01. EcoLogical

Around half the world’s population now lives in cities – a figure that will rise to almost 70% by 20501. Urban life may have taken a hit during the pandemic, but the economic opportunities and cultural attractions that have always underpinned cities’ charm will reassert themselves.

Cities have always been centers of wealth, innovation, and technological advancement. It should be no surprise that they are also at the forefront of the race to decarbonise.

Infrastructure makes city life function, but it takes vast resource investment, which, in turn, impacts the planet. Cities are responsible for up to 70% of global energy consumption and 75% of greenhouse gas emissions2. This resource intensity has a positive side, however: the economies of scale enabled by urban density create the conditions for a higher standard of living and a lower carbon footprint3.

But this does not happen on its own. It requires vision and planning. Over the past few decades, cities have been stepping up to this challenge. They have crafted formal and informal networks, like the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group of large cities, launched in October 2005, which now has 97 participants4.

Cities are showing climate leadership

One area where cities are showing climate leadership is in setting targets that are aligned with comprehensive plans to achieve them. CDP is a global organization which helps cities manage and disclose their environmental impact5. They publish an annual “A List”6 which highlights cities across the world that are leading the charge on climate adaptation and mitigation – and which have improved their climate disclosure recently. Among the scoring criteria is a commitment to net-zero emissions.

But achieving A List status requires more than disclosing and making promises. According to CDP, these cities must show true leadership, which includes having “strategic, holistic plans in place to ensure the actions they are taking will reduce climate impacts and vulnerabilities of the citizens, businesses and organizations residing in their city”7. Naturally, such cities would be attractive to investors as positioning themselves for success8. In 2020, 88 cities made the cut.



Buildings are integral to net-zero achievement

As buildings account for a major portion of a city’s carbon footprint, regulations on their construction and energy performance are a crucial part of keeping the commitment to net zero carbon that so many major cities have made. Many have laws in place regulating energy performance of buildings—for example, New York’s Local Law 97 of the Climate Mobilization Act requiring energy use intensity reporting and carbon emission reduction targets for all commercial buildings. The data is publicly available online, maximizing accountability9.

Cities’ building regulations go beyond energy use reporting and reduction mandates. London will require all new build homes to reach net-zero operational emissions by 202510. Boston recently passed an ordinance requiring all buildings larger than 20,000 square feet to be net zero by 205011. New York now requires new and renovated buildings to install green roofs or solar panels12. And cities from Paris to Portland now have regulations on building demolition, shifting the focus toward deconstruction as an alternative13. As the interactive map above shows, cities across the globe are moving ahead with a multitude of policies specifically targeting the real estate sector.


Altogether, most of the cities reporting to CDP are taking climate mitigation actions, with policies that target buildings being particularly prevalent in EMEA and North America.

Efficiency and retrofit requirements (mandatory measurement and reporting, for example) are the most popular, with 40% of cities having implemented a requirement in this area. Programs for onsite generation and greener building codes are also common, each being put forward by about 1 in 5 cities. Other actions – such as switching to more renewable fuels – will almost certainly take more direct investment from cities themselves.


Efficiency and retrofit requirements are the most popular climate mitigation actions, with 40% of cities having implemented a requirement in this area.


Walkable, affordable, sustainable

If buildings are one quintessential feature of cities, the ability to move between them with ease is another. Efficient transit, at scale and with minimal carbon impact, will be a crucial element of a sustainable city. To some, “walkability” may be an ethereal concept. But the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP) has developed a Pedestrians First tool, which includes a five-fold methodology for quantifying it. In ITDP’s framework, walkability means being able to access services like transit, healthcare, education, and green space on foot14.

A sustainable, walkable urban area, then, is one in which people can access everything they need to live and thrive without using a personal vehicle. Vehicles will always be a feature of city environments – albeit increasingly electric in nature – but urban design measures to reduce reliance on private vehicles are set to reshape cities in ways that offer huge opportunity to real estate developers and investors15.

This has tremendous implications for cities and real estate professionals working together to achieve a thoughtful blend of property uses. One is affordable, equitable housing. To achieve the kind of density that leads to a net-zero city, people of different economic status will need to live, work, and play in proximity to each other.

Cities are first responders

The path to a sustainable, low carbon way of living runs through urban streets.

The good news is that cities are leading the way. While agreements between nation states grab the headlines, cities can be nimbler and more pragmatic, solving problems while flying under the radar of national politics. If cities are the places where some of the effects of climate change are most immediately apparent, they are also in the front line of developing a response, preparing risk assessments, setting greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, and pledging themselves to aggressive action. There is much work to be done, but cities are emerging as 'first responders' in mitigating and adapting to climate change16.

1https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html 2https://www.c40.org/why_cities 3https://www.centreforcities.org/reader/net-zero-decarbonising-the-city/cities-need-to-become-denser-to-achieve-net-zero/ 4https://www.c40.org/about 5https://www.cdp.net/en 6https://www.cdp.net/en/cities/cities-scores 7https://guidance.cdp.net/en/guidance?cid=16&ctype=theme&idtype=ThemeID&incchild=1&microsite=0&otype=ScoringModule 8See Risk and returns 9https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/buildings/local_laws/ll97of2019.pdf 10https://www.edie.net/library/London-Climate-Action-Week--How-is-the-capital-planning-to-reach-net-zero-/7064 11https://apnews.com/article/climate-change-business-environment-and-nature-boston-environment-44a4127d5551e0d9ae518e3ffd12480b 12https://www.silive.com/news/2020/01/nyc-now-requires-solar-panels-green-roof-systems-on-new-homes.html 13https://www.c40knowledgehub.org/s/article/How-to-start-deconstructing-and-stop-demolishing-your-citys-buildings?language=en_US 14https://pedestriansfirst.itdp.org 15See Electric avenue 16Nature.com


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