Sarah Lewis, Researcher to the Executive Director at C40 Cities

Headshot of Sarah Lewis

Cities have enormous power to shape both human and planetary health. A well-planned city can not only support the economic, social, physical and mental wellbeing of its inhabitants, it can also impact people and places far outside its borders. More often than not, urban design that prioritises the wellbeing of its residents generates benefits that are amplified globally.  

The cities we want will be designed for people. That means reversing the trends of 20th century urban planning, in which humans were squeezed out to accommodate cars. In the future, public space will no longer function as storage for private vehicles; instead, pavements and other pedestrian areas will be expanded, and transformed into spaces that are safe, green, healthy and pleasant for everyone to use. Since building resilience to climate impacts is also an opportunity to make spaces more attractive for people to work, rest and play, the city will make smart and equitable use of trees, plants and other green and blue infrastructure to adapt to rising heat, clean the air, and make working and living in the city a pleasure. 

On the roads, priority will be given to the most sustainable, healthy and efficient modes of transport. Active transport will not only be safe for everyone, it will be the most attractive option, as cleaner air, people-centred streets and well-designed quality walking and cycling infrastructure make it one of the most enjoyable ways to get around. Essentially, the future city makes it easy and desirable to live sustainable and healthy lifestyles.  

We want cities that make it easy for us to access the things that make life meaningful - social connections, good jobs and educational opportunities, culture, play, nature. When we can access these things locally, our quality of life goes up and our carbon footprint goes down effortlessly. The future city will look like multiple compact neighbourhoods, designed around the ‘15 minute city’ principle developed by Carlos Moreno, in which city life is organised so that people can meet their everyday needs within a short walk or bike ride. As the city works to foster closer connections between people and places, the need for material and carbon intensive transport and infrastructure will be dramatically reduced.  

Our cities will work well when they are designed for all. Transport infrastructure will be planned around the needs of all its users; everyone will have easy access to green spaces and clean air. Moreover, when cities are designed to foster sustainability, we promote greater equity globally, as citizens of wealthy countries are disproportionately responsible for emissions, while people in the Global South are disproportionately impacted by the rising temperatures that result from them. When cities act to reduce greenhouse gases, it helps to make the world a fairer place. 

The city we want is one that understands that we are all connected. As centres of innovation, future cities will be pioneers of 21st century economic models such as Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics, which dispenses with traditional metrics for political and economic success and instead envisions all people everywhere thriving with safe ecological boundaries. Like the 15 minute city, this shift is already happening globally, with a number of cities adopting or piloting a city-scale version.  

The future we want is in sight, and change is beginning now in cities.