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 / Autumn 2010 / Issue 60(originally published by Booz & Company)


Reinventing the City to Combat Climate Change­

Aggressive, Aspirational Planning

In order to control emissions while meeting the challenges of urban growth, cities will need to shift their spending from high-carbon infrastructure to green infrastructure. This will require the creation of long-term low-carbon emissions plans. No matter their size, population, history, or geography, the dynamic ecosystems we call cities will require detailed action plans to meet their goals; planning is by far the best way to have an impact.

Consider, for example, the effect of urban planning on emissions. When U.S. cities experienced their great expansion during the 1950s, urban planners designed cities in which individuals would largely own and drive their own automobiles. In contrast, European cities were largely planned before car ownership became the norm. Tax policy also played a role, with much higher fuel taxes in Europe. As a result, transportation emissions per capita are almost three times as high in the U.S. as in most European countries, such as Germany, the United Kingdom, and France.

Planning clearly pays off, and more and more cities are doing it. In 2009, some 500 European leaders representing 120 million citizens in 36 countries agreed to create carbon action plans for their cities. Together they wrote and signed a covenant to reduce carbon emissions by more than the 20 percent target that had already been set by the European Union. This “Covenant of Mayors” requires the cities — which vary tremendously in size — to submit detailed sustainability strategies. As a result, the need for plans and goals has been formalized, and low-carbon action plans are becoming a routine part of many cities’ green strategies both in the E.U. and elsewhere around the globe.

As a general rule, urban low-carbon plans will differ depending on the city’s level of development. Cities follow a predictable life cycle as they grow. During their early stages of development, the bulk of expenditures and emissions come from the construction of infrastructure for transportation, housing, and commercial activities. As the city matures physically and economically, energy use increases until the bulk of expenditures and emissions come from existing infrastructure. At that point, the power of population density can be leveraged to promote energy efficiency, particularly in the areas of transportation and housing.

It is during this formative period that opportunities to affect long-term infrastructure expenditures and emissions are most dramatic. Developing cities with more needs and faster-growing populations have more challenges, but they also have more opportunities to create themselves afresh as greener, more livable entities. By restricting car use and limiting parking spaces, making cycling and walking attractive, and providing easy and cost-effective access to energy-efficient public transportation, high-density cities in emerging markets can meet the mobility needs of growing populations while managing both congestion and their carbon footprint.

“Developing nations should leapfrog ahead of the U.S. sprawl pattern and create higher-density, greener development,” says sustainability strategist and green real estate authority Charles Lockwood. “By embracing greener development practices today, they can save money for things that really matter — and probably gain a competitive advantage over some of today’s developed nations.”

For developed cities whose footprint and infrastructure are already in place, the challenges are different. They must rebuild and redesign their existing infrastructure to reduce emissions, while strengthening their capacity to support growth and meet the needs of expanding populations. Cities in the later stages of the urban infrastructure life cycle should set up and prioritize large-scale programs designed to reduce the emissions produced by existing infrastructure, while simultaneously setting ambitious and challenging standards for their future investments.

All of these investments, in all types of cities, must promote livability along with sustainability. Sustainable cities do not just view green initiatives through an environmental or even an economic lens — they are fundamentally concerned with creating livable, functional communities that meet the needs of their inhabitants. By making this goal part of their sustainability initiative, civic leaders can also build and maintain political support for the overall program. Indeed, there is no sustainability without livability; the two are inextricably linked.

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  1. Stewart Brand, “City Planet,” s+b, Spring 2006: How the profound consequences of increasing urbanization are changing the way we think about demographics, cultural vital­ity, and economic development.
  2. Viren Doshi, Gary Schulman, and Daniel Gabaldon, “Lights! Water! Motion!s+b, Spring 2007: Rebuilding the world’s urban infrastructure can be done only by integrating energy, transportation, and water.
  3. Peter Senge, Bryan Smith, and Nina Kruschwitz, “The Next Industrial Imperative,” s+b, Summer 2008: Why facing up to climate change requires a revolution in business thinking.
  4. World Wide Fund for Nature and Booz & Company, “Reinventing the City: Three Prerequisites for Greening Urban Infrastructure,” (PDF) March 2010: More analysis and ideas on why we need to aggressively pursue urban sustainability.
  5. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at:
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