26 Climate Actions Cities Should Adopt at COP26 for Climate Change Resilience

These steps would improve livability while adapting to the realities of a rapidly destabilizing climate.

Fussgaengerzone (pedestrian zone) in Landshut, Germany
Fussgaengerzone (pedestrian zone) in Landshut, Germany.

Mike Eliason

Ahead of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) starting this weekend in Glasgow, Scotland, I wanted to put together a list of climate actions I believe cities should be taking to make them more resilient in face of climate change. However, I believe it is also imperative we look at ensuring livability in these cities is also a focus.

These 26 actions are in no particular order. They are just strategies I wish my own city, Seattle, would adopt in order to build back better and improve livability while adapting to the realities of a rapidly destabilizing climate. 

1. Passivhaus Mandates 

Passivhaus-Wohnanlage Kaisermühlenstraße Vienna
Passivhaus-Wohnanlage Kaisermühlenstraße, Vienna.

Mike Elisason

Passivhaus is great: I've advocated it since training over a decade ago. it’s an ultra low-energy standard that ensures durability, comfort, and resilience. It’s applicable for educational buildings, multifamily, offices, hospitals, museums, archives, and so forth.

Unlike the European Union, there are no jurisdictions in the U.S. that mandate energy requirements anywhere close to something like Passivhaus. It also provides fresh, filtered ventilation: critical during wildfires, in polluted environs, and could be a defense against airborne diseases like COVID. Cities can lead by requiring their own public buildings (and retrofits!) to meet Passivhaus, as well as offer massive incentives if they’re not willing to mandate it—such as significantly refunded entitlement fees or expedited permitting.

2. Sponge Cities 

The Sponge Cities concept came out of China in 2013 due to flooding, and associated costs for repair. They are about blue-green infrastructure, unsealing surfaces and streets, and decoupling stormwater systems from sewer systems. Sponge City concepts are incredibly effective at reducing the urban heat island effect. It is a strategy that has taken hold in Germany quite rapidly, especially in Berlin

3. Circular Construction 

A new way of thinking about systems, circularity is about significantly reducing the amount of construction waste and consumption of natural resources through closed loops, upcycling, recycling, adaptability, and design for disassembly. There is an opportunity for massive economic savings globally. Highly recommend the DAC/BLOXHUB white paper on circularity.  

4. Mass Timber

DLT panel being installed
DLT panel being dropped in place.

 Mike Eliason

I’ve been a proponent of mass timber since 2003, when I was working on projects and competitions incorporating it as a praktikant in an architecture firm in Freiburg. It has the potential for reduced embodied carbon footprints, biophilia, and is big on prefabrication. Wood construction is becoming a big component of the New European Bauhaus, and several E.U. cities have adopting wood construction as a climate protection strategy. It also pairs elegantly with Passivhaus.

5. Single Stair Mid-Rise 

stairwell single egress exit
stairwell single egress exit.

Lloyd Alter

Single stair mid-rise buildings are the basic building block of sustainable urbanism. They are ubiquitous in dense urban cores throughout the world. However, there are few Canadian or U.S. jurisdictions where they are legal. I believe they are key to unlocking things we don’t get in typical mid-rise: family-sized units, light on multiple sides, and cross ventilation. 

6. Active Solar Protection 

When I lived in Germany, we had exterior roll-down shades that kept our home incredibly cool—even on near 100 degrees Fahrenheit days. Elements like this were incorporated into nearly every project I have seen or worked on in Germany, and they are ubiquitous on Passivhaus projects as well.

Unfortunately, there is virtually no active solar protection industry in the U.S. Instead, we rely on energy-intensive measures like air conditioning. As the world warms, architects and developers will need to take a more active role in keeping solar gains out of buildings. Vienna is leading on this initiative, offering large subsidies to apartment dwellers and building owners to install solar protection.

7. E-Bike/E-Cargo Bike Subsidies 

We don’t own a car and have been a cargo-biking family for years. Every city should have e-cargo bike subsidies! Cargo bikes move goods, help families ditch cars, and are much more space-efficient than cars and vans. The German Green Party has proposed up to a billion dollars in cargo bike subsidies, which would be a game-changer in urban environments. Should cities pay for one mile of roadway repaving or subsidize cargo bikes so thousands can ditch their cars? Easy choice!

