Life after Carbon: the next global transformation of cities

A new urban model is emerging worldwide, pointing the way to a post-carbon economy and society.

By Peter  Plastrik and John Cleveland
Issue 11 – Spring 2019 pages 22 – 27
Tags: cities • sustainability • innovation


A new urban model is emerging worldwide – transforming the way cities design and use physical space, generate economic wealth, consume and dispose of resources, exploit and sustain the natural ecosystems they need, and prepare for the future. This emerging new urban paradigm has profound implications for players who care about and depend on the design of a city’s built infrastructure – including architects, engineers, builders, real estate developers, and office building tenants.

The model is upending the pillars on which our modern cities were built. It is most evident in several dozen cities, half of them in the United States, that are widely regarded as leaders in making extraordinary efforts to prevent global warming and protect themselves from climate turbulence.

These pioneering cities—we call them “urban climate innovation laboratories”—are trying, in just a few decades, to eliminate fossil fuels from their immense, complex systems of energy supply, transportation, buildings, and waste management. Just as systematically and rapidly, they are preparing their built infrastructures, ecosystems, economies, and residents to handle the grave impacts of extreme storms, rainfall, heat, drought, and rising seas—conditions already experienced by many cities and projected to get much, much worse.

The city as innovation lab

A city innovation lab isn’t a facility with highly controlled conditions, high-tech equipment, and scientists in white coats. The laboratory is the entire city, the complex, real urban world with its messy swarms of businesses, governments, and organizations; urban systems; ideas, interests, and politics; built infrastructure, natural ecosystems, economic sectors; and, of course, all manner of people and groupings.

These city labs exist on every populated continent, but have concentrated mostly in the U.S., Canada, China, western and northern Europe, Australia, and Japan. Most are well-known global cities, including Austin, Berlin, Boston, Copenhagen, London, Minneapolis, New York City, Oslo, Paris, Portland, Rotterdam, San Francisco, Seattle, Shanghai, Singapore, Stockholm, Sydney, Toronto, Vancouver, and Washington, D.C. Some are smaller, high-spirited cities: Boulder, Colorado, and Melbourne, Australia. Several—Cape Town, Mexico City, and Rio de Janeiro—are stepping energetically onto the world climate stage.

These cities are innovating aggressively and radically—by developing and implementing experimental projects, tackling entire urban systems, and reweaving the physical and cultural fabric of the entire city. Their numerous innovations contain a set of profound ideas that are changing the city’s wealth, metabolism, ecology, and identity.

These ideas contain the seeds of a new urban paradigm that is reshaping what people think a city can and should become. They introduce new ways for cities to compete successfully in a global 21st-century economy that is shifting to renewable energy. They herald new ways for cities to more efficiently use the vast quantities of energy and materials they need. They announce new ways for cities to value and obtain the benefits their wetlands, forestlands, open space, and other ecosystems provide. They signal new ways for cities to develop the social and physical adaptability needed to anticipate and prepare for uncertain future conditions.

Many of these ideas have been hovering off-stage, even for decades, looking for traction in cities. They were incubated within conceptual frameworks for sustainable development, environmental services, eco-efficiency, urban metabolism, and New Urbanism, or the urban agendas of UN-Habitat and the Club of Rome’s Earth Charter, or thought-leader formulations such as the “economy of cities” revealed by Jane Jacobs, the Cradle to Cradle™ principles of designer William McDonough, the “biophilic urbanism” of professor Timothy Beatley, or the Third Industrial Revolution economic vision of Jeremy Rifkin.

Now they are being moved onto the world’s urban stage by leading cities responding to the imperatives of climate change. They are spreading to other cities, carried through robust global networks that share information, support innovation adoption, and collaborate on further experimentation. At the same time, the mounting “climate smart” requirements of consumers, corporations, investors, professions, and state and national levels of government are forming enabling conditions that accelerate and globalize the trajectory of this urban evolution.

Since cities were invented some 6,000 years ago, they have often evolved fundamentally in response to war and conquest, trade and technologies, and earthquakes and other natural disasters, as well as demographic shifts, social reforms, and political revolutions. This time climate change is driving a full-scale evolution.

The new urban model is still in an early stage of emergence. Its elements have not yet been fully defined and assembled into a coherent practice by cities. It has not yet locked in as the comprehensive new way of doing business in cities, and it faces considerable obstacles. The fossil-fuel sector continues strenuous political resistance to sweeping changes and many national and state-level governments have failed to pursue sensible policies. Cities have limited control over many factors needed to implement radical innovations.

