the Taskforce for Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD).

The EU and Hong Kong look likely to take similar measures. Meanwhile, the US Securities and Exchange Commission has also approved a landmark proposal to require that all publicly listed companies disclose their carbon emissions and the risks they face as a result from climate change.

Green finance is fundamental for funding the net-zero transition and building sustainable cities. Sustainable investments stand at roughly $35tr around the world, representing more than a third of global assets. However, what seems to be missing is data specifying to what extent these investments are having an effect, and exactly where progress is being made.

Digitisation for social good

A particular issue for the built environment is that it acquires a huge amount of data but does not use most of it. This point was reiterated by experts at the summit. Data needs to be standardised so that it can be used to measure progress and inform decisions.

The challenge for the sector is to understand how to organise data so that it is useful. Panellists stressed that this can be done through digitisation. Embracing technologies such as building information modelling (BIM) and digital twins can help professionals collect, analyse, and compare relevant building data.

Another important point made at the summit was that digitisation can lead to further collaboration, particularly if data can be shared across different platforms and used by multiple stakeholders. This can create a seamless flow of information, making it easier to collect data on the life cycle of entire projects.

If done correctly, built environment professionals could be in a good position to better understand the social and environmental effect of buildings. This is critical for the sector to reduce its negative environmental impact and at the same time take meaningful steps to benefit society.

The key is to move away from each stakeholder storing its own individual pieces of data, and towards further collaboration.

“We are moving towards a new era: of a carbon neutral economy ... climate change and carbon reduction are no longer the scope of ESG and public welfare but reach to the broader business world.”

Wang Shi
Founder and Honorary Chairman, Vanke, speaking about ‘Carbon neutral strategies for the built environment’

Rethinking the benefits of smart city planning

One of the many innovative ideas from the summit was the importance of shifting from city planning to societal planning. Cities need to adjust to its residents and planners need to think about the way the city, its structure and services have an impact on health and well-being.

City Leaders need to reconsider how people live now, and how they would like to live. The smart city approach can be used to improve our ways of life and make them more sustainable and more liveable. This can include developing a more environmentally conscious society, promoting the circular economy, and increasing our capacity to reduce, reuse and recycle.

Panellists noted that European cities such as Vienna and Berlin are among the best examples of smart sustainable cities at present, with ample green spaces, recycling incentives, and high use of public transportation and renewable energy resources. Melbourne was also seen as a strong contender, having made large investments in renewable energy and in urban forests. Arguably, such characteristics also ensure these cities are among the most liveable cities as well.

Discussions also stressed that it is not just about planning for 15-minute cities. Planners must also think about whether the city can provide easy access to resources and services and meet the immediate needs of residents. Such improvements in liveability can lead to sustainability – and vice versa.

Sean Kidney, CEO, Climate Bonds Initiative, speaking at the session ‘Financing for a more ethical and sustainable built environment’.