Is London a ‘sustainable’ city?

With the relentless pursuit from companies, government and public alike to look for greener and sustainable alternatives in all facets of daily life, can the capital truly call itself a ‘sustainable’ city?

Business Leader Magazine has brought together a group of experts within the London business community to discuss what steps have been made so far, the targets it needs to hit and what areas of the capital have adapted to a modern way of working.


Lucette Demets – Head of Urban at London & Partners

Lilli Matson – TfL Chief Safety, Health & Environment Officer

Rob Whitehead – Director of Strategic Projects, Centre for London

Monika Laudencka-Sobik – Director and Environmental Design Leader, London Studio, Benoy (also Co-Chair of the Urban Land Institute’s European Sustainability Council)

Madeleine Hug – Associate Director, London Studio, Benoy

Is London a sustainable city? Why?

Demets: “In 2018, London took the top spot as the world’s most sustainability city, topping the ‘Arcadis Sustainability Cities Index’. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is committed to making the UK capital one of the greenest and healthiest cities in the world and the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated a focus on sustainability, with a particular focus on building back better and reshaping London to be fairer, more equal, greener and more resilient than it was before the crisis.

“The Mayor’s London Environment Strategy 2018 set out to improve London’s environment for the benefit of all Londoners across seven key areas: air quality, green infrastructure, climate change, waste, adapting to climate change, ambient noise, and circular economy. The ambition is for London to be zero carbon by 2050, alongside a transport strategy to achieve 80% of journeys to be walking, cycling or public transport by 2041.

“London has a diverse range of sustainable options for travelling, including a growing bike scheme with more than 750 docking stations. All of London’s double decker buses are now hybrid and the UK capital is home to eight of the world’s first hydrogen buses.

“In July 2020, the Mayor of London set out plans to power the TfL Tube network with renewable energy, by launching a market test for TfL to be supplied with renewable power direct from generators. TfL is London’s single largest consumer of electricity and the ambition is for a zero-carbon railway by 2030.

“In order to achieve the 2050 ambition, a number of programmes are in place like the Mayor’s Healthy Streets Initiative which has seen a record £2.2bn investment in streets across London to make them better for walking and cycling, and improve air quality, and the Mayor and TfL’s Liveable Neighbourhoods programme, which is funding transformational reductions in car use and improvements for London’s environment.

“London also has the largest network of air quality monitors of any city, with world-class modelling and emissions forecasting.”

Matson: “Neighbourhoods across London are being transformed into low traffic zones by eliminating rat runs for cars and reducing motor traffic on local streets. In all, we’ve awarded £30m to boroughs for more than 800 projects which will transform the way people in every part of the capital. Projects like delivering new walking and cycling schemes across the city don’t just benefit London, but support the wider UK economy through TfL’s wider supply chain.”

Whitehead: “London isn’t sustainable yet, despite some good progress. Carbon emissions remain far too high, and the trajectory is still way short of meeting the UK’s legal obligations of net zero by 2050, let alone the Mayor’s far more ambitious net zero by 2030 target. Up to 10,000 people a year are estimated to die from London’s filthy air, so much more must be done to tackle vehicle emissions.”

Has the business community adapted this approach to being a part of the city?

Demets: “Experts in technology, engineering, energy, finance, legal and environmental research converge in London, making it a hotspot for urban innovation and collaboration. The UK capital is a global leader in cleantech innovation and sustainable solutions, embracing and testing new ways to reduce carbon emissions and helping to shape the low carbon economy.

“More than 246,000 people work in companies that have solutions to the climate change challenge and their businesses generate nearly £40bn annually. The city is home to the greatest concentration of green businesses in the UK, accounting for 25% of the UK’s activity. Accelerators and incubators focused on cleantech have also sprung up, including Advance London Accelerator; Europe’s first ‘tech for good’ accelerator Bethnal Green Ventures, Climate-KIC Accelerator, Nitrous London and Sustainable Ventures.

“London has also emerged as a global leader in green finance, from green bonds and carbon trading to VC investment and cleantech IPOs. With the second biggest source of capital for cleantech in the world, after Silicon Valley, between Jan-July 2020 there has been £357.2m of VC investment into ‘clean energy’ companies.”

