Covid-19 has accelerated environmental awareness, making the transition towards clean mobility and the circular economy more politically and socially feasible. But after all this talk, will we walk the walk when it comes to making our cities more sustainable places to inhabit?
It’s an emphatic “yes” from Andrew Webb, chief economist with Grant Thornton. He believes the climate-change agenda feels “more urgent” now following multiple periods of strict lockdown.
How can we reimagine our cities and make them work for everyone in terms of design, smart technology and housing?
“I think the remote working and lack of commuting points towards how significant inroads can be made to reduce emissions from working differently. We have also seen a rise in ‘shop local’ and emerging consumer trends favouring sustainability and reduced carbon impact coming to the fore,” Webb says.
The mass exodus from cities during the successive lockdowns has triggered greener initiatives for citizens, such as extending cycle ways, and now planners are looking to permanently increase green space and pedestrian access, says Shane O’Reilly, director of KPMG Sustainable Futures.
“Covid has brought forward the ‘15-minute city’ into Irish policymakers’ minds. Policymakers could capitalise on this goodwill further not just in infrastructure terms but also in lower carbon fleet investments, providing city-goers with increased greener options to facilitate the modal shift in transport necessary to avoid a return to traditional fossil-based fuel transport.”
A number of cities are accelerating their green and blue strategies, he adds.
“Cork city, Limerick city and Dublin city are delivering increased outdoor living projects, increasing pedestrian and cycling areas, in essence operationalising the 15-minute city concept.”
So can the tonnes of goodwill generated during the pandemic be harnessed and converted into actionable policies for our green and blue infrastructures and markedly reduce the carbon footprint of our cities for the long-term?
According to John O’Hara, city planning officer with Dublin City Council, sustainability underpins almost all plans for our capital city, whether social or structural.
“The forthcoming development plan will need to consider new policy support for innovative waste treatment and reuse infrastructure, and the use of waste treatment process to generate energy with an overall focus on a circular economy approach to waste management.
“There is a new policy focus on the requirement for heat mapping and to support developments which deliver energy efficiency and the recovery of energy that would otherwise be wasted,” he says.
O’Hara also describes a new “soft edge” policy with Dublin Port so more citizens can experience the Poolbeg Peninsula and Dublin Bay.
Dublin City Council also has a water animation strategy for the rivers, canals and Dublin Bay, while the cycle greenways are being extended along the canals beyond the city to towns such as Maynooth.
“It is important to build on the interdependability of the policies and actions to active climate change in our city ranging from the 15-minute city, more people living closer to the central area and urban villages, complemented by quality open spaces, with multiple functionality – recreation, biodiversity, sustainable urban drainage and air quality,” he says.
Limerick is another city with concrete goals when it comes to energy usage as it undergoes the transition to a clean energy city by 2050. As a lighthouse city for the +CityxChange project, supported by the EU Horizon 2020 programme, it is working to develop positive energy blocks, namely areas of the city that produce more energy from local renewable sources than they consume.
As part of the +CityxChange project, 24 “positive energy champions” have been recruited to take positive energy actions over a period of months in order to reduce their carbon footprint and share their experiences with the community in Limerick.
Organisations, businesses and individuals have been asked to critically examine their energy consumption, and take action to become more sustainable such as home-energy monitoring, using sustainable transport methods, installing renewables or even retrofitting some of Limerick’s historic Georgian buildings.
It is hoped that, with the support of the +CityxChange team, the experiences of the “positive energy champions” will empower the wider community to follow their lead, says Sinead Hourigan, engagement manager with the CityXChange project, Limerick City and County Council.
“Summer 2021 in Limerick will see many citizens step up to take on the challenge of moving to a more sustainable and clean energy city.”
Indeed, it is apparent city planners are excited about the challenges and opportunities the upheaval of the pandemic has presented.
Jim Conway, director of the Eastern & Midland Regional Assembly, says the forthcoming Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy (RSES) will ensure that future development is planned in such a way so that people can live closer to where they work, reducing car dependency and creating “smarter, greener more liveable cities, towns and villages”.
“There is an opportunity now to increase our ambition around healthy placemaking – to prioritise walking and cycling, to improve our public realm and provider for a greater mix of daytime and nighttime uses that attract people back into in our city centres.”
Ensuring city residents can live a greener, more sustainable life is a priority for all the company’s developments, says Helena Hayes, director of new homes & sales with Quintain.
“Creative design approaches to a series of dedicated pedestrian and cycling routes that interconnect homes and amenities are key to the success of this. By balancing heritage, the natural environment and public realm with people, modern development and green infrastructure, this will enable homeowners to enjoy high quality, inclusive environments with great leisure and recreation amenities.”
This type of joined-up thinking is critical to developing and creating more sustainable communities and reducing our carbon footprint, adds Hayes. “Importantly, it will result in communities and neighbourhoods that stand the test of time.”
Going back to the old normal will be easier said than done, but there will be tangible benefits in terms of sustainability as we make a fresh start in the new normal, says Webb.
“A key learning from the pandemic is the old trope that held so much progress back in the past – ‘we’ve always done it this way’ – no longer holds any credibility. Anything is possible, and there is an opportunity for bold policy initiatives that drive towards a better quality of living and cleaner environment.”