David Rudlin AoU sets out why we need urbanists to declare a climate emergency and what the declaration should be


The world seems finally to be waking up to the threat of ‘global warming’, so much so that the term has been replaced with the much more urgent ‘climate emergency’. There are exceptions of course, most notably the US and Australia, but throughout the civilised world there is a growing realisation and acceptance of the scale of the threat we face even if it doesn’t always translate into an appetite for the scale of the solutions required.

This was true until our collective attention was diverted by the much more immediate crisis created by the Covid-19 virus. The climate, of course, is the greater of the two crises. Terrible as the pandemic is, and the climate emergency has the potential to kill far more people (While not directly related to global heating, research from Stanford University’s Department of Earth System Science makes the point, estimating that the reduction in air pollution from China’s Covid-19 shut down will have saved 20 times more lives than were claimed by the virus).

The problem is the boiled frog syndrome – drop a frog in hot water and it will jump out immediately (Covid-19), put it in cold water and heat it slowly and it will not jump out until it is too late. So let us hope that the sense of urgency and collective will that has been applied to Covid-19 can, once things return to some sort of normal, be applied to our climate.

To this end various groups have published declarations of intent setting out how their sector should respond to the climate emergency following the example of Architects Declare. The heritage industry has produced Heritage Declares and as urbanists we have a responsibility to do the same.

Cities are at the heart of the climate crisis and must be at the forefront of the solution. It is a much-cited statistic that 55% of the world population live in cities. For those of us who have argued that compact walkable cities are the most sustainable form of settlement what is more unsettling is the statistic from UN Habitat that 78% of the world’s energy and 60% of its greenhouse gas emissions are also produced in cities.

It’s not impossible to square this circle, people move to cities to improve their quality of life and with that comes greater consumption and energy use. For a given level development per capita CO2 emissions may well be lower in cities and are almost certainly lower in compact cities than sprawling suburbia or exurbia.

Cities are at the heart of the climate crisis and must be at the forefront of the solution

However, as urbanists we must stop just assuming that cities are intrinsically sustainable. We must actively engage in the creation of towns and cities that respond to the climate emergency by reducing CO2 emissions. They must also positively contribute to biodiversity, reduce air pollution and minimise waste. They must also increase their resilience and ability to adapt to the change that is already happening such as increased risk of flooding and heatwaves.

What does such a sustainable city look like? Many of our discussion focus on how important cities are for sustainability, but there is often a lack of consistent and reliable information about what we should do as a result. Should we be building garden cities, urban villages, BedZEDs, autonomous hamlets or hyper-dense cities? And how should each of these be designed to enable zero carbon living?  How should they balance open spaces and greenery with density and walkability? 

What are the best house types and densities to minimise energy use? What is the optimum mix of uses and employment density?  How do we deal with both thermal efficiency and cooling? What is more important orientation or urban form? How should we balance active travel with public transport and autonomous vehicles? What will our public realm look like, will we still have streets and what function will they perform? How will we deal with drainage and increased flood risk? What does a zero-waste economy look like at the neighbourhood scale? What roles does local renewable energy have to play in a decarbonised national grid?        

These are all questions to which urbanists genuinely don’t know the answer, or at least don’t agree on what the answer might be. This uncertainty needs to inform any declaration that urbanists make on the climate emergency. We need to first commit ourselves to a ‘performance standard’ that is now widely agreed for towns and cities before making a declaration of how we will work out what this means in practice and what we will do to achieve it.

To this end…

URBANISTS DECLARE that we should be planning, managing and celebrating towns and cities:

  1. That are capable of achieving zero carbon living and that have a strategy for all new and retrofitted existing buildings, infrastructure and transport systems to be ‘zero carbon ready’.

  2. That effectively monitor the embodied energy use and carbon emissions associated with the construction of buildings and infrastructure and ensure that it is minimised.

  3. That take a systems approach local renewable energy production and storage to contribute to a fully decarbonised electricity grid. 

  4. That target 70% of all trips by cycling, walking and public transport (thereby matching Copenhagen) and ensure that all remaining vehicles are powered by electricity.

  5. That are designed to enable the circular economy maximising reuse, sharing and the recycling of waste and that do not send material to landfill.

  6. That are designed to respond to local climatic conditions to ensure the liveability and comfort of the public realm.

  7. That are resilient and adaptive to flooding and designed to minimise run-off thereby not contributing to flooding elsewhere.

  8. That maximise the amount of green infrastructure and make a positive contribution to biodiversity.

  9. That dramatically reduce local air pollution and achieve air quality well in advance of WHO targets to enable healthy living. 

  10. That make provision for community buy-in, ownership and control at neighbourhood and city level to achieve all of the above.

To this end we as URBANISTS DECLARE:

  1. That we recognise the central role that urban areas have to play addressing the climate emergency – both in the way that they are designed and in the way they are managed

  2. That we will use our networks to raise awareness of the urgency of the climate emergency and its impact on towns and cities.

  3. That we don’t yet know enough about how cities can more effectively address the climate emergency and we commit ourselves to encouraging and supporting research and best practice.

  4. That we will share the outputs of research and best practice through our networks on an open source basis. 

  5. That we will take account of a place’s contribution to addressing the climate emergency as part of when assessing awards and best practice

  6. That we will encourage all of the places we work with to monitor their sustainability performance including energy use, carbon dioxide emissions per capita, transport modal split, air quality, materials and resource use and reuse.

  7. That we will engage with the other built environment professions to promote and advocate for sustainable urbanism. 

  8. That, while recognising the value of international networks and learning from other place, we will avoid air travel.

  9. That we will minimise the environmental impact of our day-to-day operations including the use of digital channels for meetings and publications.

  10. That we will encourage all urbanists to sign up to this charter. 

This is a draft declaration. Please share your thoughts in the comment section below or email your responses to [email protected]


David Rudlin AoU is a director of The Academy of Urbanism


Featured image: Granville Brook Dumpsite in Freetown, Sierra Leone © Jihoon Yoo

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