Innovation by cities is an age-old phenomenon. The experiments of ancient cities produced profound and enduring innovations:  markets, democracy, libraries, bureaucracy, universities, and writing. Cities “have been engines of innovation since Plato and Socrates bickered in an Athenian marketplace,” notes urban economist Edward Glaeser“The streets of Florence gave us the Renaissance, and the streets of Birmingham gave us the Industrial Revolution.”[i]

But cities are more than a platform for innovation; they, themselves, are an innovation. Born out of experimentation thousands of years ago, they are a great and sustained invention that reveals, realizes, and refines the collaborative potential of our species.

Why Cities matter more than ever

The City is more important than ever. When the modern city began to develop around 1800, there were few large cities – only about 3 percent of the world’s one billion people lived in cities. Just a few cities – London, Beijing, Tokyo (known then as Edo), Baghdad, and Istanbul among them – had ever contained as many as one million residents.[ii] In North America, only Philadelphia held more than 40,000 people. When Britain invaded New York City in 1776, its force of 32,000 soldiers outnumbered the city’s inhabitants.

Now, though, 3.9 billion people live in cities, more than half the world’s population; and millions more arrive every month by birth or migration from rural areas and small towns, in search of economic advancement or personal development. In the United States, about 300 cities each have 100,000 or more residents. Worldwide, more than 500 cities contain at least one million people and there are thirty-one “megacities” with more than ten million people each.[iii]

A single megacity, the Greater Tokyo Area, is home to more people than lived in all cities in the world just four lifetimes ago.[iv] From now on, the majority of our future generations’ children will be born and raised in cities. By 2050, the United Nations projects, population growth could add two billion people to cities. Two of every three human beings will dwell in cities.[v]

As we became an urban-dwelling species, we made cities in the same basic modern image. Whatever a city’s age, history, or location, affluence and stage of development, economic niche or governance model, it has developed and manages massive, complex systems for buildings, transportation, energy supply, waste, water, and more. And these systems use essentially the same technologies and processes and are professionally managed in much the same way everywhere.

It was no accident that the development and spread of modern cities coincided with the development and spread of the Industrial Revolution and the fossil-fuel economy. Starting in Britain, cities became the places where investors in new coal-burning factories could most profitably organize and obtain the necessary mass labor and consumer markets they needed, as Andreas Malm explains in his award-winning book, Fossil Capital.[vi] As cities grew into centers of population and economic activity, they also became the locales from which as much as seventy percent of all greenhouse gases (GHGs) are emitted.

Radical Transformation, Not Tweaks

Now, city laboratories around the world are pursuing radical goals for climate change. While climate scientists suggest that it is critical to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by at least 80% to avoid a two degrees Celsius temperature increase, many of the most ambitious cities are pursuing a goal of total carbon neutrality by 2050.

To do this, they seek to eliminate the use of fossil fuels in the production of electricity, heating and cooling of buildings, and powering of vehicles – replacing it with renewable energy sources. They seek to end the dominance of automobiles and trucks over city streets – replacing it with flows of pedestrians, bicyclists, buses, trams, and light rail that invigorate city life.

They seek to ensure that every new and existing building, from single-family houses to office and apartment towers and industrial facilities, uses only a small fraction of the energy and water that is currently consumed, or produces surplus energy for sale. They want to eliminate the vast amount of solid waste that cities bury in landfills, dump into waterways, or ship to other places – replacing waste management with a “circular economy” that reduces consumption of materials while reusing and recycling nearly everything.

So what innovations might you see in these future cities?

  • Cities where the majority of commutes are by walking or biking (Copenhagen); where Bus Rapid Transit is an efficient and cost-effective way to rapidly ramp up public transit (Mexico City); where new office buildings are 40%, 50% or 60% more efficient (Amsterdam, Sydney, Boston); where cars are restricted from large sections of the city (Stockholm); where electric vehicles are already becoming a dominant form of transportation (Oslo), and large investments are being made in electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure (Shanghai).
  • Cities where 90% or more of waste is diverted from landfills and mandatory organics recycling is producing compost that feeds regional agriculture while sequestering carbon in the soil (San Francisco); where large investments in car-free transportation infrastructure, like new bridges built exclusively for pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transit (Portland).
  • Cities where green infrastructure is being systematically re-woven into the urban fabric to reduce temperature extremes (Melbourne and Singapore). and cities that are investing in natural barriers to protect from sea level rise and storm surge (New York).
  • Cities where fossil fuel heating is systematically being phased out and replaced with renewable sources (Vancouver); where distributed energy is replacing centralized electricity systems with city support (Boulder); where local residents and businesses are being supported to purchase renewable energy directly instead of relying on their utility (Washington DC); and where entire districts of low-carbon living – housing, workplaces, retail stores, and transport – are being designed and built.