Matson: “TfL is also asking businesses to play their part in London’s Healthy Streets revolution by carefully considering how they move goods and services on our streets. TfL continues to support firms looking to try new ways of doing this, including through our funding of cycle freight projects and by building new distribution centres on TfL land. TfL is determined to cut the number of vans and lorries entering central London by 10% over the next four years, despite the astronomic rise of online shopping and deliveries, which will play a big part in improving air quality and reducing road danger.”

Whitehead: “Many businesses have made excellent changes to their practices, by focussing on reducing their carbon footprints, and new sustainable businesses have sprung up. But it’s still too little. Too many firms are still wedded to their old carbon-intensive business models. Bluntly, if a business is still planning to burn fossil fuels in 2030 then it’s not moving fast enough.”

Laudencka-Sobik: “We have definitely seen a shift in focus from the clients we work with, who now expect a greener approach and want to directly address the challenges of sustainable urban regeneration in city centres.

“Here in London, we are targeting additional BREEAM Outstanding certification for two significant projects we’re leading in Chiswick and Chelsea as just a couple of examples.

“Green measures on our Chelsea project, a cutting-edge mixed use office and retail development in the heart of the famous King’s Road, include reduced parking to promote alternative modes of transport, green roofs to encourage biodiversity, renewable energy from photovoltaic panels and a hybrid structural frame made of steel and timber.

“Similarly, our Chiswick scheme, a large mixed-use site, incorporates strategically located green walls for air purification and considers adaption of the façade for partial natural ventilation in the event of silent and clean electric vehicles occupying the roads. Located in a congested and polluted part of London, these elements will act as a buffer against local noise and air pollution for the rest of the scheme.”

How has the city evolved in recent years to become more social/environmentally friendly?

Demets: “The London Sustainable Development Commission was established in 2002 to advise the Mayor of London on making London a sustainable world city. The Commission has advised on a number of issues including putting sustainability at the heart of London 2021 Olympic Games, carrying out research into carbon emissions and nurturing over 80 new leaders in sustainable business and communities.

“The Mayor has made huge strides in cleaning up London’s air, including introducing the world’s first Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in Central London last year, resulting in 13,500 fewer polluting vehicles driving in the zone every day and toxic NO2 levels falling by 44% in the zone. In October 2021 the ULEZ will be expanded.”

Matson: “Walking and cycling have huge potential to transform people’s lives in our city, by boosting health and mood, cleaning up our toxic air and cutting congestion and road danger for everybody. This is why TfL is determined to make London the world’s most walkable city and to make it the world’s best big city for cycling, with our Streetspace programme leading the way in revolutionising how people get around the capital.

“Already before the pandemic struck, TfL had tripled the amount of protected space for cycling, with enough segregated lanes to stretch from Leicester Square to Birmingham’s New Street station. Now, TfL is working together with all of London’s boroughs on the Mayor’s bold Streetspace plans, to create the extra space needed for people to walk and cycle and avoid a car-based recovery from coronavirus. TfL has created landmark new temporary cycle lanes on some of the capital’s major thoroughfares, including Park Lane and Euston Road, part of 44km of new and upgraded lanes that have been built or are under construction since the pandemic started. TfL is establishing walking, cycling and bus priority zones on major corridors in central London, with the first set to open connecting Shoreditch and London Bridge.”

Whitehead: “London has made good progress in a few areas. Cycling has grown rapidly over the last five years, and been further boosted during the lockdown.

“The Mayor deserves plaudits too for action on poor air quality: the ULEZ and its proposed extension next year is a remarkable and a very positive step forward, though risks being both politically unpopular, and not radical enough, at the same time!”

Hug: “On an infrastructure and policy level, London is definitely becoming a greener city, with a growing focus on combatting pollution, and increased investment in super highways for a more walkable and ridable city. At a human scale, we are seeing a greater focus on the creation of pleasant public spaces to encourage social cohesion. The positive impact of greenery and biophilia on both mental health and wellbeing and also particulate and pollutant reduction is better understood, with sustainable and innovative materials and the embodied carbon of various materials considered much more.”

What more needs to be done?

Demets: “As set out in the Mayor’s London Environment Strategy, there needs to be a continued collaborative effort between national government, City Hall, local boroughs, London’s businesses, NGOs, European neighbours and individual Londoners.”

