"I don’t want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light.” That’s Woody Allen’s famous one-liner about Los Angeles, and I always assumed he had it about right.
I’d never been to LA until a few years ago — mainly because I’d barely ever heard a good word about the place. My favourite comedian, the late Bill Hicks, always used to lay into the city, and I figured he must have a point. In his classic stand-up show, Arizona Bay, he made fun of someone boasting how the weather in the City of Angels is hot and sunny every day. “What are you, a lizard?” replied Hicks.
But it turns out I was wrong about LA. I’ve been spending lots of time there as I’m launching my company Second Home there this summer — and I have to admit I absolutely love it.
But as much as I’ve come to like the city, there’s something about its sheer size (Greater Los Angeles is home to almost 20 million people) that makes you think about the environmental impact of mega-cities like these.
When you look at the data, you quickly find that urban areas such as LA and London have an outsized impact on our planet. Cities occupy only two per cent of the world’s landmass but consume more than two thirds of the world’s energy and generate more than 70 per cent of global CO2 emissions.
But the funny thing is that almost all major environmental initiatives — such as the Paris Agreement — are cooked up by national leaders, with mayors left out altogether.
This could not be more daft. Cities contribute disproportionately to the environmental problems we face, but they can also implement policy changes far more quickly than national governments usually can.
What’s more, when you look around the world, you find examples of mayors prioritising environmental issues in a way that puts national governments to shame.
Only yesterday LA Mayor Eric Garcetti delivered his annual State of the City speech, and the very first subject he covered was the environment, including the ambitious goal to make his city the first on the planet to eliminate carbon emissions completely.
Similarly, Sadiq Khan last year set out his comprehensive environment strategy, which included the commitment to make London a zero-carbon city by 2050 — a far tougher target than anything being proposed in Westminster.
So seeing as cities ought to be front and centre in the fight to protect the environment, what does a genuinely bold urban agenda look like?
For starters, it means promoting biodiversity by creating more green spaces and nurturing diverse species of plants, trees and animals in the urban jungle.
It’s hard to overstate just how important this is. To take just one example among many, researchers in the Netherlands have found a lower occurrence of 15 diseases — including asthma, depression and heart disease — in people living close to green spaces.
And places such as Singapore are showing how positive action on bio-diversity is possible. There, the city is spending more than £100 million a year making the city greener, and as a result the percentage of residents living close to green spaces has increased, even as the population has gone up. In LA you can actually apply to have trees planted at your home or office free of charge, as part of a wider programme to boost biodiversity. How nice is that?
A second area of focus for cities should be the built environment and the property industry. Right now, the environmental impact of constructing a new building isn’t being properly factored into the cost of development, which is why so many existing buildings are being needlessly torn down rather than reused. That’s terrible for the planet, as the impact of constructing an entirely new building is vast compared with renovating existing spaces.
Environmentalists call this “embodied carbon”, referring to the emissions generated during the manufacture, transport and construction of building materials. All across London you find buildings that claim to be “environmentally sustainable” — even when developers ripped down a perfectly good existing structure to construct a new one.
It should cost a lot more to build something that’s bad for the environment compared with a more sustainable project. Right now it’s almost always the other way around — and that has to change.
The third issue that a bold urban agenda would include is the challenge of creating new jobs in green industries and technologies. This is key for innovation, and it’s also vital for showing the public the benefits of environmental policies, rather than simply clobbering them with the costs.
Again, LA shows how this can work in practice. There, more than 35,000 green jobs have been created thanks to a major initiative to install solar panels in homes and offices. And looking ahead, Garcetti has set an ambition to create 300,000 more green jobs in the next 15 years alone. There’s no reason why other cities can’t do the same — it’s just a matter of political will.
When you think about how rapidly we’re destroying irreplaceable eco-systems and using up natural resources, it’s easy to feel helpless. But when you break down the problem into something more manageable you can start to see a way forward.
As the Rebellion Extinction protesters across London this week are rightly arguing, bold environmental policies are needed more urgently than ever. But if we wait around for national governments to take action, we could be waiting for ever. Far better to look to mayors to take the lead. In LA and London, they already have.