8. Recompacting the City 

As cities grow, they can sprawl or they can prioritize recompaction. European cities are doing this through brownfield redevelopment like Vienna’s stunningly livable Sonnwendviertel, intensification & aufstockungen (vertical additions). Think of concepts like 15-minute cities. Recompaction is good for businesses, good for reducing carbon footprints, and good for walkability.

9. Radical Rethink of Open Space 

A major component of livability is access to green and open space. In the U.S., cities have been incredibly reticent to turn over street parking or right of way for the public to enjoy. There is almost nothing greater than car-free streets and plazas, and yet we have virtually none in my own city, Seattle.

However, a radical rethinking of open space is great for livability, reducing cars and associated air/noise pollution. Improving open space in dense areas of the city is also an opportunity for more green in the city (trees over street parking), more dining, more socializing. Just… more city.

10. E-Cargo and Cargo Bike Logistics 

Non-polluting, fast, and easy cargo bike logistics should be prioritized in urban areas. Cargo bikes can play an outsized role in last mile solutions. Plus, they’re incredibly quick and affordable versus the cost of cargo vans, gas, and parking tickets. Cargo bikes also play well with trams, offering the potential for really interesting solutions to decarbonizing logistics. 

11. Eliminate Parking 

This is such a no-brainer. Parking requirements increase housing costs, VMTs, & carbon emissions—both directly (embodied carbon of garages) and indirectly (sprawl, induced car ownership). We should be reducing, or better yet, eliminating parking, especially near transit. Make a policy of no net increase in parking spaces! Cities need a "grand bargain" on capping parking, much like Zuerich.

12. Productive Cities

Zoning in the U.S. is all about segregation. Historically, by race. Today, by housing type, income, and even use—preposterously demarking single-family and multifamily housing as separate uses. But in densifying and recompacting cities, there are ample opportunities for uses to be combined synergistically, such as apartments over industrial uses, workers housing over urban agricultural facilities. Production and the city go hand in hand. Also, an opportunity to incorporate microzoning, circularity. Brussels is leading the way on this

13. Energetic Retrofits 

Existing buildings are energy hogs, with high carbon emissions. Energetic retrofits must be mandated to meet climate goals, and are an opportunity to bring existing buildings to modern standards, improve durability, and be futureproof for climate shocks. Energetic retrofits are rehabs improving thermal envelope (mold eradication!) eliminating fossil fuel heating, improving comfort. Also bringing in ventilation: good for occupants, wildfire protection, etc. Innsbruck’s Sinfonia program showed factor 10 reduction in consumption possible, 40% to 50% primary energy savings easy. Negawatts for the win!

14. Fossil Fuel Bans 

Cities needed to get off fossil fuels decades ago to meet climate goals. Cities especially need to eliminate fossil fuels from existing buildings: the heating demand of existing, poorly insulated buildings running on fossil fuels represents a huge carbon footprint and is unhealthy. Seattle passed a partial natural gas ban but must expand to existing buildings, as well as cooking—induction is healthier and superior. This policy pairs well with retrofits!

15. Decarbonized Building Materials 

Many building materials have incredibly high carbon footprints. Local materials can significantly reduce those footprints (think: wood and stone in lieu of concrete). With an emphasis on circularity, we are starting to see some really interesting products like glavel—insulating gravel. A personal fave: prefabricated compressed straw panels, like those fabricated by Ecococon.

Are our lengthy and antiquated building codes set up to rapidly allow these sorts of products in commercial and multifamily buildings? There are a number of really incredible projects in CH/DE/FR underway that are incorporating mass timber and prefabricated straw panels—some even aiming for Passivhaus.

16. Non-Market & Social Housing

dumb box
R50 Baugruppen in Berlin.