Making this scale of change happen means re-engineering large complex urban systems. As a result, a focus on changing urban systems is a defining feature of innovation lab cities. It is only by transforming the performance of citywide systems that a city can become carbon-free and strongly climate-resilient.

Cities striving for high-impact climate action tend to target what we call delivery and spatial systems. Delivery systems supply a city with energy, transportation, shelter, waste disposal, water, health care, and other essential services – a handful of which produce the bulk of a city’s GHG emissions. Spatial systems organize a city physically, the use of land, into individual building sites and blocks of buildings; neighborhoods, shopping, industrial, and other districts, and campuses (usually for universities, hospitals, and corporations); parks, forests, rivers, and other natural features; and networks of streets, roads, sewers, electricity distribution, communications channels, and other physical infrastructure.

These systems have massive through-puts; they involve large sums of money; and they have rigorous performance requirements. As a result, as ambitious as climate innovators may be, they have to be careful when intervening in their city’s core systems. They cannot disrupt the performance of these indispensable urban systems too much; breakdowns are not an option.

The systems must meet multiple performance requirements, such as for service availability and reliability, not just climate-related standards. Changing the systems is likely to have impacts on the city’s social and economic systems, generating financial gains for some people and new costs for others, which may generate political conflicts.

The Emerging Transformational Ideas

A little more than a century ago, few cities in the world had electricity, cars, or skyscrapers.

When the first central power station went online in New York City in 1882, thanks to inventor Thomas Edison, it lit up 400 light bulbs in nearby buildings, and Edison had no way of measuring the energy supplied or billing his customers. Today, New Yorkers spend $15 billion a year on electricity—to do a lot more than just keep the lights on.

When five European-made cars arrived in Beijing in 1907 for the start of the first “Peking-to-Paris” race, they were the only cars in the city. Local officials didn’t want them to be driven in the streets; they were supposed to be pulled by mules. Today, Beijing contains five million cars, which contribute so much exhaust emissions to the city’s hazardous air pollution that they are sometimes banned from the roads.

In the early 1900s, few buildings stood more than ten floors high. But the use of reinforced steel frames and other construction techniques produced the skyscrapers that now form signature skylines in most major cities worldwide. Today, Shanghai’s stunning 21st-century skyline contains more freestanding buildings above 1,200 feet than any city other than Chicago, where some of the first skyscrapers rose more than a century ago.[vii]

Modern cities were built on a mix of ideas that began to take hold in the 19th century. These ideas worshipped the use of markets and capital to create massive wealth and meet social needs. They celebrated the role of ever-increasing material consumption in producing personal and societal benefits. They revered the control of the planet’s natural systems through science and engineering. And they admired acts of will that sought to shape the future.

Over time, the ideas that formed the modern city turned into a global juggernaut. As we became an urban-dwelling species, we made cities worldwide in the same basic modern image with the same modern systems. The similarity of modern cities is pervasive, observes Wade Graham, a Los Angeles-based writer on urbanism:

These days, local variation is hard to spot. In the modern era (since about 1850 in Western Europe and America and now everywhere), cities look more alike than they do different, from Singapore to Ulan Bator to Boston to Moscow to Buenos Aires. Aside from those parts of them built before the modern era—the odd churches, squares, and low-rise historic districts—there is a remarkable, global urban monotony: here are tower blocks, there freeways, there shopping malls, over there pseudo-historic suburbs, here a formally ordered civic center, beyond that, mile after mile of car-dependent sprawl.[viii]

While in some cases the modern city design was imposed through colonial force, for the most part the modern cities arose because the new ideas we’ve described became a widespread way of thinking that urban leaders – elected and appointed government officials, entrepreneurs and business owners, architects, engineers, and other professionals, consumers, and civic activists – found extremely appealing and used to make decisions. These decisions changed city space and, in turn, reshaped cities’ economic, social, and environmental fundamentals.

