Western Harbour Malmo

London’s 4 Steps to the Sustainable City

Michael O'Hare - April 29, 2010

London is England’s capital city, one of the planet’s great cities and a city for people. But can a global city like London ever be sustainable?

Well, London’s history has shown it can sustain much – the coming and going of Romans. Marauding Vikings. Plague. Fire. The Blitz. Pea Soup Fogs.

And I think London has as good a chance as any city to be a sustainable city for the future.

Why? Because London is trying, and trying hard. Below are 4 steps London are taking towards the sustainable city, which I think any city could take. Would any of the steps succeed in your city?

1. Encourage walking, cycling and public transport – Congestion Charging

Public transport is part of London’s heart and soul; the red Double-Decker bus and the Tube are recognisable Worldwide. But Londoners, like everyone else, also like cars. The city became chock-a-block with them.

Could the city tempt people to walk, cycle and take more public transport?

Yes. Former mayor Ken Livingston used the carrot and stick approach when he introduced the Congestion Charge in February 2003. The stick is an £8 charge (used to be £5) on vehicles wishing to enter central London on weekday daytimes. The carrot was that all profit from the scheme is used to improve London’s transport infrastructure, especially busses.

Map of London's Congestion Charge Zone

Has it been successful?

Judge for yourself. A report from the Department for Transport claims 70,000 fewer cars in Central London, 6% more bus journeys, 12% more bicycle trips, 15 million litres of fuel saved per year and an extra £137m raised to invest in transport in 2006/7. Plus, although not universally popular, almost twice as many Londoners support the scheme than oppose it.

London was one of the first cities to try congestion charging. Could it work in your city?

2. Measure how you are doing – London City Limits

“You cannot manage what you cannot measure”, to paraphrase Lord Kelvin.

London took Lord Kelvin’s philosophy to heart and produced the fascinating City Limits report, which measures things like London’s consumption of materials, water, energy and food. And other things like London’s production of waste and CO2. Last, but not least, it estimates London’s ecological footprint.

The figures, which are for the year 2000, are astounding. To give just 3:

  1. London used 876,000,000,000 litres of water, of which 28% was wasted in leaks.
  2. London consumed 6.9 million tonnes of food, of which 81% came from outside the UK.
  3. London’s ecological footprint is the size of Spain.

What’s your definition of a sustainable city? Would London fit in it based on this report?

For what it’s worth, I like that London fessed up to it’s resource consumption and waste production. I have a feeling that it will encourage progress throughout the city for a long time to come.

What do you think?

3. Flagship development – BedZED

Beddinton is a district in the London Borough of Sutton. Until recently, its claim to fame was a controversy when Sir Walter Raleigh married a local resident, Elizabeth Throckmorton, who was a maid of honour of Queen Elizabeth I.

Today Beddington is home of BedZED, a landmark development of 99 homes that aims to be self sufficient with renewable energy. BedZED achieves this with solar energy, biomass combined heat & power (CHP) and highly energy efficient homes. Other initiatives include electric car facilities and rain water recycling.

Want to know more? Watch a video by one of the founding organisations, BioRegional:

In many ways BedZED is London’s version of the Western Harbour, Malmo or Vauban, Freiburg. Perhaps a little smaller, but none the less impressive.

BedZED is a flagship development that shows what is possible. I’d like to see more flagship developments, how about you?

4. Locally Produced Renewable Energy – The Merton Rule

History has given us centrally produced electricity and the power lines to bring it to our homes. For heating, many of us use natural gas piped in and burned in our boilers.

These are wonderful. They’ve given us an affordable and reliable energy supply, which is far cleaner than the energy we used 50 years ago.

Yet, in some situations, there are better energy solutions. And London is making them happen. For example, off the coast in the Thames Estuary you can find the proposed 1,000MW London Array wind farm.

Another innovation is the Merton Rule, a planning rule initiated by the London Borough of Merton that has since spread far and wide. The rule insists that large, new developments meets 10% of their energy need from locally produced renewable energy.

