Empowering Sustainable Cities: How to transform the Built Environment for a Greener Future

Over 80% of the global population lives in cities. Cities are the economic hearts of all countries, generating 80% of the global GDP. They shape the way of life for most people and are also responsible for 75% of the world’s GHG emissions. Most cities were not constructed with sustainability in mind, and as a result, they consume huge quantities of energy, produce vast amounts of waste and emit high levels of emissions. In order to limit the environmental damage caused by these urban centres, governments are trying to push for greener urban development. But how exactly can we create sustainable cities?

Sustainable cities

Shaping the built environment is the most fundamental aspect of making a city more sustainable. Having the infrastructure to support systems that reduce consumption and improve efficiency is vital to the functionality and longevity of a city. Any such solutions are inherently complex and the most effective strategies will involve complementary applications that work together.

Every measure towards a greener city must focus on reducing one of the three main outputs: waste generation, energy consumption and pollution. All measures must also adhere to ESG (Environmental Social Governance) standards by being economically viable and maintaining an acceptable way of life for any citizens who may be affected. These are all factors within sustainability, and for changes to last, they must be economically and socially suitable.

The Importance of Circular Materials

The circular model of production

One of the most essential requirements to minimise waste production in cities is using circular materials in future urban development. Waste generation will decline by using more recycled materials in the built environment and ensuring that those materials have good end-of-life plans through which they can be reused or at least disposed of effectively. With fewer waste products, refuse management programs will be better able to dispose of our waste and more resources can be allocated to recycling and reuse programs. Applying circular principles on a broad scale to both residential and commercial projects will provide greater impetus for systemic measures towards a circular economy.

Sustainable models effectively aim to improve efficiency in the long term. Maximising the efficiency of urban development is central to producing less waste, consuming less resources and energy and subsequently producing less harmful emissions. Producing waste is inefficient. There is a high proportion of perfectly valuable materials in our waste. Many of these useful waste materials are inaccessible due to a lack of incentivisation and effective recycling systems. Raising awareness surrounding the benefits of circularity and the need for circular materials will contribute to the widescale transition needed.

Low-Carbon materials

Additionally, the materials for future urban development should have a reduced carbon footprint. Out of all the steps, lowering the embodied carbon of buildings is the most well-understood.

GHG emissions, especially carbon emissions, have received the most media attention for their direct impact on environmental processes and the earth’s climate. Carbon is an almost inevitable part of any industrial process as the element is so fundamental and common on our planet. This makes carbon emissions very dangerous since so many manufacturing processes produce large amounts, but it also means that carbon capture and other net zero strategies have lots of potential. There is an abundance of materials, especially more natural materials, that sequester carbon. Any biomaterials that photosynthesise during their natural life, such as mycelium, wood, or hemp are effective carbon sinks.

To sequester carbon, materials don’t have to be bio-based; olivine concrete is a good example. The olivine mineral reacts with CO2 in our atmosphere and absorbs carbon in doing so. Opting for low-carbon concrete alternatives will yield the most significant benefit to reducing the impact of urban development. Concrete is the most used material in construction, particularly in commercial projects. Its common utilisation is quite understandable as the strength and resilience of concrete are second to none, but switching to supplementary cementitious material-based concrete is an easy way to experience the structural benefits without the environmental damage.

Seratech’s award-winning olivine concrete (Helene Sandberg)

The list of net zero or low carbon alternatives is extensive. Any project can find significant environmental impact reductions simply by finding circular or low-carbon alternatives to conventional materials. Finding these alternatives isn’t easy without expert help. This is where Firstplanit comes in; our platform provides an easy-to-use interface that can find an environmentally positive material to fit almost any purpose. Firstplanit has collected vast amounts of data on hundreds of materials and compiled them into our database. We’ve used our 18 metrics to calculate our complex impact indexes, making comparing the environmental impact and cost of using any material easy.

Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy

With the focus on improved efficiency, maximising the effect of the energy we produce is of paramount importance. One easy step to do this is by conserving the heat energy we produce. Designing buildings in a manner that will preserve heat well can be a major step towards reducing energy consumption. Using heating during cold winter months can’t just be forgone, but the quantity of energy needed to do so can easily be reduced.

Building new structures is something that can’t be avoided with a growing population. Ensuring that new structures strive for energy efficiency and adhere to modern sustainability standards is crucial, but where possible, retrofitting is the most effective method to modernise existing structures and reduce their operational carbon output.


