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Managing Risks & Mapping a Resilient Urban Recovery

Low density suburban growth could derail a resilient recovery. (Photo Credit: La-Citta-Vita)

By Alex Boston

At the intersection of science and policy, 2020 is characterized by a rapid response of governments of every order iteratively optimizing and aligning a wide-range of policies informed in whole or in part by scientists and data to tackle a global problem. While imperfectly executed, it is still exemplary and unprecedented.

Cities and states with the lowest rate of COVID-19 consequences are amongst those with the best approaches to science and policy. COVID-19’s economic and social consequences are still, nevertheless, profoundly deep and widespread. While many impacts will be long lasting, in several years COVID-19 will largely be a history lesson from which we’ll hopefully learn to mitigate future pandemic costs. Even the impressive 2020 drop in GHGs, estimated at 8% by the International Energy Agency, will not register over the long term in mitigating climate change impacts.

Unless emissions are rapidly cut, the growing and steady toll of climate change on economies, society, and natural and managed environments, including farming and food production systems, will make COVID-19’s costs pale by comparison. Fortuitously, some foresighted governments and civil society players have seized upon this crisis to galvanize a course correction to build back better, laying out systemic solutions to deep, underlying, complex problems with high carbon and high cost economic and social implications.

One rapidly emerging recovery risk for cities is accelerated growth to far-flung suburban areas.


In many parts of the world, there is an explosion in suburban and periurban residential growth for people seeking solace and space, and escape from COVID-19 risk. This phenomenon intensifies a growth pattern that has been a top driver behind the fastest growing source of carbon emissions: transportation, now accounting for 25% of global emissions, most of which is personal transportation. In most OECD countries, vehicle stock growth rates are far outstripping population growth rates, driven, in part, by car-oriented neighbourhood growth. A promptly implemented, effective zero emission vehicle policy framework can bend emissions in this sub-sector to zero by 2050. (Currently it takes 30 years for 100% personal vehicle stock turn over in North America). However, to meet IPCC’s 1.5°C recommended 2030 40-60% reduction targets, good ZEV policies are overwhelmingly insufficient.

Cities must open their toolbox and chart a bona fide build back better blueprint. The paramount authority of local governments is land use. IPCC 1.5°C concluded: “effective urban planning can reduce GHG emissions from urban transport between 20% and 50%.” For cities, sustainable land use is the cornerstone to an urban resilient recovery. 

So many of the personal benefits of classic suburban life are illusory. The correlation between car-dependent neighbourhoods and poor health are increasingly evident: higher rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stress. A study in the Journal of the American Planning Association of almost 1000 US counties found that COVID-19 infection rates in high and low density neighbourhoods are equivalent. Lower density neighbourhoods, moreover, had higher mortality rates.  Publicly accessible parks and greenspaces are not necessarily greater in suburbs. Urban hubs can have greater access to greenspace. This is a function of planning and, tragically, social equity. Low income urban and suburban neighbourhoods are more likely to be deficient in park and greenspace.

Delivering sustainable transportation options is expensive in suburbia. Bus routes can cost $5 per passenger boarding in medium density neighbourhoods and sometimes less than a $1 along routes with some high density, mixed use urban fabric. Bus routes to low density, distant neighbourhoods can cost $15 to $30 per passenger boarding.  

Fiscally sustainable single family neighbourhoods do not exist. With some rare exceptions, they simply do not generate the revenue in taxes and utility fees to cover the costs of civic infrastructure operation, maintenance and replacement. Cities are inadvertently digging themselves into deeper and deeper infrastructure deficits by expanding low density, residential neighbourhoods. The case for cutting fossil fuel subsidies should be supplemented with a clarion call to phase out subsidies to sprawl. They’re financially, socially and ecologically unsustainable.

As well as undermining water quality, flood resilience, and urban heat island management, the removal of forest, farm and natural area to accommodate suburban growth permanently compromises carbon sinks, forever undermining the challenge of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere.


San Diego Forward: The 2021 Regional Plan, San Diego Association of Governments

Only one major OECD country has transportation GHGs below 1990 levels. Despite its notable success in ZEV new sales penetrationan astonishing 50%it is not Norway. Norway’s GHGs are, in fact, 33% above 1990 levels as of 2017. Generous ZEV subsidies are increasing total car mode share and ownership per household, reversing decades of progress growing trips by bus, bike and boot.

The only major jurisdiction with transportation GHGs below 1990 levels is Sweden. Like most climate action problems, there is no silver bullet. There is a lot of silver buckshot driving growth in renewables, electrification, attractive sustainable options and diverse demand-side reductions; specifically, the range of solutions include:

  1. Excellent carbon tax
  2. Excellent renewable transportation fuel policy
  3. Solid zero emission vehicle agenda
  4. Steady passenger vehicle fuel economy improvements
  5. Mobility pricing in big urban regions
  6. Multimodal, sustainable transportation solutions (transit, active travel, car share)
  7. Balanced spending on sustainable transportation and roads
  8. Focused urban growth (Europe’s slowest rate of sprawl with almost no agricultural/natural land loss)

Sweden’s vehicle growth rate has stabilized at its population growth rate. Many of these strategies have similarly thrust Sweden to the front of the cue with the world’s lowest rate of traffic mortalities

These solutions lay out way points for deep GHG reductions in passenger transportationthe biggest share in the largest emission sector in most of the world.  While they will look a little different on the ground in different parts of the world, these way points provide all jurisdictions with a useful resilient recovery roadmap. We can accelerate implementation in other jurisdictions if we reinforce this roadmap with lessons we have learned confronting COVID-19 in our approach to science and policy: a rapid response of governments of every order iteratively optimizing and aligning a wide-range of policies informed by scientific data. 

Alex Boston is the Executive Director of Renewable Cities and a fellow with SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. He has two decades of experience in climate and energy policy, and has led multiple award-winning energy plans for B.C. communities.