A good idea? Well, property developers have understandably resisted due to the extra costs. But I say good for Merton and good for London for encouraging local renewable energy.

Or do you think differently?

The final word

It’s a tall order for London to become a sustainable city for the future. But London is trying, trying hard and moving in the right direction. I like London’s 4 steps to the Sustainable City and I think they could be used in any city.

What do you think?


  1. this article has been copied on to the loney planet site – great! but there’s no link to the bedzed video there – would be great if the link could be made – thanks!

    Comment by Jennie — June 29, 2010 @ 10:43 am

  2. Thanks for your comment Jennie and sorry for the delayed response. I’m not techy enough to work out how to change the way lonely planet display my articles (they use the RSS feed).

    If you can suggest how to embed the bedzed video in the feed then please tell me.


    Comment by Michael O'Hare — July 22, 2010 @ 8:25 pm

  3. It seems that London is taking some great steps.
    With these steps in place, they are giving themselves a better opportunity then most to be sustainable. A city like Toronto, could learn from this to try to take steps in order to further advance their methods to attempt to be sustainable.

    Comment by taylor Wasser — November 21, 2013 @ 6:16 pm

  4. I really think the Congestion Plan will have an impact on London. They should continue to do this in order to become sustainable. I agree with your final words and believe Toronto should implement a plan such as this to reduce congestion in the downtown core.

    Comment by Dave — November 21, 2013 @ 6:18 pm

  5. The success of London’s congestion charge has shown how the public’s is willing to co-operate with these plans, to reduce the reliance of cars, and ultimately, increase the sustainability of the city. Places around the world should to London as a model to follow, as they try to become a sustainable city

    Comment by Jonathan — November 21, 2013 @ 6:20 pm

  6. Great Article!
    I think Toronto should implement the same congestion charging techniques like London. Clearly, it’s been working, and if it was as effective in Toronto, it would definitely better the public realm downtown by reducing traffic, potentially minimizing urban sprawl.

    Comment by Alex — November 21, 2013 @ 6:20 pm

  7. This is an intriguing article. It is interesting to see how far London has gone with its steps. I believe a city like Toronto will see a congestion charge approach to improve its sustainability. I think it is also great to measure how we are doing. It will illustrate the stark facts and really display how much we are consuming.

    Comment by matt bu — November 21, 2013 @ 6:21 pm

  8. I think that London has a great plan on reducing waste and helping the environment. Toronto definitely needs to implement more programs to encourage more sustainable transport similar to what London is doing.

    Comment by Jonathan — November 21, 2013 @ 6:21 pm

  9. I really like the steps that London has been taking, especially in public transport. I wish my home town of Toronto would take some notes on how to run a successful public transport system as the traffic in the downtown core has become unbearable. I believe that things are looking great for the future.

    I noticed that the cites data is from 2010, in what way do you think this data could have changed between now and then.

    Comment by K-swiss — November 21, 2013 @ 6:22 pm

  10. I agree with your statement that bringing the Merton rule into law would be an effective way to increase the prevalence of renewable energy in our society. Eventually, as more areas being to conform to this rule, the mandatory percentage of renewable energy could be increased, to further reduce our dependance on fossil fuels.

    Comment by Jack McDonald — November 21, 2013 @ 6:24 pm

  11. London has made some great progress to moving towards a sustainable city. Looking at The Rogers Model (http://image.slidesharecdn.com/thesustainablecity-111209100306-phpapp01/95/slide-1-728.jpg?1323448776) London is still relying to much on external input of energy and goods but has made some great strides in the input of renewable energy and sustainable strategies such as bikes and public transport. Noticed this was posted in 2010 would be interested to see your thought on Londons efforts over the last couple years.

    Comment by Cole Reynolds — November 21, 2013 @ 6:25 pm

  12. I think that many cities should implement these steps to create a sustainable city. I know that my own city should use this as we aren’t that sustainable at the moment. Congestion is a big problem downtown and a small fee could easily fix that. If these were implemented it would definitely make my city as sustainable as London.

    Comment by Brandon — November 21, 2013 @ 6:26 pm

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