New London Architecture

Making place for planet

Friday 29 September 2023

Prof. Greg Clark CBE

Senior Advsor

In the latest essay in our series towards creating the New London Agenda, Professor Greg Clark discusses London’s just transition and the built environment.

Place and a just transition

Climate justice is a compelling subject. Not solely because decarbonisation, the imperative to slow and ultimately reverse the heating of the planet, is urgent, both for the near-term survival of many species, and the long-term thriving of humanity, but also because global warming has precise spatial impacts that make some places much more vulnerable than others. At the global scale, the most vulnerable places are not the highest emitters. Accumulated carbon emitted in one country can render other countries unliveable.

There is a profound mismatch in the great cycles of industrialisation and development that shape our world because they are not in a synchronised pattern. Effectively the industrialised and post-industrialised world has already emitted all the carbon that the planet can accommodate without disastrous impacts, but that carbon has been largely spent in the economies of nations with only 15 per cent of the global population.

For these reasons, all inter-governmental discussions on climate change are rife with the core challenges of global inequality. The claim for reparations on behalf of poor island nations, low-lying countries in the global south and those that host the world’s most vital natural forests, reefs and glaciers is much larger than any previous war or disaster. This startling challenge is the backdrop to any conversation about how we can arrest climate change in ways that also promote justice and leave no one, or no place, behind.

We know that deindustrialisation was badly managed in the UK. No planned adjustment or reinvestment process was provided. The consequence was that certain regions, communities, and neighbourhoods were devastated in ways that left lasting scars, some for more than 50 years. Decarbonisation must not be mismanaged in the ways deindustrialisation was. If it is, it will hit most harshly those on the lowest incomes with the most vulnerable jobs, the less habitable homes, the most remote locations, and least freedom of choice about how they work, travel, live and consume.

London’s pioneer opportunity

We know that cities account for about 70 per cent of all carbon emissions worldwide, and more than half of those emissions come from the built environment. The net-zero path involves both an energy switch and an urban transition, where carbon is driven out of the built environment, transport and logistics, utilities and consumption.

Our third New London Agenda gathering sought to address this head-on. We gathered in Poplar as the guests of EcoWorld at Oxbow with 20 leaders to debate this interaction between climate and place. Could we find ways to shape places that will motivate and inspire climate justice?

We know decarbonisation requires large-scale actions to retrofit buildings and infrastructures, an issue well set out in the Our Vision for the Built Environment prospectus. We know in broad terms that a net-zero city must be clean (in its energy, air, water, waste, construction and mobility systems), connected (offer mobility choices that do not use fossil fuels and use connected digital systems, platforms and twins to optimise communication and drive out waste) and compact (in the way it uses land, space, place, design and building management to integrate and mix uses and minimise the need for travel between places).

We also know that ‘place’ can be an active ingredient in the decarbonisation process. Places, and their assets, can be led or shaped in ways that help to integrate otherwise separate and disjointed efforts (eg transport with built environment, or health with housing). They can also encourage innovation and behaviour change through experiments and nudge behaviour, sometimes through publicly resonant topics like air quality or health. They can make it easier to reduce carbon and foster larger-scale changes using planning and transport systems. How a place is led and shaped makes decarbonisation either more possible, or not possible at all.

London aims to be a world-leading city on decarbonisation and a just transition. This is clear in the current direction of transport policies designed to improve air quality, essential both to reach our climate targets, and to remake our city to be habitable and productive. Decarbonisation is potentially rich with wide-ranging co-benefits such as multiple cost savings, healthier buildings and lifestyles, cleaner air, new jobs and enterprises, tradeable innovations AND opportunities to renew, revitalise and improve the resilience of our neighbourhoods, communities and districts. But there is limited public confidence in whether these co-benefits will accrue, and how certainly they can be secured.

Making the big switches and accelerating the transition is also rife with risk. Firstly, the financial cost of the transition should be borne by all who benefit, but we have no obvious means to finance it fairly, especially during a cost-of-living crisis. Secondly, the loss of old jobs and the creation of new jobs may produce stark groups of ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’ Thirdly, the places that are most ready and able to benefit may be those that are already the most prosperous and attractive, well-connected or agile. And finally, these big switches require the trust and confidence of citizens, families and communities who bring diverse preferences and attitudes and may respond to different kinds of communication and incentives. Getting it right is not straightforward.

