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What city life will be like if we reach our climate goals

High street in Malmö
Photo: Malmö City Council

In political debate, the notion of climate transition is often presented as a road lined with sacrifices. Many researchers, however, paint a picture of a day-to-day life that could be better than today’s.

What is experienced as good or bad varies from one person to the next, and may vary over time. 

“Whether something is getting better or worse is, of course, a subjective judgement. Norms change over time, and that which seems a given today may not be seen as such in the future. Examples might be eating large quantities of meat, or frequently flying long distances,” says Jamil Khan.

Jamil Kahn is a senior lecturer in environmental and energy systems at Lund University’s Faculty of Engineering (LTH). He researches the way in which different policy measures can make cities and transport more climate friendly, so that Sweden can achieve its climate goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2045.

If we take the task of reducing emissions seriously, there will probably be a shift in perceptions of what the outdoor environment in cities is for, Jamil Khan believes.  

A shared living room

If today’s urban environment is focused on transport – being able to travel easily between different places by car and bus – research suggests that the spaces between buildings are increasingly regarded as a place to spend time. Like an extension of our living rooms. 

To reach net zero, vehicles that run on fossil fuel will inevitably have a less visible role. Even if there is a breakthrough with electric cars, the problem of congestion in cities remains. New problems arise because of the batteries’ dependence on environmentally hazardous metals. There is therefore much to suggest that cars will be used more sparingly and in different ways in the future. 

Many experts agree that City roads will instead be reserved for cyclists and pedestrians and a certain amount of public transport. 

The majority of city-dwellers must therefore make sure they use muscle power, for the benefit of their health, while transportation in the heart of the city will be the preserve of emergency service vehicles and those with reduced mobility such as the elderly, people with disabilities and children.

Two images of housing with corresponding possible improvements that are greener and bluer
Two examples of how city neighbourhoods can become both greener and bluer (Illustration: Cowi)

Most places reachable within fifteen minutes

When vehicular access is restricted, urban planning also changes, according to Jamil Khan. 

“Sometimes we talk about the goal of ‘the 15-minute city.’ This means that residents should be able to access a certain basic range of services on foot or by bike in a maximum of fifteen minutes. Grocery shops of course, but also sporting activities, green spaces, hair salons, health centres and cafés.

For larger cities, this might mean that neighbourhood public spaces are invigorated. Today’s peripheral shopping precincts with their run-down pizzerias and convenience stores could see a more varied range. 

Johanna Alkan Olsson, who researches sustainable transition at Lund University, agrees with Jamil Khan. 

“If you look at the specifics of the urban planning issue, you discover that there are so many advantages to planning the city for less traffic. Cleaner air, less noise and better road safety,” says Johanna Alkan Olsson.

Public transport gets a new role

According to Johanna Alkan Olsson, the public transport of the future should be more clearly aimed at those living outside the city. 

“For those who travel by car, there are plenty of parking spaces around the edge of the city centre. These are free and could even entitle users to free onward travel by the closest public transport, if necessary.” 

The colour palette also changes. More green space, more blue canals and ponds, less grey-black tarmac and stone. Such “green blue cities” could reduce the risk of flooding, lower temperatures on hot summer days and promote biodiversity.

“Contrary to what many believe, green blue cities need not be that expensive,” says Johanna Alkan Olsson.

Greater use of roofs

Research shows that a thin sedum roof can slow down rainwater runoff and contribute to increased humidity. Grass and flowers require a thicker roof, but these are not something Johan Alkan Olsson sees a major role for, at least in Sweden.

“Trials have shown that they are heavy and can be expensive to renovate. If the growing layer is thinner, the biological value is limited. It is then better to use the space for solar panels instead,” she believes.

But if it is the visual effect you are after – green plants are nicer to look at than roof felt – then it can be worth it, she adds.

No wild nature

The type of plant life that suits a city can vary.

“Meadows are popular, but it is difficult to create natural wild spaces in a city. They get trampled, and then they’re no longer wild. Meadows are suited to places close to wild areas, where the soil is naturally poor.” 

In order to protect threatened biodiversity and important ecosystem services that are aided by ancient woodland, wetlands and other species-rich habitats, the state could, for example, buy or borrow land from landowners,” suggests Johanna Alkan Olsson.

House facade with plants growing on it
House facade in Freiburg (Photo: Catharina Sternudd)

More trees and transition jobs...

Johanna Alkan Olsson also believes that cities can contribute both in terms of quality of life and food production. In cities, she wants to see more trees, particularly fruit trees. 

“They provide food, and any surplus can be eaten by birds. Taking care of the trees and ponds provides employment opportunities for people who need transition jobs.” 

Catharina Sternudd also expects more trees and new jobs. She is a senior lecturer in architecture specialising in urban planning. Her research concerns sustainable cities, among other things. 

“The climate-adapted city is brimming with trees! Trees give shade, reduce excessive temperatures in cities and promote wellbeing,” she says.

... as well as more urban farming and new kinds of shops

The range of shops will be affected if the circular economy breaks through. More shops that repair electronics, renew furniture and offer other kinds of renovation services,” predicts Catharina Sternudd.

We can also expect more allotments, and for locally grown produce to be a clearer presence in cities.

“An increased interest in allotments is already evident. There is a growing group of small-scale producers who sell directly to households, without intermediaries,” she says.

Working life becomes less rigid

A sustainable city can also be seen in light of the changes that are likely in our working lives, according to Johanna Alkan Olsson. 

“The idea of what a working life looks like is changing. Certain professions suit different phases of life better. We ease off in periods. A lot of things point to more flexibility and more free time.”

“Then it is a good thing if there is a local environment that we want to spend time in.”

Eight ways the city might change:

  • The city becomes like an extension of our living rooms. With fewer cars, spaces for socialising increase
  • Not everything happens in the centre of the city. The city’s suburbs are revitalised
  • More trees – fruit trees in particular
  • More water: Ponds, canals and water amenities
  • Better use of roofs ­– for plants or solar panels
  • More shops offering renovation services
  • More locally grown produce and more allotments
  • A less rigid working life gives more free time to spend in environments close to home


Jamil Khan

Jamil Khan
Senior lecturer at Environmental and Energy Systems Studies 
jamil [dot] khan [at] miljo [dot] lth [dot] se


Johanna Alkan Olsson

Johanna Alkan Olsson
Researcher, Centre for Environmental and Climate Science
johanna [dot] alkan_olsson [at] cec [dot] lu [dot] se (johanna[dot]alkan_olsson[at]cec[dot]lu[dot]se)

Catharina Sternudd

Catharina Sternudd
Senior lecturer at Urbanity, housing, environment 
catharina [dot] sternudd [at] abm [dot] lth [dot] se (catharina[dot]sternudd[at]abm[dot]lth[dot]se)