Today cities that are aggressively following a climate-innovation pathway are abandoning the very ideas that made them modern and got them this far. They are turning to a set of new ideas – four transformational ideas that are embedded within the hundreds of climate innovations emerging in lab cities and spreading from city to city. These are not just ideas that cities should be using; they are in play in the cities responding most ambitiously to the imperatives of climate change. These ideas are gaining traction in markets, professions, and with consumers and national and state levels of government, an essential development for supporting and accelerating change by cities.

We frame these transformative ideas as new roles and capacities of cities for the climate-change era.

  1. Cities can employ their unique advantages to turn the emerging renewable energy economy into urban wealth and jobs.

Modern economic ideas have treated cities mostly as an afterthought: companies, markets, and nations were the drivers of economic growth, and cities were supposed to facilitate companies’ efforts by holding down local costs and providing the infrastructure needed for commerce.

More recent thinking, however, recognizes that the city is a primary driver of economic innovation and growth. Cities “are assuming an even greater importance in today’s knowledge-driven innovation economy, in which place-based ecosystems are critical to economic growth,” explains urban studies professor Richard Florida. “Cities are the key economic and social organizing units of the Creative Age.”[ix]

The primary reason that cities pursue carbon-free energy systems is to address the problem of excessive GHG emissions, but the many innovations they use – offshore wind turbines, on-site solar installations, and more – provide more than clean energy at competitive prices. They also provide local and regional economies with transformational economic opportunities. Cities are developing local clusters of “clean economy” businesses that sell products and services worldwide. They are localizing the production, storage, distribution, and management of renewable energy production, in a shift that creates jobs.

As technology changes the structure of work, the economic development paradigm is getting stood on its head. Instead of talent migrating to where the employers decide to locate, companies are migrating to where the talent wants to live. In this context, city innovation labs are becoming increasingly appealing to young, talented entrepreneurs and employees attracted to carbon-free urban life styles, which in turn attracts employers looking for this talent. This virtuous cycle of wealth creation gives climate innovation cities an enormous leg up in the global economy.

  1. Cities can more efficiently use energy, materials, natural resources, and space to generate a new kind of urban abundance.

In the modern-city era, economic ideas about abundance drove vast increases in material consumption and shaped worldwide expectations about rising standards of living and social progress. Pursuit of this type of abundance brought on improved living conditions for many; but in the process, it sacrificed environmental and human health and other non-economic values, promoted short-term growth at the expense of long-term sustainability, and yielded pervasive economic disparities that hobble social wellbeing and individual development.

Now cities pursue greater efficiency in their core systems, especially energy for buildings and transport, and seek to eliminate all waste, which reduces GHG emissions and increases climate resilience. In the process, they are redefining abundance to embody long-term sustainability of resources, a comprehensive set of non-economic values, and a wider base of participants sharing in the bounty. “It’s a world of sharing and abundance,” declares world-renowned architect and product designer William McDonough. “We imagine our cities reducing the things we don’t want, increasing the things we do want, and letting our children lead us into this future.”

  1. Cities can restore and tap the power of natural systems to enhance and protect urban life.

The huge expansion of built urban space in the 18th and 19th centuries embodied the idea that a city’s physical, economic, and social needs were to be met by dominating natural systems near and far – sweeping away, reengineering, or overriding them. “Man’s dominion,” boosted in philosophies that promoted human agency, was facilitated by emerging engineering and scientific prowess. As a result, observes biologist Edward O. Wilson, an early conceptualizer of biodiversity, “Humanity has destroyed a large part of the natural world and withdrawn from the remainder. We have also expelled it needlessly from our daily lives.”[x]

Cities that once turned their backs on nature are now turning back to nature to provide environmental, social, health, and economic benefits, as well as reduced GHG emissions and greater resilience to climate impacts. Their “re-naturing” innovations – use of living infrastructure, stewardship of ecosystems and biodiversity, and provision of “biophilic” immersion in nature – invert the modern idea-hierarchy by restoring nature, instead of the city, as the dominant context for urban development.

  1. Cities can cultivate the capacity of inhabitants and core systems to adapt successfully to the future’s new requirements.

As modern societies developed, they embraced the idea that people could create the future they desired by planning for it, instead of waiting to see what nature’s cycles, divinity, or fate imposed upon them. Planning practices emerged as a way of actively constructing the future – to discern the possibilities, assess potential benefits and risks, and decide what to achieve. In cities, planning took on the role of articulating the public interest in determining a collective future.

