Ten Thousand Years of Cities. Time to get them right.

11 Nov 2021

A blog by Professor James Curran MBE, Honorary Fellow of Scottish Environment LINK. 


To mark the COP26 Presidency Theme ‘Cities, regions and built environments’, James shares his vision of revitalised towns and cities which emphasise the health, social and cultural benefits of living in sustainable places which are connected to nature.


Patrick Geddes, the famous Scottish pioneering town planner (and biologist, by the way) said that “A city is more than a space in place, it is a drama in time”.  Cities, and towns, of course change continuously: they grow, expand, decline, and change their character.  In my Glasgow childhood I remember the tail-end of its industrial prowess.  The sky lighting up from blast furnaces, school trips to ship launches, the lines of newly-built railway engines at the North British loco works – all gone now.  At a conference just the other day, these memories came to mind in addressing a Just Transition in tackling climate change.  My home city has suffered a multi-generational legacy of social and health problems from its chaotic deindustrialisation.  We mustn’t let that happen again, as we reshape much of our lives, economy and institutions to address climate change, delivering both mitigation and adaptation.

When, these days, we think of a “city”, as likely as not we think of congestion, pollution, noise, and stress.  A recent (2020) Ipsos MORI opinion survey revealed that, in the UK, only 22% of people would prefer to live in a big city, and 40% think cities will become even less attractive in future.  With a Covid-inspired revolution in interconnectivity, we have an opportunity to rethink the city.  Some argue that cities are very efficient, more sustainable, and less environmentally damaging than dispersed rural communities.  They certainly provide more opportunities for social interaction and Geddes certainly recognised their important role in cultural evolution.

As cities, and city regions, start to adopt radical climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies, can they assume new characters that emphasise the benefits and minimise the disbenefits of city living?  Can they become places that are better integrated with their biological and geographical context and that offer improved social functions – all as Geddes argued. I certainly believe so.

A Just Transition, adopted by Scottish Government as a new national mission, means a lot more than managing the shift of jobs from existing fossil-fuel to future renewable businesses.

It should mean building a comprehensive circular economy, modelled of course on bio-mimicry since Nature creates no waste.  The circular economy entails a redesign of products to allow for repair, upgrade, disassembly, recycling and re-use of components.  It will benefit from close co-location of synergistic businesses but, importantly, it will offer high job content, and community jobs.  It is an economic model based on renewable energy, and reducing global dependency, through providing much greater resilience to inevitably disrupted supply chains and availability of raw materials under the future impact of climate chaos.

A Just Transition should also involve addressing environmental injustices – the excess exposure of more deprived communities to poor air quality, degraded local environments, flooding, limited access to green space, and noise.

All available vacant/derelict land, again often associated with deprived communities, should be used for new multi-purpose green and blue spaces – providing paths and cycleways to connect to shops, schools, business hubs and public transport; to offer soakaways to reduce surface water, riverine and sewer flooding; to offer venues for cafes and play and sports; to offer trees for cooling and shade, as well as sequestering carbon.  Such spaces should encourage community orchards and market gardens, perhaps vertical farming, and also, if well designed, interconnecting green/blue corridors for revitalised nature.  Such spaces must be co-designed with communities, giving local people real ownership over their own environmental space – countering the lack of local empowerment which Sir Harry Burns has argued contributes strongly to the so-called “Glasgow Effect” of poor health and reduced life expectancy.

At smaller scale, there has been plenty of talk, but very limited action, on green roofs, green walls, and on the greening of individual streets – ideally combining with the creation of low traffic and low emission zones.

This vision only has a prospect of realisation with a revised structure of local governance.  The Scottish Government and CoSLA are both “… convinced that community, fiscal and functional empowerment in all communities and for all public services provides the route map to this future”. ( https://www.gov.scot/publications/local-governance-review-joint-statement-2/ ).  The use of financial incentive, compulsory purchase, community right to buy, participatory budgeting ( https://pbscotland.scot/ ) and the Community Choice Fund could all unlock enormous potential.

This is a vision of revitalised towns and cities, hosting regenerative local businesses, delivering zero-carbon living, and continuing to thrive and prosper under increasing climate change impacts.  In particular, such remodelled towns and cities will emphasise the health, social and cultural benefits of living in sustainable places which are connected to nature.  They will actually realise the century-old dreams of Patrick Geddes.


This blog is part of the LINK Thinks CoP26 series. Click here to read the series of blogs by LINK staff, members, Honorary Fellows and invited guests who highlight the COP26 presidency programme with a nature-climate twist.

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