So, the key question is not whether we have the technologies required, or can build the business case, but whether we can create the conditions for everyone to commit to the path, the financial models and the timetables required. That can only be achieved if the transition is ‘just’ and recognised as fair for all. That is the only way to gain a working consensus to drive momentum.

What role can the built environment play in stimulating and sustaining the commitment to make London the world leader in decarbonisation it needs to be? This was the big question that led 20 of us into a debate that was rich, stark, sober and challenging.

We began by asking what about London in environmental terms is already just. Is there something to build upon? The answers came loud and clear: London has open-access parks and green spaces, restored river frontage, a vast number of social homes and landlords, public squares, amenities and commons, increased cycling and walking facilities, the great estates and historic trusts that steward land and buildings with ‘cathedral thinking’, and a transport network that works, providing alternatives to cars in many locations. London’s focus on its poor air quality shows real intent. London’s mix of alternative lifestyles show how many people already creatively live more aligned with the planet. London can be a host of more collaborative and frugal lifestyles.

So, from this helpful backdrop, how can we forge a leading role for the built environment in London’s decarbonisation? Three rather different kinds of strategy emerged in the conversation. The first, how we make the built environment cleaner and greener and take the carbon out safely. Second, how we can build a new partnership with citizens to foster trust and accelerate change using the built environment as a driver. Third, the larger reforms that could be taken to change the power dynamics in the property system.

An accelerated deep clean

 Let start with the first strategy, focused on decarbonisation of the current built environment. There was clear agreement that while some progress is being made, this approach feels very incremental. Our group identified ways to accelerate decarbonisation in the built environment by taking bolder steps at the industry and city policy level. These included seven key points:

  • Better use of new forms of data to model lower-carbon life, increase transparency and visibility and ultimately greater accountability and responsibility for building owners, operators and tenants/users. We should all know how much carbon is being emitted by each building we use, and what its embedded carbon is, and be able to use our purchasing power and tougher enforcement to curb carbon. Much wider use of certification, citizen-focused apps and real-time data will be required to achieve radical visibility. 

  • A renewed focus on the industrial supply chain of the built environment, and ‘in construction’ emissions, with a drive to increase the use of low-carbon methods of manufacture of buildings including wider use of wood, alternatives to concrete, 3D printing and modern methods of (off-site) construction. Driving scope-three emission analysis through new supply chain strategies is key to acceleration now, and London’s Real Estate uniting over a ‘whole of London’ approach is key to successfully empowering the supply chain to bring forward the much-needed solutions.

  • As part of this, a retrofit revolution is needed to support the adjustments required in existing buildings, especially relating to their power, heating, water, insulation and wider energy efficiency. This retrofit revolution requires coordination, especially in the residential sector, so that the necessary changes are planned in an integrated, informed and effective manner, and coordination failure is avoided.

  • This retrofit revolution, in turn, requires a massive investment in reskilling a population for the new methods and technologies required. There is a deep mismatch between what is required to implement decarbonised buildings and the skillsets available. It needs a jump start with a campaign of investment to retrain people for future work. 

  • The acceleration of circularity in the built environment through enhanced incentives and better use of digital platforms and twins to drive the market in upcycled building components, and to demonstrate the greater residual values that can be achieved through circularity. 

  • Social landlords and SME landlords have special roles to play in London. With social landlords owning/operating almost 420,000 homes in London and London’s SME landlords hosting almost 1,000,000 small firms, there are substantial opportunities to create new collaborations between occupiers and landlords to work together to drive out carbon. From pooling the purchasing of clean power and energy-efficiency methods, to investment partnerships to install cleaner equipment, to shared solutions to reduced carbon in supply and distribution chains, a new set of proactive endeavours is possible. 

  • Better aligning the financial system with decarbonisation looks like an easy win. Why should VAT be paid on retrofit but not on new build? We could reorientate roof taxes, CILs, levies and section 106 agreements to be better tilted towards greening of buildings. We could begin to see charges for polluting buildings, similar to those we now have for cars and vehicles such as CC, LEZ, and ULEZ.

Citizen-centred leadership

The second part of our discussion looked more closely at the role of citizens in the transition to a low-carbon future. Remembering how badly deindustrialisation had scarred certain regions, neighbourhoods and communities, we recognised this must be done differently, and with the active consent of communities. 

The first observation concerned how we communicate with citizens and empower people about our planet. Many of the built environment advisory firms in the room talked about how to engage citizens in new ways — three ideas stood out.

