New London Architecture

Net Zero Think Tank - through the prism of Civic's Carbon pledge one year on.

Friday 14 May 2021

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Gareth Atkinson

Civic Engineers

Fundamentally, a climate resilient city is a city that is loved and cared for by its inhabitants, its visitors, and its governors.  How we engineer and design our cities is fundamental to how they can become more sustainable, more functional and more enjoyable places to work and live. 

As designers we know our responsibilities. Net Zero targets have been set and the gauntlet laid down.  We know we have to push hard to repurpose, reuse and adapt the buildings, streets and places that make up our cities.  We need to embrace the embodied carbon already in our buildings and adapt them for the future. 

We also need to reimagine our streets and spaces between buildings to make them sponges for carbon emissions and adapt them to help control surface water – especially as storm events and intense sun will become more prevalent with a more unpredictable climate.  Civic Engineers’ Climate Charter reminds our engineers to achieve this while making our cities better, more biodiverse and healthier places to be.  

Redesigning city streets to be climate resilient are easy wins. Winning over the hearts and minds to allow the changes to happen is where the hard work is.  Image credits left: Gareth Atkinson, Civic Engineers; top right: Civic Engineers; bottom right:  Kevin Barton, Bob Bray Associates.
The streets across the UK are full of every type of activity. However, their primary function is to act as travel corridors allowing people to move between two places near or far. Sometimes they are hard surfaced racetracks for motor vehicles to speed between destinations, other times they are gentler places allowing people to cycle, walk, meet, shop and dwell. 

Both are needed to serve cities. But for too long we have lived with the balance favoured towards fast-moving and polluting traffic, greedily dominating public space stifling green infrastructure, nature and biodiversity. 

As cities become more populated, the demand for public spaces grows. The priority given to motor vehicles needs changing- is changing! - and this prospect provides us with great opportunity for the future of our streets. They can be reimagined, redesigned, repurposed to tip the balance back towards making our cities far more climate resilient.

We live on an island of changeable weather - and increasingly erratic weather patterns.  Climate change brings rising seas levels, larger and more intense rain fall and hotter summers. As the tide turns against monopolised streets of motor vehicles, we now have the knowledge, tools and vision to transform our cities to become better equipped for climate change. Maybe someday carparks will become just parks. 

Repurposing our streets encourages active travel. Designing for soft ground that soaks up rain, and trees which shelter us from the hot summer sun as we walk is a simple brief. Yet too often it proves complex to achieve. As engineers we do not only need to be technically bright and forthcoming with innovative sustainable design, we also need to be emotionally intelligent.

Convincing building owners to take time to explore the potential of existing buildings can led to greater returns and significantly reduce embodied carbon use, as we see in this drawing of Cannon Green, London, as well as before and after photographs below.
Understanding how to unlock more from schemes can be seen as unconventional or risky in the eyes of some. It takes persistence. But careful navigation of the various stakeholders wins over hearts and minds. 

Whether convincing a building owner to take time to understand the potential of their existing structure for repurpose, or gaining the trust of a local authority to properly maintain a raingarden in a newly-widened footpath, now more than ever is the time to do our best. We must communicate the reasons why the ‘new normal’ is deeply rooted in carbon control. 

A sustainable approach is not only needed to achieve net zero targets, but to enable cities to strive towards  greater climate resilience.  Doing so will enable us to and create beautiful, well-functioning, healthy cities where people truly want to be. 

Get this right and all the other good stuff will follow. 


Gareth is an engineer and urbanist leading Civic Engineers’ London studio. With a passion for well-functioning architecture, conservation, urban design and place making he runs the structural engineering for complex city-centre, public realm and large-scale regeneration projects. Gareth’s experience ranges from new-build social housing to high-end residential refurbishments, museums, commercial, education and retail spaces and film studios. A lover of sketching and cycling, he’s a natural strategic thinker and visiting lecturer at University of Creative Arts.

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Gareth Atkinson

Civic Engineers

Net Zero


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