top of page

Climate Emergency!
What is Urbanism’s Important Role?

John Fleming

I’m horrified!  And I am heartened.

My Council recently became one of 450 cities across the world to declare a climate emergency.  As the Chief Planner for the City of London, Canada, I consider myself fairly knowledgeable on matters of sustainability and resiliency.  It’s been well understood in planning and design circles for decades that we are collectively doing a very poor job of managing our impact on the environment, and climate, as we grow and develop across the globe.  It’s on our minds a lot, but I can’t really say that, as a society or an industry, it has the look of a real emergency.

If you are wondering what an emergency really looks like, you only need to reference recent episodes of the hit series “Game of Thrones”.  When the Night King and his band of walking dead were only days away, there was no mistaking it. It was an emergency. Formerly feuding houses (families) came together in new ways to plan a strategy for the impending threat on their very existence.  They readied their supplies, prepared their weapons, established new fortification, and created new bonds as a team facing a single common danger. There was no discussion about the great cost of the actions necessary to survive near certain doom. There was no claim that the threat was not real.  And there was no “humming and hawing” that led to dithering inaction or collective paralysis.

I’m Horrified

So, why am I horrified?  Upon my Council’s recent declaration of a climate emergency I began my own research in preparation for a City Symposium presentation on the subject.  What I found was a terrifying litany of climate information from a range of indisputably legitimate sources. The situation is much more dire than I thought.

Perhaps NASA does it best with charts, figures, and videos woven together to clearly show our quickly warming planet.  One particularly effective time series shows average yearly temperature anomalies in over 300 countries between 1880 and present.  These anomalies, represented by coloured circles around the country’s name, flicker between blue (cold temperature anomalies) and red (warm temperature anomalies) throughout the years until about the late 1980’s  After that time, the anomalies trend towards red until our most recent ten years, when all the countries around the world experienced warm temperature anomalies. Red circles engulf the entire graphic and the message is clear – we are in the midst of a climate emergency.

There’s lots more from NASA to wring our hands about.  

  • 19 of the world’s warmest years have occurred since 2001.

  • Since 1948 the world warmed by 0.8 degrees, Canada warmed by 1.7 degrees and the Arctic warmed by 2.3 degrees

  • CO2 levels are at their highest in 650,000 years

  • We are losing huge amounts of ice each year – Arctic Sea Ice (losing 12.8% per decade), Greenland Ice Sheet (286 billion tons/yr), Antarctica (127 billion tons/yr) and our glaciers (400 billion tons/yr)

Researchers recently undertaking work on the study of northern permafrost thawing were overwhelmed at the speed by which the landscape was literally melting.  As they expressed, they were setting up instruments within forests one day and coming back shortly after to find their equipment gone, engulfed in a new lake. What’s worse is this massive, abrupt thaw is leading to slumping and the creation of massive craters releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

Impacts of the climate emergency are everywhere:

  • Massive hurricanes/cyclones are gaining frequency and intensity taking property and lives – witness Hurricane Idai one of the worst tropical cyclones on record to affect Africa and the Southern Hemisphere.  It hit Mozambique in March of this year killing over 1,000 people. One month later, Cyclone Kenneth hit Mozambique as the strongest tropical cyclone to make landfall in Mozambique since modern records began – leading to more death and destruction.

  • We’ve seen our own extreme wet weather with devastating effects in cities like Calgary and Toronto

  • In Canada, we’ve also seen an abundance of forest fires, including tragedies like the 2016 Fort McMurray fire that led to the evacuation of 90,000 people, destroyed 2,400 buildings and caused about $10B damage.

  • New invasive beetles are devouring trees throughout the Black Hills in South Dakota

  • The number of military personnel battling floods in Canada exceeded 2,000 which was more than the number of Canadian Forces deployed overseas

  • Water levels are rapidly declining in Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States, and the source of water for 90% of Las Vegas.  It is also an important water supply for Arizona (beyond Las Vegas), California and Nevada

  • All of this, and more, is leading to significant economic impacts, insurance cost increases, significant health impacts and a whole host of other impacts that affect all of us.

