Fanny Guyot et Olivier Ledru
Activité Ville, groupe Egis
Published on May 15, 2020

Reading time : 5 min

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Sustainable cities and their response to climate and public health challenges

Global warming, social and public health crises and the collapse of biodiversity: how do you feel about these three major realities of the world today? Optimistic, indifferent? A sense of dread or powerlessness in view of the complexity of the challenges ahead?

Ville durable et Covid-19

- Crédits : Crédits : hedgehog94

With the SRAS-CoV-2 pandemic overwhelming the planet, we are at a watershed in the history of mankind on our planet. We believe that a sustainable future is still possible for humanity and the whole living world, on the condition that we anticipate it and design it - starting today.

The cause of more than 70% of carbon dioxide emissions and home to more than 55% of the world population, cities have a crucial role to play in the success or failure of a sustainable future. Cities simultaneously constitute the promise of freedom, encounters and urban animation, but also places where inequalities are concentrated, a factor of ground artificialisation or impermeability, and hotbeds for the spread of viruses, as we have been seeing in recent weeks. They are complex and strategic places, and our mission is to act to build sustainable, calmer and more attractive cities.

We now invite you to discover what changes we can make as of now, through our urban projects, intentionally focusing on three issues that we care about: carbon neutrality, the well-being of populations and respect for natural and human living environments.

Aiming for carbon neutrality

The crisis caused by COVID-19 must not relegate the issue of global warming to the background, indeed, quite the contrary. As the French High Council for the Climate stated in its April 2020 report, "the radical reduction in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the COVID-19 crisis remains marginal. It is neither sustainable nor desirable without an organized structural change that puts climate issues at the heart of post-public health crisis decisions.

If we want to limit global warming to +2°C in 2100, as set out in the Paris Agreement signed in 2015, we must limit worldwide CO2 emissions between now and 2100 to 1,170 gigatons of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e). considering that if we change nothing today, with annual worldwide emissions are approximately 50 GtCO2e, we only have 23 years left before we use up this “worldwide carbon budget”. In 23 years’ time, we will be in 2043, which is a long way off 2100. If we want to reduce warming not to +2°C but to 1.5°C, which is the recommendation by scientists, we will hit the upper ceiling in merely eight years’ time.

This is why we must act now, with our actions taking one of three forms: avoid, minimise and compensate.

Applied to everyday life and our job areas, we can for example stop eating meat or reduce our meat consumption and eat more local products; we can also stop going to work by car, work more from home or leave our car in the garage more, if we still have one; for us as construction professionals, we can try to stop building with high CO2 emission materials such as concrete, or build with less concrete, replacing it with wood, or use low emission concretes.

Avoiding and minimising are our biggest challenges. We must resolutely and immediately reduce our CO2 emissions through individual and collective changes. But the studies are abundantly clear: avoiding and minimising will not be enough. We must also compensate, i.e. find ways of capturing the extra carbon emitted into the atmosphere. The best-known example of this is to plant trees, which are big carbon sinks.

Applied to the scale of a region, city, an organisation and even a household, the change target to aim for can be summed up as follows: achieve carbon neutrality in 2050.

An increasing number of countries and cities are heading down this road, such as Paris which signed up in 2018, and several entities of the Egis group support these regions in their transition approaches.

For the well-being of populations

Addressing the well-being of populations entails addressing the importance of building a city which is sustainable and pleasant for men, women and children to live in. This challenge is exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, at a time when more than half of the world's population is living in lockdown and millions of city dwellers on every continent have fled the cities in an urban exodus unprecedented in history.

All over the world, we are today facing an array of challenges: demographic growth, increasing urbanisation, longer life expectancies, changing family units and an increase in income disparities, in particular in major cities. These challenges are compounded by that of physical distancing, a key measure to fight the spread of epidemics.

In view of these changes, existing as a society and living together become crucial issues to fight the stark disparities and serious inequalities which are becoming apparent in France and other countries. The COVID-19 crisis further highlights the distress of some of these territories and the accentuation of inequalities in times of crisis.

The key territories for action, such as, for example, identified by the Institut Palladio’s 2019 annual cycle, are: the suburbs, best personified by the gilet jaune movement in France, neighbourhoods earmarked for urban redevelopment (ANRU), the right of ‘centrality’ for all and deteriorating city centres.

These habitats and these inhabitants offer an illustration of how matters relating to cities, exchange and mobility are key to the success and networking of society. These areas are our invitation to promote a high degree of social, public health and economic inclusion in our projects. The question is therefore how to design a multi-use city that might satisfy multiple needs at the same time. How to create a shared quality of life, in particular in the wake of the crisis triggered by COVID-19?