Whitehead: “London needs a new plan that makes the city take rapid bold steps to decarbonise the thorniest areas of carbon emissions. Transport should be number one priority. Here, the rapidly decarbonising energy grid points to the answers. Electric buses, e-bikes, e-scooters, and a ban on petrol and diesel cars are a must. Vehicles need attention, with new approaches to replaces the heavily polluting lorries and vans that clog London’s streets. Second priority should be switching away from gas-heated homes, offices and business premises. Electric heating is the answer, and the technology is there with air source heat pumps, etc. However, we need the right incentives to invest in the change.”

Monika Laudencka-Sobik: “Despite all the positive environmental aspects, as a ‘striver city’, London battles against its own success, drawing millions of people both visiting and moving to London that put strain on sustainability, liveability and affordability of the city.

“Right now, London is now in a state of uncertainty and on the precipice of evolution. As a predominately service- based economy, the WFH lifestyle accelerated by COVID has transformed the epicentre of London business and cultural life. Now that the city has begun to dissipate and empty out, will this allow for a more sustainable city to flourish? What will London become when one doesn’t need to live in the city to access the opportunity, talent and creativity that made London what is today? This is an opportunity to reimagine the identity and future of one of the greatest cities in the world. As designers, we’re excited to be a part of shaping it for the better.”

Hug: “Looking elsewhere, Copenhagen and Amsterdam are excellent examples of sustainable cities – both are bicycle friendly cities, whilst also being more inclusive than London with integrated affordable housing provided widely in clean, green and safe neighbourhoods.

“Another impressive example comes from Stockholm’s Hammarby Sjöstad district, an environmentally balanced town extension and urban renewal. In all of these cases, it’s about taking a collaborative and integrated approach to ensure the best outcomes for all.”

How can local and national government make a difference?

Demets: “The UK government and the Mayor of London have introduced new initiatives to increase green transport options in response to the coronavirus crisis, and to ensure sustainability takes centre stage as we look towards recovery. The Streetspace for London initiative was launched by TfL to free up more road space for active travel as the city recovers from the pandemic including adding a wider cycle network, widening pavements and creating low-traffic corridors.

“In May 2020 the government announced the launch of a new £40m Clean Growth Fund to supercharge green start-ups. The venture capital vehicle will accelerate early-stage green businesses and contribute towards the UK’s plans to reach Net Zero by 2050.

In June, the government unveiled a £200m Sustainable Innovation Fund, that will help companies recovering from the impact of COVID-19 keep their cutting-edge projects and ideas alive.

“In July, the Chancellor announced a £3bn green package with grants for homeowners and public buildings to improve energy efficiency. This includes a £2bn Green Homes Grant, providing at least £2 for every £1 homeowners and landlords spend to make their homes more energy efficient, up to £5,000 per household.

“The GLA Retrofit Accelerator-Workplaces is part of the Mayor’s £34m Energy for Londoners programme, which aims to make London’s homes warm, healthy and affordable, its workplaces more energy efficient, and to supply the capital with more local clean energy.”

Matson: “In October 2021, the Ultra Low Emission Zone, which currently covers the same area as the Congestion Charge Zone, will expand to cover all areas within the North and South Circular roads. TfL has installed the first new cameras in preparation for this.

“With thousands of deaths in the capital each year attributed to poor air quality, the expanded ULEZ will improve air quality and ensure that as London recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, one public health crisis is not replaced with another.

“TfL is also looking to help reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality through a number of wider schemes across the city. The Mayor has recently pledged to make London carbon neutral by 2030, which is 20 years earlier than government targets.”

What areas of the city have truly embraced this modern way of running the city?

Demets: “The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is home to a growing cluster of clean technology and mobility innovators, and the £13.4m Smart Mobility Living Lab is developing future transport technologies, services and business models, including testing for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles. The vast public space has contributed 560 acres of park space to the city, a new green lung for London’s east side.

“Southwark invested more on its green initiatives last year than any other council and aims to halve its harmful emissions by 2022. The borough has also moved pension investments away from companies that damage the planet and is phasing out single-use plastic from its operations.

“Ealing is working hard to increase its biodiversity through £1m council-led Greenford-Gurnell Greenway project to improve 44 acres of parkland which will naturally filter air, reduce flood risk and improve water quality.

“Greenwich is implementing the Sharing Cities programme in London, recognised as the leading local council in the Smart City field and the first London Borough to introduce the Smart City Strategy. In August, the borough announced it would deliver up to 750 green, affordable, ‘carbon positive’ modular council homes.”