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


Reinventing the City to Combat Climate Change­

In addition, Portland’s rate of bicycle commuting has tripled in the last decade, and is the highest of any major U.S. city. All buses and trains have room for bikes; a planned network of bicycle boulevards aims to make cycling easier and safer. Other transport initiatives include a recently passed ordinance requiring all diesel fuel sold within city limits to contain 5 percent biodiesel, and a public–private partnership undertaking the construction of 1,000 charging stations for electric vehicles.

To limit urban sprawl, Portland has created a growth boundary limit around its metropolitan area. As it accommodates about 3,000 new units of housing each year, Portland focuses on building up, not out. It has adopted stringent policies for new construction, emphasizing high-density, livable buildings that are mostly multifamily, and it has sought creative approaches to foster energy efficiency in the city’s existing buildings and infrastructure.

For example, in 2000, Portland passed a law requiring all new buildings and all businesses receiving tax increment funding — which pays for current development from anticipated increases in taxes — to meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) construction standards. LEED is part of an internationally recognized certification program for buildings that meet strict standards for energy savings, water efficiency, low CO2 emissions, indoor environmental quality, and stewardship of resources. Today, the city has approximately 300 LEED-certified commercial buildings and is a worldwide leader in LEED architecture.

Another example of the power of planning for a rapidly growing city in the developing world can be found in Lagos, Nigeria — a city of 24 million people that is on track to become the world’s largest metropolitan area by 2015. As recently as the early 2000s, Lagos was known for urban neglect, diesel fumes, and chaotic traffic patterns. Then, reaching across sectors to create partnerships, the city’s leaders embarked on a major environmental awareness campaign. The city’s rallying cry: “Eko O Ni Baje,” or “Lagos shall not deteriorate.”

Faced with a dangerous and unsustainable growth pattern, Lagos redesigned its bus rapid transit system to be safer and more effective and to reduce emissions. The first phase of the system became active in 2008. The city also significantly improved its waste management systems, created green spaces, and installed solar-powered infrastructure. Lagos still has a long journey ahead, but it is on its way to becoming a sustainable city. Cities such as Lagos that have a deliberate plan are more likely to arrive at a sustainable destination than those that simply accept organic and unruly growth.

Energy-efficient Technology

Energy-efficient technology is the single strongest weapon that cities possess in the fight against climate change. And cities will need to develop and apply energy-efficient technologies at an unprecedented rate if they are to enable smart growth and sustainable lifestyles.

The small, incremental improvements of the past — for example, the use of hybrid vehicles, better models of air conditioning, and other energy-efficient technologies — may offer a few more miles per gallon or slightly fewer kilowatt-hours of electricity usage, but they cannot provide the absolute emissions reductions necessitated by our booming cities and increasing consumption levels. Incremental improvements can even be a threat; they can dig urban centers deeper into existing unsustainable infrastructures and delay critical transformative infrastructure changes.

Instead, cities must invest in technological advances that enable the planning, construction, and usage of low-carbon urban infrastructure. These advances will likely feature a diversified portfolio of intelligent and integrated renewable energy solutions, including solar, wind, geothermal, ocean, and biomass. Increased electrification may also be necessary in order to dramatically increase efficiency and enable a larger share of renewable energy input through smart grids, which can boost efficiency and lower costs further by adding two-way communications capabilities, intelligent monitoring systems, and the ability to integrate renewable electricity into conventional electric power systems.

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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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