  • Firstly, the need for much better and simpler modelling and communication of the differences between carbon-intensive versus carbon-frugal living, with all the co-benefits that can be achieved, set out clearly so that choices are clarified, and citizens see the choices they are making. There was a powerful call to make these choices the focus of sustained widespread communication and public education campaigns so that there is no doubt that decarbonisation is both necessary and good for all of us.

  • Secondly, more committed community organising and empowerment is needed to train local people as ‘climate ambassadors and advocates’ to help deliver the message and make it real. This is one place where social and SME landlords can help to activate tenants and small businesses.

  • Thirdly, a much clearer focus on the quality of places and local amenities that can be achieved if we invest differently, seeing decarbonisation as route to better places. This requires some places to take a lead and become pathfinders for others, in ways which inspire. 

The second discussion focused not just how to organise demonstrators that garner local support and put citizen ideas and innovations at the heart of the transition but on creating situations where the balance of initiative comes from citizens, who act together rather than having decarbonisation done to them. The ‘BedZed effect’ creates a ‘seeing is believing’ process.

Reforming the environment that is built

A final strand of our discussion imagined a much deeper process of change. If the core problem with our built environment is that it has it become over-financialised and is therefore now serving solely the need to drive capital values and profits rather than to support planet and communities, we should adopt a much more rigorous reform.

In this phase of the discussion, much more radical ideas emerged. It is often said that London has enough bedrooms, but not enough homes. Starting with new ways of using space such as in co-ops, shared housing, co-living and co-working, we could reduce the carbon footprint per capita of our built environment by increasing the numbers of people using the same spaces. We should make much more of what we have, and the carbon embedded in it. This would mean strengthening the incentives for ways to better use space by ‘crowding in’ more people through agile platforms and better rules that optimise the match between people and places, so that building usage is less unequal.

A second idea concerned the power dynamics inherent in land and property ownership structures. We must find better ways to transfer ownership of land to communities through a new generation of community development trusts, public land trusts and other common ownership vehicles. The idea here was that land and buildings that served civic rather than corporate objectives would much more easily adopt new low-carbon business models. Therefore, the aim was to radically reduce climate impact through changed ownership and shared usage structures.

There may be many ways to achieve this, but one idea in this vein was to take a different approach to the development of public land and buildings in London. London has many acres of publicly owned land that is not available for commercial development because it has sensitive interfaces with public services and infrastructures. Building up a shared and skilled capability to deploy public land in the interests of planet and to optimise climate returns rather than financial returns would be the way to go.

Two other ideas were debated in this discussion. First, we should use digital platforms to model carbon accounts for buildings and occupiers. If we can set notional carbon accounts for each building and monitor them publicly, we may be able to shift more quickly to an accountable property system that is responsive to customer and stakeholder opinion. The second idea was to look at ways to designate zones or districts for more rapid decarbonisation by trialling new ways of funding the deep retrofit. This could involve new financial models and investments supported by guarantees, co-benefits and long-term returns.

In commercial districts, this could involve using a levy to drive the investment through something like a climate improvement district (using the same model as business improvement districts). This could also include a mutual guarantee mechanism between major property companies that helps to pay for accelerated retrofit (the London Bond idea). In residential areas this could be a net-zero neighbourhood model where homes are bundled together for a portfolio approach that attracts a patient institutional investor.


The problem of time loomed large over the discussion. The key issue is not the actual time required to decarbonise, but the inability to garner either sufficient consensus or resources to implement quickly. So, what could speed things up? Three key insights were reiterated.

Firstly, we must communicate better. This means a much sharper strategy that identifies the benefits and costs, including the co-benefits, and sets them out clearly and persuasively. Reliable data, modelling, and scenarios will clearly help. We need to help people see and feel what a net-zero home, building or district will feel like.

Secondly, we must derisk decarbonisation of the built environment. It is perceived risk that slows us down. That means we must protect people from transition risks by investing in skills and new sectors/opportunities. Equally we must find the means to align and collectivise costs and benefits using new financial and operational models, including mutual guarantees that would not require government support.

Lastly, we need to unleash more radical experiments on how to change the way whole urban districts and clusters of buildings work. Local governments and business associations can pioneer new solutions and approaches if we create a cycle of pioneering experiments that see decarbonisation as a driver of value creation and innovation.
Re-Mixing the Metropolis Central London’s New Cycle PIONEERING THE REVISED WORLD CITY

Prof. Greg Clark CBE

Senior Advsor

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