Want to grow the economy? Shrink your city’s emissions.

In tough times, some of us see protecting the climate as a luxury, but that’s an outdated 20th-century worldview from a time when we thought industrialization was the end goal, waste was growth, and wealth meant a thick haze of air pollution.

Cities and urbanization are the story of the 21st century. Already, most of us live in cities. Over the next 40 years, though, we’ll ride a building boom unlike anything humanity has ever seen, or may ever see again, as the world’s cities swell by billions. Cities at the center of this demographic revolution will be utterly changed.

All that growth means opportunity — at a time when we badly need it. In all sorts of ways, how we build our cities determines how we use energy within them. Denser, more walkable communities use much less energy than car-dependent ones. Multifamily homes use much less than homes on big lots.

Compact urban infrastructure beats sprawling systems. Even consumer choices change in compact communities: How many condo owners, after all, have home gyms? Climate-focused city planning can lead to massive reductions in per capita energy use. That, in turn, can spur rapid economic growth.

Cities at the cutting edge of this kind of development, like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, aim to be carbon-neutral within 20 years. Change at that speed means not just doing things differently but doing different things and starting now.

At the top of the to-do list is avoiding large investments in outdated projects such as highway construction in favor of concentrating resources on transforming key neighborhoods, extending transit systems and upgrading infrastructure.

Carbon-neutral cities will also help uncage urban innovation, given that making them carbon-zero will involve a million opportunities to do things better in nearly every industry.

I suggest new innovation zones: specific parts of cities (perhaps currently underutilized or abandoned) that can be turned over to small- and mid-scale experiments in carbon-zero work, commerce, and living.

Think of them as seedbeds for new urban ways of life. Guided by clear, basic rules and fast-tracked permitting, and encouraged by connections with local industry and universities, such zones could quickly become hothouses for growing the kinds of city-building businesses that will feed the global economy as it surges into this urban century. If they bloom, they will draw the kind of creative young people every city is fighting for; what many of the brightest of the next generation want most of all is to participate in making a better future.

With good climate-focused city planning and a commitment to urban innovation, cities will begin to revitalize neighborhoods, prepare local businesses for global competition and rising energy costs, and become magnets for talent and new thinking. A hundred cities committed to carbon-zero futures would be a hundred cities on their way back to prosperity — and a brighter future for the planet.

Alex Steffen is a writer, public speaker and editor of Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century.

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