However, given the global unfolding of climate change and destabilizing social and economic forces, the future seems less knowable and controllable, more uncertain and riskier. “The ideal of progress and a blind faith in social control no longer guide our collective futures,” observes professor of environmental planning David Connell.[xi] The uncertainties of climate change, notes professor of urban planning Yosef Jabareen, “challenge the concepts, procedures, and scope of conventional approaches to planning.”[xii]

Urban planning has begun to emphasize preparing for and adapting to unpredictable change and minimizing risks. Cities are investing in the capacity of residents and civic leaders to understand, deliberate about, and collectively determine responses to complex, changing problems. They are designing the physical infrastructure and service capacities of urban systems so they can be readily adapted as climactic conditions change and technological advances emerge.

A new urban future?

The potential urban transformation we describe has decades to go before it can become the new normal for cities. Climate change is not the only driver of urban disruption and innovation, but it has several momentous characteristics. Its threat is planetary; every city must pay attention, and the sooner the better. Its causes and effects are comprehensive and systemic; nearly every core urban system’s performance and viability is at stake. It impacts the private, public, professional, and nonprofit sectors, as well as the individual, family, neighborhood, city, metropolitan region, state, nation, and international levels.

The ideas that serve this revolutionary purpose can be woven together into a new model for the development of cities, as innovation lab cities are doing at district, system, and citywide scales. Economic innovation based on renewable energy is compatible with zero waste and circularity; these are compatible with realizing nature’s full benefits; and all are compatible with developing a city’s capacities to adapt in the future.

Because of climate change cities around the world will be different at the end of the 21st century. Whether they will be prosperous, healthy, and safe, better places for everyone to live in, remains to be seen. There’s no guarantee that a climate-driven transformation will occur fully in all cities or many cities or even just a few cities. But a possible future city, a radically different city than the modern one we know, is coming into view. It is emerging in cities all around us, in the cities that have decided to turn the climate disaster into an opportunity, cities that are making the urban future now.

About the Authors

Peter Plastrik is cofounder and vice president of the Innovation Network for Communities (INC). He has been the lead author on several INC reports about cities and climate change. He is coauthor of Connecting to Change the World: Harnessing the Power of Networks for Social Impact (2014), The Reinventor’s Fieldbook: Tools for Transforming Your Government (2000), and Banishing Bureaucracy: The Five Strategies for Reinventing Government (1997).




John Cleveland is President and a co-founder of the Innovation Network for Communities (INC), a national non-profit organization focused on helping cities achieve carbon neutrality and long-term resilience to climate disruptions. John is also the Executive Director for the Boston Green Ribbon Commission (, a network of business and civic leaders supporting the implementation of the City of Boston Climate Action Plan. John is co-author with Pete Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor of Connecting to Change the World – Harnessing the Power of Networks for Social Impact.




[i] Glaeser, Edward. Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. New York: Penguin, 2011. p1.

[ii] Only six other cities are believed by demographers to have reached this size before the 18th century: Alexandria in Egypt; Rome, in the centuries before and after Christ; Chang’an, Kaifeng, and Hangzou in China between 700 and 1200 A.D.; and Ayutthaya in Thailand, destroyed militarily in 1767.

[iii] United Nations, ”The World’s Cities in 2016: Data Booklet,”, accessed 11 October 2018.

[iv] “Megacity,” Wikipedia,, accessed January 21, 2018.

[v] United Nations, “World’s population increasingly urban with more than half living in urban areas,” July 10, 2014,, accessed 11 October 2018.

[vi] Malm, Andrew.  Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. Verso, 2016. (on at,204,203,200_QL40_&dpSrc=srch – accessed 20 November 2018)

[vii] Wikipedia, “List of tallest buildings in Shanghai,”, accessed 30 March 2016.

[viii]  Graham, Wade. Dream Cities. New York: HarperCollins, 2016. ( – accessed 20 November 2018).

[ix] Florida,Richard.  The Rise of the Creative Class (New York: Basic Books, 2012), 10th anniversary edition, e-book, location 5919.

[x]   Wilson, E.O. Foreword to Timothy Beatley, Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature into Urban Design and Planning (Washington: Island Press, 2011), xv.

[xi] Connell, David J. “Planning and its Orientation to the Future,” International Planning Studies, volume 14, No. 1, February 2009. (, accessed 11 October 2018).

[xii] Janareen, Yosef. The Risk City: Cities Countering Climate Change: Emerging Planning Theories and Practices Around the World (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer Science+Business Media, 2015). pp3, 8.

Comments (0)
Add Comment