Cities need new buildings, argues Earle Arney

We shouldn’t be ‘weaponising’ carbon in the war on climate change when cities need to intensify, says the founder and chief executive of AFK Studios

We’ve worked as designers across the world, and it’s clear to my firm AFK, and Socius for whom we’ve worked, the drivers of city living are changing. With change comes opportunity. We can see that in how developers are responding to climate change and post-pandemic, seeking meaningful responses. A time to take stock of our habitat, how we live as a species.

The most sustainable construct we have is the city. They are the most serviced places. If we continue to prevent urban sprawl, intensify, use less energy, enhance bio-diversity. But the worry is the desire to ‘vacuum seal’ our cities. Intensification of how we use cities is an imperative to preserve our place on the planet, by more of us sharing public transport.

We’re blessed in London with Victorian mid-rise densities, with democratic access to green spaces, views, light. It’s a model to guide us, with a population density of around 13 to 15,000 people per square kilometre.

The way we use products and services has changed. We recycle, re-use. We need to do the same with buildings and materials. Single use buildings are becoming things of the past. But we are critical of the published environmental debate against new buildings. We can breathe new life into old buildings yes, but when we’ve invested so much in embodied carbon to build the Elizabeth Line, we need to leverage that spent carbon with new buildings around transport nodes.

Make best use of the embodied carbon in the city’s infrastructure and reflect that in how we assess the overall impact of new buildings. We shouldn’t ‘weaponise’ carbon because we understandably wish to preserve heritage. And we mustn’t lose sight of the citywide carbon equation.