Shakespeare once said, “What is the city but the people?” yet urban planners would seem to disagree. Cities need good public infrastructure, urban planning and government policy to be able to withstand the extreme weather events we see today.

With the devastating effects of climate change looming, countries around the world are calling for a systemic change in the way governments think about city planning, private investments, and the very definition of economic value.

Professor Brian Collins CB FREng, Deputy Convenor of the UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities and Professor of Engineering at UCL, breaks down the steps governments can take to prepare for climate change, and how the UK is leading in this.

Rethinking infrastructure

To prepare cities to deal with large-scale and high-impact events like climate change or a pandemic, cities have to first rethink the way they manage critical infrastructure, says Collins. They need to think about infrastructure as connected entities and build them in a sustainable way.

A city’s infrastructure is more interconnected and interdependent than we used to think, Collins says. “Historically, we thought of infrastructure services like transport, energy, water or wastewater disposal as separate industries,” he notes.

But today, that sort of thinking doesn’t hold. For example, all of our computers, data centres and train stations run on electricity. “If you stress the energy supply, then you will stress the other elements as well,” he says. “You can’t really deal with just one and not deal with all the others.”

This connected approach is equally crucial to any climate action. “It’s no good greening one sector if another sector causes more harm to the environment as a result”, says Collins. For instance, electric vehicles may run on a cleaner form of energy, but if cities use a carbon-intensive method of producing that extra electricity, they’re not better off at all.

Infrastructure also needs to be built sustainably, so that they can “continue to function when under short-term stressors and longer-term changes like climate change”, says Collins. This means that they should be able to protect themselves against extreme weather events caused by climate change, else they must be adapted.

There are many ways to adapt infrastructure. Cities could build sea defenses, or high rise buildings capable of coping with stronger winds, Collins explains. Adapting may sometimes require drastic action – “Indonesia is moving its capital city, because they reckon that Jakarta is not going to be sustainable over a century or so,” says Collins.

How can governments prepare cities for climate change?

Collins points out four ways governments can prepare for climate change. First, they need to redefine the metric of success for new infrastructure projects. The concept of value should broaden to include not just financial value, but environmental and mental wellbeing, Collins says.

Take green spaces as an example. These are known to boost immune systems and mental health, Collins notes. But “those sorts of things don’t normally get put into the thinking around evaluating a proposal for an investment,” he says.

These will be important in the medium to long term, however. Healthy and happy citizens put a smaller burden on the investment in healthcare and social support systems, he explains.

In the UK, achieving sustainable development is a principal underpinning infrastructure policy and planning. This has meant that the British planning system stands on overarching and mutually-interdependent objectives that marry economic, social and environmental needs of communities – today as well as for future generations. This is further enabled by the country’s Industrial Strategy that focuses on sustainable and cross-beneficial policies for people, places, ideas, business and infrastructure.

The second way is to understand how to develop future-oriented policies. “We can’t afford to do everything in panic mode,” says Collins. Instead, “we need to take a longer term precautionary preparedness approach.” A practical approach would be to set up research and innovation programmes to help leaders better understand what to do in unexpected events, says Collins. “We don’t want to be surprised in a way we’ve been surprised by Covid-19,” he adds.

Drawing parallels from the Covid-19 pandemic, Collins highlights how Singapore and other Asian countries were better prepared than some European countries because of the SARS outbreak in 2003. “You had a lot of mechanisms in place to do with lockdown, testing and containment,” he explains. Europe, on the other hand, hadn’t had a pandemic for a century.

Third, countries should set up a dedicated unit within the government to coordinate national responses to unexpected events. This will function as the “convening mind” within government, says Collins. Having this oversight will allow public agencies to easily identify the joint set of actions they need to do, so countries can implement change on a national level much more quickly.

Lastly, governments need to be “more joined up” in the global battle against climate change, says Collins. Building sustainable, adaptable infrastructure “is something we all need to know how to do,” he notes. Organisations like the International Network for Government Science Advice, which bring countries together to share experiences and advise governments on how to do holistic thinking, will have an important role to play.

The UK’s vision for future cities

Innovation can also help cities weather the future impacts of climate change, and the UK in particular has been a leader in this regard. In 2016, it was the first country to trial connected and autonomous vehicles, including self-driving pods, on public pedestrian paths. “This helped establish the UK as the global hub for the R&D and integration of connected and autonomous vehicles into society,” says Collins.

The country has also introduced new planning models that make cities more liveable through seamless and connected community spaces. A case in point would be the award-winning housing district in Cambridge UK, Marmalade Lane, that was designed to encourage community engagement with shared gardens and co-living spaces. To ensure that the project met its ambitions, local residents were invited to collaborate with the architects on the design process and the result was a community space that puts residents’ wellbeing at the heart.

In addition to livability-centered design, technology can also help to meet urban infrastructure challenges. One region in central London uses a programme that allows local authorities to track available resources, including live data on housing numbers and make them available to residents looking for affordable housing. According to local agencies, the service has been “crucial to helping planners deliver on a basic human need” especially in the more expensive city centre.

Advancing towards the UK’s net zero target

Climate-friendly infrastructure needs not just good government policy, but private investments as well. For the UK, getting the private sector on board is key for achieving its net zero emissions targets by 2050.

The first thing the government has done to attract private investors is to create new business models for green infrastructure. This means designing innovative infrastructure that while climate-friendly also makes good investment and revenue sense. “One possible project,” says Collins, “is to build marinas that provide a leisure-based income stream and protect the country’s coasts.”

The second important thing the UK has done is to make the net zero target a legal requirement. “This is necessary for encouraging long term investments from private companies,” says Collins.

“Achieving net zero takes large-scale projects that cost a huge deal of money, which can discourage investors. But when the target is put into law, private investors know the country has committed it in the long term and so they’re likely to get financial returns over time,” he explains.

“The COVID19 pandemic has taken a lot out of us, but it has also presented an opportunity for changing the way in which we think about how we organise the world,” says Collins. “It has shown the world the importance of responding quickly in a global crisis and the severity of being caught unprepared… May we take these lessons into our fight against climate change!”