Jonathan WattsSun 7 Jun 2020 15.00 BST
Many urban dwellers have gazed in awe at their newly clean cities over the last few months. But three – Copenhagen, Oakland and Mexico City – are leading the way in making such transformations permanent. How?
For those not directly affected, the ability to breathe more easily and see further has perhaps been the greatest consolation amid the trauma of the coronavirus pandemic.
As city after city begins to emerge from lockdown, urban planners and environmental campaigners are grappling with how to keep the clean air and blue skies that have transformed our view of the world. “Citizens around the world can see change is possible,” says Zoe Chafe, an air quality specialist with the C40 group of global megacities. “Just put yourself on the rooftop and imagine seeing mountains for the first time, and thinking how amazing it feels to realise this is possible.”
That rooftop could be in Kathmandu (where residents were astonished to make out Mount Everest for the first time in decades), Manila (where the Sierra Madre became visible again) or dozens of other cities across the world.
Not everywhere has seen air quality improvements in recent months. In some Asian cities, such as Hanoi and Jakarta, pollution has become worse. But, for the most part, people across the world are experiencing a healthier alternative to the smoke and smog that are responsible for an estimated 3 million deaths a year.
Having seen the shroud lift, there is a growing clamour not to let it fall again. Cities across the world are exploring ways to permanently reduce pollution. Chafe says there is no quick, one-case-fits-all solution, but there are lessons – on environmental justice, community activism, urban design, climate ambition, technological innovation and municipal leadership – that can be learned from the cities and states that were making progress even before the lockdown. Here are three.
Copenhagen has the world’s most ambitious plan to cut emissions: carbon neutral by 2025. This is pushing the Danish capital to go beyond the existing model of smart, clean urban design and cycle-centred transport that has turned it into one of the cleanest cities in the world.
Grassroots activism, pragmatic government and high taxes have been the drivers for change. Old photographs prove the city had as much of a car culture as any European city in the 1970s, when more than 100,000 citizens demonstrated in Rådhuspladsen (City Hall Square) to demand their streets back. Since then, town planners have steadily reduced parking spaces and widened areas for pedestrians and bicycles.
Jeppe Juul, of the Danish Eco Council, says it is a question of priorities. “It feels good to walk around Copenhagen,” he says. “Pedestrians have more space than bikes, and bikes have more space than cars.” The city now vies with Amsterdam for being the most bicycle-friendly city in the world. This means traffic lights with resting bars that riders can hang on to without touching the ground, take-away coffee containers designed for bikes, and groups that organise parent’s shifts for schools runs on “minibus-like” bicycles that can take up to six children at a time.
Copenhagen’s 2025 target depends largely on replacing coal-fired heating with biomass, wind and geothermal energy. A new district-heating infrastructure will allow neighbourhoods to scrap home boilers. Urban planners aim to use carbon capture and storage technology to trap emissions from the main municipal waste incinerator.
Some still doubt the city will be zero-carbon within five years, but Mikkel Krogsgaard Niss, from the mayor’s office, says sceptics have been proved wrong in the past. “From 2014-20, we reduced carbon dioxide by more than 50%, so we are on our way,” he says.
These shifts will create up to 35,000 jobs, with most of the money coming from public coffers. Residents already pay some of the highest rates of tax in the world, but this is seen as an investment in health and quality of life. The city’s wastewater plant was also expensive, but now that it is operational, residents can swim in the harbour – something unthinkable in urban waterways elsewhere. Danes are consistently ranked among the world’s healthiest and happiest people.
The municipality also wants to completely phase out combustion engines by electrifying the bus fleet and banning petrol and diesel cars within five years. After that plan ran into opposition from the national government, local environmental NGOs lobbied for a revolutionary new traffic management scheme that hugely decreases the convenience of car use. The “distribution plan”, which was pioneered in the Belgian town of Ghent, divides the urban centre into a handful of zones and prohibits drivers from going directly from one to another. Instead, they have to go via the suburbs. “It means there is no such thing as a short drive to the bakery or wherever in this system,” says Jens Müller, the air quality manager of the Transport & Environment NGO. As a result, walking, cycling and public transport become more appealing. “It’s the most radical thing you can do apart from creating a no-car zone,” says Juul.
Blue-sky thinking: how cities can keep air clean after coronavirus | The Guardian
Jonathan WattsSun 7 Jun 2020 15.00 BST Many urban dwellers have gazed in awe at their newly clean cities over the last few months. But three – Copenhagen, Oakland and Mexico City – are leading the way in making such transformations permanent. How? For those not directly affected, the ability to breathe more easily and… [Read More]