Today, over half of the global population lives in cities, according to the UN. Whilst the image of a modern metropolis – built up with steel and concrete, air thick with car fumes, hardly any greenery in sight – seems a far cry from the bucolic idyll you might associate with aspirational low-carbon living. Densely populated urban centres “hold the key to our sustainable future on Earth,” writes Harriet Thorpe. This is the big idea behind The Sustainable City, a new book published by Hoxton Mini Press that uses London as a blueprint.
The more tightly knitted our lives, the greater our options for pooling resources and the shorter our commutes. As this fascinating publication, beautifully photographed by Taran Wilku, demonstrates, London is brimming with examples of residential, work, community, cultural and leisure spaces that pave the way for a climate-friendly future. More than a lovely book to leaf through, The Sustainable City provides an in-depth introduction to eco-design principles. Thorpe explains, for example, why timber – an easily recycled wonder-material – might be used to build skyscrapers in years to come. We are reminded of how nature in the urban realm allows other organisms to thrive alongside us and introduced to “passive architecture” – buildings designed to heat and cool with little or no need for energy use at all.
There are two ways in which a building’s carbon impact is measured: through the “embodied carbon” emitted during construction, and the “operational carbon” produced during its lifespan. The optimal place to start the minimisation process is by reusing or retrofitting existing structures. The Gasholders in Kings Cross is a prime example. These colossal circular forms, used to power homes in the 19th century, were redeveloped in 2017 by Wilkison Eyre into luxury flats. The vastness of their internal spaces gives the lobby a cathedral-like feel. Another notable refurbishment is that of the Grade II listed Great Arthur House in Clerkenwell. The high-rise residential block, with its daffodil yellow exterior, was built in the 1950s. Though innovative in its use of light – it was inspired by Le Corbusier – the 15-storey building had no insulation. In a sympathetic recladding, John Robertson Architects has given it a 31% heat loss reduction.
But what about the public realm? Creating a long-lasting shared space is about fostering a sense of care in the community. The Sustainable City surveys an array of popular multi-use spaces like outdoor theatres and urban forests. One stand-out example is Yinka Ilori Studio’s playground in Parsloe Park, Beacontree, constructed out of recycled rubble from a local estate. Here, waste has been transformed into something fantastical – a bold, colourful and multi-leveled space for children to have fun and let their imaginations run free. Illori’s approach shows us that mindful design can be engaging and playful. A similar spirit inhabits the Sydenham home of Mat Barnes of CAN Architects. Inspired by his grandmother’s maxim of “waste not, want not,” it offers a riot of eye-popping colour, and a mash-up of styles and textures.
Climate anxiety affects all of us. In The Sustainable City, we are introduced to visionary designers, community organisers and gardeners who are enacting practical solutions to the problems we face. The results are a blueprint for something better. “What began as a challenge turned out to be a blessing,” architect Chris Wilkinson said of the Gasholders project. Whilst Wilkinson is talking about a particular instance, his sentiment could be applied across the board – a metaphor for the road to net zero and beyond. Sustainable construction does not have to be a journey of sacrifice. It can be one of joy – of discovering possibilities within the city we didn’t know were there.
Words: Rachel Segal Hamilton
1. Parsloes Park Playground, Becontree Designers: Yinka Ilori Studio Built: 2021
2. Parsloes Park Playground, Becontree Designers: Yinka Ilori Studio Built: 2021
3. Gasholders, King’s Cross Architects: Wilkinson Eyre Built: 2017
4. Great Arthur House, Clerkenwell Architects: John Robertson Architects Completed: 2019
5. Mountain View, Sydenham Architects: Can Completed: 2020