The day after I delivered my presentation, on May 6 the United Nations released a bombshell report from Paris, indicating that the rate of species extinctions is accelerating.   It was compiled by 145 experts from 50 different countries over three years and represents the most comprehensive study on biodiversity and ecosystems across the world. In summarizing the report, Sir Robert Watson, Chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services said “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever.  We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide”.

There is a glimmer of hope in this most recent UN report.  Sir Robert Watson indicated that “the report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level of local to global… a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values”.

The Climate Benefits of Urbanism

I see it over and over.  Citizens make comments, interest groups advocate for government actions and politicians make decisions that undermine great urbanism.  Meanwhile, many of these same people ring alarm bells about climate change and our uncertain future. They don’t even recognize the link.   It’s time for urbanists across Canada and the globe to speak loudly about the important link between great urbanism and our climate emergency.  The way we design our cities, our neighbourhoods, our streets, our public places and our buildings has great consequence for climate impact. Let me explain.

Take a look at the graph below.  It shows, in my city of London, Canada, the average household’s contribution to greenhouse gasses each year – amounting to about 10.4 tonnes per annum.  Vehicle gasoline accounts for 55% of these greenhouse gas emissions! And, home heating accounts for another 28%. That’s 83% of greenhouse gasses emitted by the average London household caused by those two factors alone.  If we could only do something real and tangible to address only those two factors, we would have a very real and tangible impact on our city’s contribution to the climate emergency.


Well, the good news is that there is something we can do to drastically affect these two factors for greenhouse gas emissions.  It’s called urbanism – and it can profoundly change your city’s climate impact.

But how?  The answer to this can be long, detailed, and torturously complex.  But it doesn’t have to be. At its essence is a single principle. We need to plan, design and build our cities to support more inward and upward growth.  This is the antithesis of continued suburbanism – the powerful culture that has guided most of our cities’ development since the mid-1940’s.

The Council for Canadian Urbanism, on which I currently sit as a Board Member, puts it this way in their Charter:

Canadian cities must implement a consistent and persuasive new urban model, with corresponding approaches, standards and tools.  This model is based on complete, compact, mixed use, interconnected, and vibrant neighbourhoods that prioritize sustainable and healthy mobility choices – walking, biking and transit.  The new model will replace the unsustainable, use-separate, low density, car-oriented model of the past.

Growing inward and upward with great urbanism helps us in many ways.  First, let’s think about that graphic showing 55% of greenhouse gasses emitted by London households coming from automobiles.  Great urbanism helps us to get out of our cars to use other forms of mobility that release minimal, or much less, greenhouse gas into our atmosphere.  For example,

  • It creates nearby origins and destinations that can be accessed easily by walking or cycling (consider an urban neighbourhood where shopping, health services, restaurants, and work opportunities are within walking distance of people’s homes)

  • It creates great spaces and places within urban environments that make urban living attractive in tighter quarters than those offered in the suburbs

  • It allows for the mitigation of potential conflict and the creation of compatibility between existing a new, more intense, forms of development in urban neighbourhoods

  • It creates attractive environments for pedestrians, encouraging walking and other modes like transit that often begin, and end, with a walk

  • It creates the critical demand (i.e. ridership) necessary for cities to feasibly provide regular, reliable, convenient and attractive high-order transit services

Let’s now turn our minds to our graphic showing 28% of greenhouse gases emitted by London households coming from heating their homes.  In my cursory review, I’ve found that it takes about twice as much energy (or more) to heat and cool single detached structures as it does to heat and cool a unit within multi-unit structures.  Greenhouse gas emissions will parallel these energy requirements by structure type. Similarly, water heating is about twice as much for single detached structures as it is for multi-unit structures (incidentally, water heating is shown as the third leading greenhouse gas emitter for London households.  Great urbanism promotes and designs for multi-unit forms of development that can help us to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions per household relating to heating and cooling.