In view of this need to exist as a society, physical locations appear as particularly strategic, open and egalitarian spaces in which to address questions of use. Public venues such as stations, transport interchanges, squares, roads and avenues are places that continue to see exchanges, services and retail. These are also places where it will be the hardest to implement physical distancing directives. We want to work to make sure that these places enable urban dialogue to take place and bonds to be re-formed, while abiding by public health guidelines.

Echoing the issues of uses, we are seeing a significant development in promising initiatives such as shared meeting zones, the street code, temporary installations and transitory urban development such as the Grands Voisins initiative in Paris.

Public space and its associated uses appear to us therefore to be a fundamental contributing factor in a city that is not only sustainable but also calmer and more attractive. It is a challenge where French know-how, and that of Egis, is sought after by our partners and clients both in France and abroad.

Respecting natural and human living environments

Our civilisation has a destructive impact on the natural environment. In addition to climate warming for which there is no longer any doubt that human beings are to blame, another sizeable phenomenon is occurring: the collapse of biodiversity. In a report by IPBES, the biodiversity equivalent of the IGCC, the rate of extinction of species is accelerating and is already several tens or hundreds of times higher than the average of the last 10 million years: a third fewer birds in the French countryside in 15 years, while Germany’s insect population has shrunk by 80% in the space of 30 years.

And yet, without biodiversity, the entire living world will collapse; some scientists refer to a sixth mass extinction after that of the dinosaurs, and the human race could also be threatened with extinction.

What is the cause of this hit to biodiversity? Intensive farming, pesticides, the proliferation of waste and various pollutants and… the extension of urban sprawl by building manmade structures on soil which destroys and fragments the habitat of living species.

The COVID-19 crisis also highlights the impact of deforestation in certain regions of the world. As Jean-François Guégan, director of research at INRAE, says in Le Monde of 17 April 2020, "There is no doubt that by cutting down primary forests we are in the process of unearthing powerful monsters, opening a Pandora's box that has always existed, but which today is releasing an even more voluminous fluid of microorganisms.”

To address this challenge, we all have the means to act, both individually and as a group: for example, by buying organic food to reduce the amount of pesticides in the natural environment; by developing plant life on our balconies and gardens to support living species; by changing our urban projects to bring them into line with the French national goal of zero net artificial conversion; by reversing the paradigm with our urban planning and landscaping partners, placing the priority on plant life and water in the city, before minerals and tarmac, rather than the other way around.

In reality, it is often a question of adopting common sense solutions that mankind has patiently forged over time, respecting and observing nature. Because, while nature possesses an incredible sense of genius, so does mankind. In addition to protecting natural environments, we also want to take into account the history, cultures, heritage and sometimes ancestral know-how developed by man. This is why we have chosen to call this third issue respect for natural and human living environments. It is in the combination of natural life and human life wherein, we believe, lies the resilience and sustainable future to which we all aspire and, by doing so, we stand truly apart from some of our competitors.

Acting now and through our projects: a proposal with 10 principles

Each of us can modify our individual behaviour starting today through our choices in terms of food, consumption and travel.

As professionals committed to a sustainable future, we also have a duty to change the impact of our projects. To tangibly translate the three major challenges set out above, we propose 10 principles inspired by Egis projects and which we would like to accentuate further in our future urban projects.

- Crédits : Egis

Some of these principles are of paramount importance in the context of the COVID-19 crisis:

  • Risk-resilient design and operations: While climate risks remain, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic underscores the need to integrate health risks.
  • Welcoming and safe public spaces: the notion of safety, usually associated with the risk of accidents and violence against people, must integrate public health requirements, such as physical distancing rules during epidemics, for example.
  • Mixed districts and varied uses and the performance of urban flows: periods of lockdown put a strain on the supply requirements for food and certain manufactured products. More than ever, the issues of autonomy and short supply channels allowed by mixed districts and varied uses are crucial.
  • Compact urban forms, construction of the city on the city: many voices question the density of the city in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. This principle must be carefully considered, in connection with that of “Mixed districts and varied uses and the Performance of urban flows”.
  • Social and economic inclusion of all populations: the COVID-19 public health crisis is likely to lead to a major economic and social crisis. The city of tomorrow must be the one that reduces inequalities.

Our teams are at your disposal to pursue these reflections through future studies and projects.

The authors

Fanny Guyot,

Project Manager, Urban Activity, Egis Group


Olivier Ledru,

Sustainable City Innovation Director, Egis Group


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