Climate Change and the Role of Cities

Alberto Majocchi
Emeritus Professor of Finance at the University of Pavia and Vice President of the Centre for Studies on Federalism

Many of the changes aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions by using new European resources are connected to city management. These concerns are primarily about the use of air-conditioning, energy efficiency of the existing housing stock and the development of buildings that rely exclusively on renewable sources of energy. Towards these ends, public authorities would have to offer some subsidy to mobilise private investment in energy efficiency. However, in many cities, one of the biggest problems that needs to be solved is to reduce the use of fossil fuels linked to private cars.

Lewis Mumford noted[i] that the development of the modern city is based on the idea of people commuting by private cars. This type of development generates traffic congestion, increases pollution and ultimately reduces the quality of life of citizens. It is thus clear that the use of fossil fuel-powered cars is not compatible with the goal of carbon neutrality.

In another essay[ii], Mumford observed that “if the problem of urban transportation is ever to be solved, it will be on the basis of bringing a larger number of institutions and facilities within walking distance of the home; since the efficiency of even the private motor cars varies inversely with the density of population and the amount of wheeled traffic it generates” (p. 264). This seemingly simple observation should be a starting point for rethinking an urban structure which guarantees accessibility by phasing out transport that uses fossil fuels.

Mumford’s second observation relates to the spill-over that generally occurs as cities develop, with all the most important functions concentrated in the historic centre, leaving the suburbs without essential services. Mumford argued instead that an ideal model would be based on the pattern of a medieval city: “The medieval city was composed on the neighbourhood principle, with the Church serving as community centre and the market place adjacent to it as shopping centre, both within easy walking distance of all the inhabitants” (p. 257). He added: “The creation of a neighbourhood involves something on a different pattern than that which has hitherto characterised the undifferentiated big city; for it also demands the orderly provision and relationships in both space and time of a group of neighbourhood institutions, such as schools, meeting halls, shops, pubs, restaurants, and local theatres. This calls for the continued activity of a public authority” (p. 266).

Finally, Mumford proposed that urban planning should follow a neighbourhood-based structure because neighbourhoods are based on principles of solidarity and should be considered as the foundation of community life. This approach had existed in the past, but was jeopardised by a style of urban development that encouraged car traffic and the spill-over expansion of the urban structure. Mumford also observed that “In a rudimentary form neighbourhoods exist, as a fact of nature, whether or not we recognise them or provide for their particular functions. For neighbours are simply people who live near one another. To share the same place is perhaps the most primitive of social bonds, and to be within view of one’s neighbours is the simplest form of association. Neighbourhoods are composed of people who enter by the very fact of birth or chosen residence into a common life. Neighbours are people united primarily not by common origins or common purposes but by the proximity of their dwellings in space” (p. 257). Therefore, the strengthening of community would facilitate a new welfare structure where public intervention and individual behaviour guided by a spirit of solidarity would play important roles.

A similar approach can be found in an important essay by Raghuram Rajan[iii] on the “third pillar”, that is, the community where we live. Economists often limit themselves to analysing the relationship between the state and markets, and leave it to others to deal with significant social issues. Rajan argues that this is not only short-sighted, but also dangerous. The whole economy is actually interwoven by social relations, as markets are embedded within a network of human relationships, values and norms. As markets grow, the state adapts to this larger scale, concentrating economic and political power in rich central poles, allowing the periphery to disintegrate and degrade.

Rajan offers a way to rethink the relationship between the market and civil society. He advocates a return to strengthening and empowering local communities as an antidote to the growing despair and disorder of life in urban centres[iv]. These proposals imply a federal institutional structure, which allows all levels of government to participate in the decision-making that affects the whole community or parts of it. Additional steps involve reassessing fiscal federalism mechanisms to make autonomous fiscal resources available for each level of government, as well as creating an institutional structure where the lower levels of government participate in the decision-making mechanisms of the higher levels in a second chamber.