Lloyd Alter

It's no secret I’m a fan of housing models built on solidarity, cooperation, and intentionality.
We need financing and zoning options, for a massive amount of non-market housing: Baugruppen, cohousing, CPOs, mietshaeuser syndikats, CLTs, coops, LPHAs, etc

17. Ecodistricts 

Cities in the U.S. seem incapable of developing livable, walkable, car-light/optional neighborhoods around transit, compared to cities like Utrecht or Vienna in Europe. The Seattle metro has been especially egregious, building multistory parking garages and severely constraining zoning around light rail stations. Meanwhile, Vienna’s Sonnwendviertel is a car-light district with ample open space, parks, social housing, schools, jobs, and all the amenities one needs to live a 1.5-degree lifestyle. This was the focus of my talk in Montreal for Vivre en Ville earlier this month, a summary can be found here

18. Zero Emissions Construction Sites 

Building sites are noisy, dirty, and produce air pollution. Electric and fossil-fuel-free equipment are better for local residents and workers alike. This strategy also pairs well with mass timber and Passivhaus. It is an approach being pioneered in Scandinavia

19. Car Sewers to Car-Free Streets 

Cities need to prioritize sustainable mobility and green logistics to meet their climate goals. Eliminating car lanes is a win for the climate, livability (less noise and less pollution), and safety. Transformations are unbelievable. We proposed turning a deadly car sewer in Seattle into a car-free corridor connecting downtown to the suburbs. Here is a short video of one in Brussels—note the increased safety and silence!

20. Low/Zero Emissions Zones 

These are a clean air strategy for cities and present a really strategic opportunity to rethink livability and sustainable mobility. They are zones where walking/biking/transit are prioritized. Only low or zero-emissions vehicles are allowed. Think pedestrian zones and superblocks. Lovely, no?

21. Right to Repair 

Throwaway culture is rampant. We throw away over 10 times as much stuff as we did decades ago. Right to Repair is an opportunity to significantly curb the amount of trash we produce, as well as reduce e-waste. It expands the longevity of products. It also can be used to help close material loops, a key component of circularity.

22. Safe & Connected Bike Network 

Maisoneuve bike lane
Maisoneuve bike lane.

Lloyd Alter

Bikes and e-bikes are far superior on climate action than electric vehicles and cost a fraction as much. Cities must provide safe, inclusive, convenient routes if they desire to see significant uptake, something Seattle has not done well. Struggling cities should look to Paris under Mayor Anne Hidalgo: a massive transformation around cycling and a significant drop in car ownership in just a few years. And they’re not stopping there

23. Climate Change Adaptable Urban Planning 

Climate change is going to affect regions in incredibly dramatic ways. We’ve already seen the epic smoke and deluges that have destroyed villages. Rotterdam recently updated its environmental and spatial planning policies to prioritize and expedite climate change adaptation. Meanwhile, zoning and building codes in the U.S. do not produce climate adaptable buildings or neighborhoods. We have layers and layers of bureaucracy to impede or kill sustainable development and adaptation, rather than expedite it. It’s time we looked at correcting this.

24. Life Cycle Assessments for Planning Consents 

Life Cycle Assessments are a means of determining the environmental footprint of a building and determine the path to finding solutions on decarbonization. Tying LCAs to planning consents could be an interesting opportunity to prioritize decarbonized buildings and ecodistricts. Several cities, including London, are studying the adoption of this.

25. Open Building 

Climate-friendly buildings should be flexible (accommodate commercial or residential) and adaptable. They should incorporate design for disassembly. The Dutch Open Building movement proposes exactly this—applying systems that work around extending the life of buildings and their components. It is an opportunity to incorporate mass timber, circularity, co-ownership, co-production, and even affordability. Steal these ideas!

26. Doughnut Economics 

I saved this one last, as it connects all the others. I’m a huge fan of Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics—a framework for economic transformation putting people and the planet first. Social and ecological boundaries matter and doughnut economics take them into account. Raworth’s TED talk on the topic is worth watching. Amsterdam is incorporating Circularity and Doughnut Economics into their city policies: we should all be running with this at the forefront of city planning and budgeting.

Cities are ripe for action on these issues. However, climate action plans are not enough. Cities need funding. They need policies and leaders who will implement these plans. Leaders who will champion hitting the targets and goals of these plans, preferably years before target dates. I don’t know if COP26 will result in meaningful changes, but I do know that cities will lead the way on livability and climate action. It's the only shot we have.