The built environment as a tool in the climate change fight (i)

Built environment

There is a common consensus that the effects of climate change are already being felt, thus the need for urgent action. Sea levels are rising, rainfall patterns are changing. Including the embodied energy of building materials, the construction and operation of the built environment is easily the highest net emitter of greenhouse gases. The silver lining is that there could be huge savings in greenhouse gas emissions if we made some much-needed adjustments in the way our developments are planned and carried out. Changes such as;

A renewed approach to urban planning

The way some of our cities are planned means they are constantly having to play catch-up to contemporary trends. Some of these plans were excellent for their time. It just happens that times are changing rapidly and local authorities and planners couldn’t possibly have kept up with these changes. Classic examples include the current trend in the perception of standard ‘office’ spaces by the tech industry. Ecommerce is also changing our outlook on the traditional brick and mortar stores. It means we are going to have to modify our planning to account for these changing trends.

Worse yet, in some jurisdictions, development precedes planning. Developers ascribe uses to various lots of undeveloped land before services are provided. The upshot is a mess of uncontrolled developments leading to poor drainage, filth and depressed neighbourhoods. Planning needs to be in place long before development starts. We can then ensure that new developments are in compliance with planning codes.

Energy use and waste management

Various functions in urban areas require the use of energy and also generate waste. Going forward, the design of our urban areas will have to provide clear strategies on the sources and mode of consumption of energy. It is a known fact that the burning of fossil fuels for various uses is largely responsible for the emission of large chunks of greenhouses gases. Proper planning could take advantage of the abundant supply of sunshine and wind to some areas and find ways of exploiting these resources.  

Further, there are more efficient approaches to waste management that could be considered. Investing in recycling plants and other modes of converting waste into energy are just two ways of looking at waste. The current practice in some cities where the solid waste from individual homes is collected and dumped at landfill sites for incineration is simply unhealthy. In addition to the massive amounts methane released through the burning of the refuse, reports abound of the discomfort of residents within the vicinity of these refuse dumps. The air quality in these areas is greatly compromised.

Planning for sustainable transport and mobility

Do you know of someone who dreads the long daily commute to and from work? The rush-hour traffic and its attendant emissions in some cities are approaching critical status. High-speed rail networks, dedicated lanes for rapid bus transport and ride-sharing systems are ways some cities are trying to solve this problem. But what about siting homes, workplaces and retail areas in close proximity to one another where the need for long commutes is replaced by shorter walks or cycling? The biggest concerns usually raised with this approach are the need for protection from other vehicles and the elements of the weather. Then there is also the security of these users, especially at night. For the former, stricter enforcement of laws on dedicated pedestrian and bicycle lanes is the way to go. Provision of shading protects from the sun and slight rains. Provision of adequate security and lighting will help alleviate the concerns about security.

In summary, a careful, regulated and intentional design of our urban areas is one way the built environment can help reduce carbon emissions. While not every community will achieve net-zero status, giant steps taken in the thoughtful design of our built-up areas could go a long way in making our communities better. As players in the built-environment, two key choices confront us daily. To sit back unconcerned and or to join forces and help make our cities better. I know where I belong. What about you?

PS: This is the first of a two-part series. The second part will focus on how the design of individual buildings can be optimized for reduced greenhouse gas emissions

Boat Sekyere

Boat Sekyere

Boat is a valuer fascinated by sustainable urban land use planning. He was recently selected as a Local Pathways Fellow of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN Youth) - a global Fellowship of 128 young leaders who will champion SDG 11 in their cities. When he's not reading another e-book, he's out photographing an event (@rsbpictures) or cycling in his hood, binge listening to his favorite podcasts. Say hi at

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