There are many more benefits to great urbanism – but the above gives a sense for how it can have significant benefit in reducing greenhouse gas emissions relating to transportation, heating and cooling and allowing cities to meaningfully contribute to the fight against the climate emergency.

Using Urbanism to Combat Our Climate Emergency

Breaking our well-ingrained habits and designing and building our cities for better urbanism – growing inward and upward – won’t happen without a lot of purposeful effort.  In my view, professionals, politicians and citizens alike can do three things to use great urbanism to fight the climate emergency:

  1. Recognize the link between great urbanism and our climate emergency

  2. Help others to recognize this important link

  3. Whenever the opportunity arises, do what you can to promote great urbanism

To do this, it’s important to understand the link with some clarity.  While the full depth can’t be covered in this blog post, I’ll give you some examples to consider.

Core area regeneration efforts are linked to the climate emergency – Regeneration efforts for our core areas encourage more people to live within our Downtown and urban neighbourhoods.   This includes such things as incentives, infrastructure improvements, waterfront development, public space improvement and activation, social programs, etc.   These all contribute to the desirability of our urban areas. This generates demand for urban living that entices developers to build new mid-rise and high-rise buildings in these areas, helping us to realize the climate benefits of urbanism.  Core area regeneration helps us to combat our climate emergency.

Infill and intensification projects are linked to the climate emergency – Every time you see an infill or intensification project proposed in your community think about its benefit from a climate perspective.   While there are plenty of forces ready to undermine such projects, these developments help us to create more urban environments over time, helping us to support transit and other climate-friendly forms of mobility and also help us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from heating and cooling.  Next time you see a proposed infill or intensification project, think climate emergency.

Great public places and spaces are linked to the climate emergency – Living in more dense and multi-use environments requires public amenities.  A diverse range of well-designed public spaces is key for urban dwellers to use as their “backyard”.  These can range from highly urban plazas and sitting areas, to dog parks and pocket parks, to large gathering places and linear pathways and corridors.  A well designed public realm is key to making urban living fulfilling and desirable. When you hear public space design, think climate emergency.

Rapid transit is linked to the climate emergency – Urbanism helps us to create the context for higher forms of transit.  However, rapid transit and other enhanced transit tools come with their share of controversy.  It’s important to understand that rapid transit not only services development, but also serves as a catalyst for the type of growth and development that helps us realize the climate benefits of urbanism.  Rapid transit is a fundamental part of combating our climate emergency. Don’t let the conversation pass by without raising this important link.

Complete street design for great urbanism is linked to the climate emergency – Great urbanism calls for complete streets – those that are designed to give safe attractive and high quality mobility experiences for those who are walking, using assistive devices, cycling, transit or driving.  Don’t let a street project go by without understanding and raising the climate implications for how it’s designed and who it will accommodate. Complete streets can help us combat our climate emergency.

Building and streetscape design for great urbanism is linked to the climate emergency – Urban design can’t be seen as a nice-to-have element of growth and development in our cities if we are to tackle the climate emergency.  The way we design our buildings and the resulting streetscapes will define the walking experience we create, the desirability of options to using the automobile, and the quality of life we offer in our urban areas.  The design of our buildings and streetscapes is imperative to enticing more people to live in urban environments and to realize the climate benefits of urbanism that result. Urban design can help us to combat our climate emergency.

Take action – it’s an emergency – There is a lot we can, and must, do to tackle our climate emergency.  In this blog post I’ve highlighted one important way we can make a real difference.  In our various roles and walks of life, it’s important that we all become urbanists – or at least strong advocates for great urbanism.  The next time that you come face-to-face with an urban issue, a development proposal, a new bike lane, a proposal for higher order transit, or any other initiative that relates to great urbanism, make sure you recognize the link to our climate emergency.  Then, help others to see that link and do whatever you can to promote great urbanism that can help us tackle our common threat – the climate emergency.

bottom of page