Restructuring the City based on Neighbourhoods

Restructuring the city based on neighbourhoods will require considerable investment to create essential services for each neighbourhood and to ensure that these can be accessed through eco-compatible modes of transport (walking or cycling), thus phasing out cars and other fossil fuel-powered transport. Each neighbourhood should have a local school – that can be reached without driving a car and can be used as a social and cultural centre during non-teaching hours – as well as commercial activities that are essential to daily life. There should also be essential health services, equipped with facilities to provide basic treatments and emergency care. Complex health services would be distributed in different neighbourhoods to avoid a one-way flow from the suburbs towards the centre.

Public transport should be used to travel between neighbourhoods or, if this is not available, an electric car powered by renewable energy could be used. Ad hoc routes should be established to allow cars to leave the urban structure. Large green spaces within neighbourhoods should be created, especially for children to play in and for senior citizens to enjoy a natural environment. These green spaces would be located between neighbourhoods and would function as carbon sinks. The road structure should be revolutionised to ensure separate routes for public transport, bicycles and pedestrians.

The issue of restructuring cities based on neighbourhoods is on the agenda in many European cities. A candidate for the office of mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is running on a platform that envisages Parisians having all essential services within 15 minutes of their homes[v]. Towards this end, she has proposed a simple idea to reorganise the city: that the services citizens need are no more than 15 minutes away and can be accessed either on foot or by bicycle from anywhere in the city.

This project includes building wider sidewalks, greenways and cycle paths that are away from motorised traffic, and having local operators to coordinate street cleaning and maintenance. To improve the proximity of services, Anne Hidalgo has also proposed making places multi-purpose. For instance, she wants to open schools on weekends and turn playgrounds into gardens where children can meet and play freely. Some buildings meant to be car parks could also house bicycle garages.

According to Carlos Moreno[vi], the urban planner coordinating this project for Mayor Anne Hidalgo, “The aim is to transform the urban space, which is still highly mono-functional, with the central city and its various specialisations, and go towards a polycentric city, driven by 4 major components: proximity, diversity, density, ubiquity. The objective is to offer this quality of life within short distances, a quality of life comprised of the six essential urban social functions that are: living, working, supplying, caring, learning and enjoying. It is the fifteen-minute city, in a compact zone (or the half territory in a semi-dense or sparsely populated zone), of hyper-proximity, where everything is accessible to everyone at any time.”[vii]

In France, discussions on these projects are well underway, with studies conducted in eleven large cities (with 200,000 inhabitants or more) to see what work still needs to be done to achieve these goals. The analysis shows that the inhabitants of these cities are an average of 4.5 minutes away from a store and 17.5 minutes from a swimming pool. However, the main problem is work, as only 10% of the inhabitants of these cities walk to work. Hence to address this issue, the urban revolution would be facilitated by extending the growing trend of remote working that became necessary following the pandemic. This would significantly reduce commuting traffic.

However, this hypothesis applies to cities besides Paris. Mayors of the C40 network of global cities (including Milan, Los Angeles, Melbourne, New Orleans, Rotterdam, Seattle, Freetown, Hong Kong, Lisbon, Medellín and Seoul) have come together to launch the Global Mayors COVID-19 Recovery Task Force[viii] to rebuild their cities and their economic structures to improve public health, reduce inequality and tackle the climate crisis. In their meetings, the proposals to revive cities include “the 15-minute city”. Ultimately, it may be said that Mumford’s ideas about revolutionising the urban structure by organising cities into neighbourhoods are beginning to take shape.


[i] Mumford, L. The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects, New York, Harcourt, Brace and World, 1961.

[ii] Mumford, L. The Neighborhood and the Neighborhood Unit, in The Town Planning Review, January 1954, Vol. 24, No. 4, p. 264.

[iii] Rajan, R. The Third Pillar. How Markets and the State Leave the Community Behind, Penguin Press, 2019.

[iv] “Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share in a common life. What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of everyday life. For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good” (Sandel, M. What Money Can’t Buy. The Moral Limits of Markets, Allen Lane, London, 2012, p. 203).

[v] Girard, M. “La ville du quart d’heure, une utopie ?”, La Presse, 26 September 2020.

[vi] Moreno, C. Droit de cité, de la “ville-monde” à la “ville du quart d’heure”, Éditions de l’Observatoire, 2020.

[vii] Moreno, C. Preface to the White Paper Paris Northgates Project, ETI Chair, IAE Paris Sorbonne Business School, 2019


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