books sustainability

Book review: One Planet Cities, by David Thorpe

Cities have an important role in preventing climate breakdown, both as a cause and as a solution. They are hotspots of climate emissions: London, Manchester and Birmingham together account for 20% of Britain’s greenhouse gases. More positively, they can also be more nimble and more focused than national governments, setting targets and strategies that are locally specific. In this book, One Planet Cities: Sustaining humanity within planetary limits, David Thorpe describes some of those strategies for sustainable cities.

An unusual author, is David Thorpe. He is a lecturer and consultant on sustainability, an author on Passive houses and solar power, and a novelist and comic books author. His background makes for an accessible book that is academically rigorous, but much more conversational that I would normally associate with Routledge as a publisher. He’s also clearly an ideas person, and so the book is bursting with examples from around the world.

The book runs through a series of sectors, such as how cities could provide food more sustainably. Every city draws from a land mass far beyond its own footprint, so how could the city and the country be better connected? The book looks at models for urban gardening and vertical farming. It looks at waste, describing the ‘metabolism’ of the city and how to use its waste as a resource. Chapters deal with buildings and transport, the merits of smart cities, and how we might finance a greener city. There’s a ‘menu of case studies’ at the back, and I’ve earmarked a few ‘building of the week’ entries for future blog posts.

It’s easy enough to name lists of good ideas, and so the book makes a real effort to define what a ‘one world’ sustainable city might be. There is a long section on different standards that might be used, something planners would find useful but that could probably be skipped by more casual readers.

Along with standards, many of the solutions are to do with policies rather than technologies. The author investigates Sweden’s multi-generation approach to sustainability. We look at techniques for participative planning, slum formalisation, hierarchies of transport technologies, and much else besides. There are all sorts of neat ideas that I might have to return to in more detail, from permeable pavements, to subsidies for green walls, or Barcelona’s superblocks. Readers in Wales will be pleased to see their country held up as an example of ‘one planet governance’ through its Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.

I was interested to read about how New York tied food stamps to farmers’ markets to encourage local food at the same time as addressing food security and nutrition. I was also intrigued to read about Elephant Park, a London development that I’ve mentioned before, and how it sold out to high end apartments and foreign investors. Equality matters too, and the book emphasizes the need for community participation.

“The world’s cities produce almost half of all greenhouse gases” says Thorpe. “Cities are therefore central to tackling climate change.” One Planet Cities is a great introduction to how they could be part of the solution.



    This is a fascinating map showing carbon emissions by local authority area for the UK. I like the evidence that rural Argyll and Bute, where I stay, has negative net carbon emissions. This is mainly due to land use with growing forests and peat bogs representing major carbon sinks . The database highlights the differences between authority areas across the UK, suggesting that cities and rural areas may require quite different polices to meet emission reduction targets.

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