Reimagining cities in light of climate change and ageing

By Shirley Tay

GovInsider looks at how cities across the world are reinventing urban planning.

“Our most acute concern should be that the pandemic will change very little or nothing at all — that everything changes, but everything stays the same,” former prime minister of Denmark Helle Thorning-Schmidt told Noema Magazine last June.

As countries battle a confluence of climate change, ageing, and Covid-19, the most frightening outcome may be for things to remain the same. Cities are an inflection point in history, with UN projections that 68 per cent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050.

How can cities be reimagined for a better future? GovInsider explores how cities across the world are reinventing urban planning to become more sustainable and senior-friendly.

Green cities

Climate change has made cities vulnerable to severe weather conditions, such as flooding and droughts. Torrential rains in China last year caused its Yangtze River to flood to historic levels, killing hundreds and displacing millions of people, reported The New York Times.

Sponge cities may be a solution to China’s flooding problem. These cities are designed to passively absorb rainwater and control urban flooding with green walls, roofs and buildings, and permeable pavements. Cities like Wuhan and Chongqing are part of the sponge cities pilot, according to Xinhua.

Cities play a huge role in fighting climate change. They’re responsible for 75 percent of global CO2 emissions, with transport and buildings being the largest contributors, according to estimates by the UN Environment Programme.

City planners are looking at incorporating urban greenery to absorb carbon emissions. Milan has built ‘vertical forests’: two 80m and 110m residential towers sprawling with plants. Residents of the Bosco Verticale told CNBC that the greenery has helped them reduce energy used for heating and air conditioning.

Amsterdam is also piloting zero-waste districts and planning to go car-lite. The city will remove 10,000 public parking spaces in the next five years and encourage car-sharing and biking, its former Deputy Mayor Sharon Dijksma wrote in GovInsider.

Climate change is a gargantuan task and must be addressed with coordinated efforts across the government. Singapore has embarked on The Green Plan, a multi-agency movement to forge ahead with its climate agenda, and achieve net-zero emissions as soon as possible.

One objective of the plan is to green 80 per cent of Singapore’s buildings by 2030. The Building Construction Authority will identify all buildings in the energy performance data that it publishes, starting with commercial buildings later this year. It hopes that will encourage owners to be “proactive in reducing their energy use,” a spokesperson told GovInsider.

Making this data publicly available will also facilitate R&D in green building technologies and solutions, the spokesperson added.

The city-state is building smart sustainable towns as well. A town in the Western region will have a centralised cooling system that will save about 30GWh of electricity per year, CEO of state utilities company SP Digital told GovInsider.

Caring for the aged

Cities are also seeing a rise in ageing populations. By 2030, 25 per cent of Singaporeans will be aged 65 and above, The Straits Times reported.

But the nation wants to transform the impending “silver tsunami” into an opportunity to “turn silver into gold”, said Charlene Chang, Group Director of the Ministry of Health’s Ageing Planning Office, at a recent webinar organised by the Centre for Liveable Cities.

It has built senior-friendly housing and towns. The Kampung Admiralty complex, for instance, integrates housing for seniors with a medical centre, an active ageing hub and rooftop gardens. The Housing Development Board is also rolling out special apartments for seniors that come with care services and communal spaces to encourage social interaction.

The country needs to rethink its built environment as family dynamics change, said Chang. Future generations of seniors are better educated and resourced, and will have a greater desire for independence. That has to be balanced against community building aspirations, she added.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority visualises data on the senior population to identify hotspots of needs, its Director of the Digital Planning Lab told GovInsider. That helps it work with the Ministry of Health to plan targeted health and social programmes for the seniors.

Decentralising cities

With more people working remotely during the pandemic, cities will have to adjust their plans for neighbourhoods and central business districts.

To better plan for this change, Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority has used spatial data analytics to understand how work and non-work activity patterns are changing in the downtown and heartland areas.

Meanwhile, a researcher from the Sorbonne University in Paris has come up with a “15-minute city”, where necessities such as education and entertainment can be reached in 15 minutes on foot or by bike.

Melbourne is planning a similar version with its 20-minute neighbourhoods to design connected, walkable residential areas. Victoria would save about AU$165 million (US$127 million) a year if 50 per cent of short private vehicle trips were replaced with walking, wrote The Victoria Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

Resilient cities will need to transform in light of climate change, ageing populations and Covid-19. It is now or never for urban planners to reimagine the city of the future.