Retrofitting wall or floor insulation can reduce the energy required to heat a home by 25% according to the Energy Saving Trust. Especially with low-carbon insulation such as mycelium available, installing insulation can really maximise a building’s energy efficiency with minimal environmental impact. The bonus is that saving energy also saves on expenses and any step taken toward energy efficiency will also reduce consumption-related costs as well as potentially boost the value of a property.

Retrofitting holds the key to transforming existing structures into more sustainable and energy-efficient entities. Upgrading other build parts like windows and lighting systems can significantly reduce energy consumption, leading to lower utility bills and decreased greenhouse gas emissions. This not only contributes to mitigating climate change but also enhances a city’s overall environmental performance.

From a social perspective, retrofitting enhances the quality of urban life. Improved insulation and ventilation systems enhance indoor air quality, creating healthier living and working environments. Additionally, the integration of green spaces, such as rooftop gardens or vertical vegetation or living walls promotes mental well-being.

The aesthetic value of retrofitted buildings also revitalises urban areas, making them more appealing and attractive to residents and visitors alike. Preserving historical architecture while incorporating modern design elements lends character to neighbourhoods and preserves cultural heritage.

The potential of social improvements in any sustainable measure is important not to overlook. The social well-being of all urban residents is essential to making a green transition popular and permanent and is fundamental to a sustainable built environment.

Renewable Energy

Building integrated Photovoltaics

Increasing the number of independent energy generators will also significantly contribute to lowering the environmental footprint of the built environment. Installing renewable energy sources such as solar panels, wind turbines and geothermal systems can dramatically reduce demand for fossil-fuel based energy. In a dense urban environment, solar panels are the most practical systems to install as drilling for geothermal heat pumps is not always possible and finding the space for turbines can also be challenging. With the advances in building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV), solar panels are now more practical than ever to install on any structure, optimising the space an installation can use for maximum energy production. 

Moreover, with the implementation of support programs like smart export guarantees (SEG) that allow independent energy generators to sell excess energy back to their provider, the cost-effectiveness of solar systems in the long term is better than ever. For Even better energy efficiency but greater upfront costs, a solar battery can be installed to collect surplus energy and minimise excess energy production from independent generators.

Urban Planning and Design

One of the most significant advantages of thoughtful urban planning is improved mobility and accessibility. Well-designed public transportation systems, pedestrian-friendly pathways, and cycling infrastructure promote efficient movement, reducing reliance on private vehicles. This not only eases traffic congestion but also reduces air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

A report produced by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy’s (ITDP) found that introducing bike lanes to urban areas significantly reduces GHG emissions. For every 200 USD spent on highways, the report estimates, one tonne of GHG emissions per year will be created. The same spending on protected bicycle lanes purportedly mitigates almost the same quantity of GHG emissions.

Moreover, urban planning enhances social cohesion and community interaction. The creation of public spaces such as parks, plazas, and community centres encourages gatherings, recreational activities, and cultural events. These spaces become focal points for residents to connect and spend time enhancing community sociability and mental wellness.

Economically speaking, well-planned cities attract investment and innovation. By fostering mixed-use developments that combine residential, commercial, and cultural spaces, planners can create vibrant urban hubs that stimulate business growth and job creation. Improving accessibility to amenities and services can further enhances a city’s attractiveness as a place to live and work.

From a resilience perspective, effective urban planning can mitigate the impact of natural disasters and climate change. By integrating green infrastructure, flood-resistant designs, and sustainable drainage systems, cities become more resilient to environmental challenges.

Urban planning and design are essential elements for creating livable, sustainable, and resilient cities. Their benefits encompass environmental sustainability, improved mobility, social cohesion, economic prosperity, and enhanced resilience. As cities continue to evolve, strategic planning and design hold the key to shaping urban environments that cater to the needs and of current and future generations.

The wide range of changes that can be made to adapt the urban built environment, from small retrofitting improvements to large-scale infrastructure development are all beneficial and contribute to a green transition. The drive for these changes needs to come from every level, including policy-making, market demand, public awareness, stakeholder requirements and economic stability. 

Learn More on Firstplanit

To discover innovative developments in urban sustainable construction, visit the Firstplanit resources page and learn about new builds, such as Mjöstårnet or emerging materials, such as photocatalytic concrete.

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