Urban Transformation

Better buildings are the foundation of the post-pandemic city

A construction site in Nantes, France

Improving buildings is a means for cities to drastically cut emissions. Image: Reuters/Stephane Mahe

Giuseppe Sala
Mayor, City of Milan
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• The C40 Global Mayors recommends investing in green solutions during the COVID recovery period.

• Investing in new energy-efficient buildings and retrofits could provide huge emission reductions and cost-savings.

• Better buildings are also a means of delivering healthcare.

City governments worldwide are looking to accelerate an economic recovery from COVID-19 that enables people to get back to work, while preventing climate breakdown from becoming an even bigger crisis.

Just this week, the C40 Global Mayors COVID-19 Recovery Task Force released important new research that confirms investing COVID stimulus funds in green solutions would halt the climate crisis and deliver much faster economic recovery. Better buildings provide a solution to many of the problems facing cities: cutting emissions, saving costs and improving quality of life for residents. What’s more, large-scale programmes to retrofit existing buildings have huge potential to create good, secure jobs.

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Buildings are at the centre of our lives, now more than ever, with so many of us spending more time inside because of lockdown. The quality of a building’s indoor environment can significantly impact our physical and mental health, well-being and economic productivity; poor air quality, temperatures that are too hot or too cold, and mould and damp are damaging to health, exposing us to more risk. Energy-inefficient buildings also increase the cost of maintaining healthy comfort levels, with the burden falling especially hard on low-income residents and businesses already recovering from the impacts of COVID-19. Research on households in the US found that low-income, African-American, Latino and renter households all spend a greater proportion of their income on utilities than the average family.


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New-builds and retrofits

Improving buildings is also a means for cities to dramatically cut their emissions. Worldwide, buildings account for 40% of CO2 emissions and offer the greatest and lowest-cost potential for reducing them. In fact, 58% of the carbon-abatement potential for reducing urban emissions can be attributed to the buildings sector. Retrofit of buildings in cities should focus on reducing the consumption of energy and installing battery storage and renewables, which will serve both to reduce emissions from buildings and lower utility bills. By prioritizing the retrofit of existing buildings, cities can reduce the need for new construction, avoiding emissions related to the production and transportation of new building materials.

Cities moving towards net zero emissions would have multiple benefits
Cities moving towards net zero emissions would have multiple benefits Image: Stockholm Environmental Institute and Vivid Economics for the Coalition for Urban Transitions

Many cities will have a pipeline of shovel-ready retrofit projects that can be quickly deployed to accelerate and deepen local economic recovery. Building retrofit and repurposing is labour-intensive work that can create a significant number of jobs and inject money into local businesses and supply chains, many of which will be small and medium-sized enterprises. Investing in energy efficiency is proven to save costs and generate jobs; previous energy efficiency stimulus investments have produced $2 in energy cost savings alone for every $1 invested, and approximately 18 jobs per $1 million invested; six times more than the number of jobs produced by the same investment in fossil fuel industries. Given the potential scale and scope of building retrofits required to reduce emissions and energy bills, these jobs will be secure for many years.

Cities can encourage the creation of jobs by setting targets and requirements for certain buildings to reduce their energy demand and emissions; an assessment of New York City’s Climate Mobilization Act, which legislates to reduce emissions from buildings in the city, estimated that the law will create 141,000 new jobs in the NYC metro area by 2030.

Housing as health insurance

The current health crisis is also reinforcing the need to consider housing as healthcare. The poorest community members living in the worst housing conditions have been among the most affected by COVID-19. High-quality housing in cities helps residents to cope with the shocks and stresses of urban life. Building retrofits can have a direct impact on the health of residents, while saving on the cost to governments of providing healthcare and related services. An analysis of building regulations in Toronto found that retrofitting residential buildings to comply with minimum building code regulations would save $2.3 billion each year in healthcare due to reduced exposure to air pollution. In the EU, it is estimated that there would be direct medical cost savings of up to €9bn per year through keeping homes warm and dry.

City governments can lead with retrofits of the buildings that they own and operate, and by catalyzing retrofits in commercial buildings. Many municipal and commercial buildings are experiencing lower occupancy levels as a result of restrictions and social distancing. This means easier access, less disruption and lower costs for projects such as improved energy management, maintenance and building upgrades. These works could be aligned with building modifications to facilitate physical distancing measures for when people return to work. By using this time to invest in retrofits, cities and private property owners will enable their buildings to operate more safely and efficiently and will make savings on their energy bills.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to promote sustainable urban development?

As C40 mayors, we will take the lead in driving down emissions in our cities, creating new green jobs, and improving the quality of life of our residents. Better buildings are vital for providing this and delivering much more to our residents.

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Related topics:
Urban TransformationClimate ActionHealth and Healthcare Systems
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