Ask: Can London ever be sustainable?

From air pollution to lack of biodiversity and disconnection with food: we consider whether the capital city could ever transform into something greener.

Our monthly series, Your Questions Answered, collates questions from Wicked Leeks readers and puts them to our expert team of writers and contributors. Submit your question for consideration by commenting on this article

Do you think London can ever be sustainable?

Adam42, via

This is a colossal subject; you could easily write a book on it. In fact, many have. Authors like Carolyn Steel (see her book Hungry City) envisage futures where cities support sustainable lifestyles rather than fuelling climate change and inequality.

As they are now, cities are unsustainable: they currently consume over three quarters of the world’s resources and contribute 60 per cent of global greenhouse gases. Despite this heavy impact, cities have the potential to be a critical cog in a low carbon and sustainable future, especially with the world population set to double by 2050.

For example, Greater London has the lowest carbon emissions per capita of any region. This is down to its high population density, public transport, and lack of industry. Like public transport in London, cities offer us a framework in which citizens could live more collectively and consume fewer resources individually. 

However, there is much room for improvement. Despite lower usage of private vehicles, air pollution contributes to the premature death of 9,400 Londoners every year and costs the health system between £1.7 and £3.4 billion. Multiple measures are trying to tackle this issue, including the expansion of the ultra-low emission zones (ULEZ) and a recently announced ‘rewilding fund’ as part of the city’s investment in green spaces.

In cities we can live more communally and consume less resources. 

As well as tackling air pollution and biodiversity, these projects are connecting Londoners with nature. In a city, it is easy to feel disconnected from the natural environment, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Urban food production could help provide a solution to this human and environmental disconnect, as well as reduce the impact that our diets have on the natural world.

A recent study suggested that urban farming, including allotments, could be as productive as conventional farms while reducing pesticides, providing habitats for wildlife, and improving mental health. Imagine the streets lined with orchards and eccentric communal allotments filling London’s nooks and crannies. Involving more citizens in food would radically alter the city’s relationship with food and nature.

However, sustainability is not just about the environment. In order to achieve an environmental and ecological transformation, we need societal transformation too. London is by far the most unequal place in the UK. This is only too clear when walking in one of London’s richest boroughs only to be confronted by the decimation of Grenfell Tower.

London might do well to look to cities like Amsterdam, Portland, and Copenhagen, which have adopted Kate Raworth’s radical new approach to economics, Doughnut Economics. The concept sits in stark contrast to GDP and measures progress based on human wellbeing and environmental boundaries, instead of pure economic output.

Might this be the answer to creating sustainable cities? As the majority of the world’s population live in cities, addressing this issue is incredibly important and complex. This is why in the New Year we’re launching a new Sustainable Cities series, shining a spotlight on how cities might be more sustainable and helping readers live more sustainably in the city. Stay tuned for more.

Jack Thompson, staff writer, Wicked Leeks

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  1. This is an important topic, one that is worth intensive attention. But – just saying – cities don’t currently consume over three quarters of the world’s resources, the people in them do. Only through serious analysis could it be decided whether urban people would consume less if they were dispersed. And, Oregon is NOT a city! It is an American state. At an area of 255,026 square kilometres, it is larger than the entire island of Great Britain, 209,331 square kilometres. This isn’t an argument against the premise of the article, I mean it as a suggestion that the author thinks clearly.

    1. I don’t think the author actually meant Oregon, rather Portland which has adopted policies created using Raworth’s doughnut economics sustainability framework. But you make an important point about the analysis – I would love to see some academic studies based around factors like how much land people can use for agriculture, nature and recreation, where they work, where they live, where they go shopping, how far apart they all are, what transport options they have and so on. At the moment there’s a lot of academic research on how big the carbon footprint is, but that alone is not enough.

    2. Hi Ronald,

      I’m glad you think the topic is worth intensive attention – we are dedicating a whole series to the subject.

      You’re right – the analysis to determine if urban citizens consume less is not simple. The stats above seem to confirm that view as London is the region with the lowest carbon emissions per capita- but this includes industry emissions which unfairly impacts Northern regions, it’s not necessarily that the citizens are individually using far more resources.

      With all the advantages of proximity and public sharing of resources (such as transport and heating), urban dwellers could well emit less.

      However, what is less clear is whether cities drive unsustainable patterns of consumption. I think it’s really interesting to consider whether the highly urbanised environment and the disconnect with the natural environment have accelerated consumerism and the associated resource use.

      When I think about it, pretty much everything I do in the city involves consuming something.

      Thinking of the launch of the sustainable cities series, is there a particular issue that you would be interested in hearing about?



  2. Thanks for the extensive answer, Jack – it really speaks to my values, although I really need a kick in the pants to get off my bum and sign up for an allotment 😆

  3. This is a very important aspect of the debate around sustainability and the environment. I would like more information about the steps a person like me, who lives in London, can take to lessen her impact, since buying only locally produced food would mean starvation. My daughter lives in rural Essex and subscribes to a veg box scheme run by a co-operative where everything is grown within a couple of miles of her house. The best I can do is Riverford (which is excellent but not exactly local) and various other ethical organic farmers who seem to be mainly in Yorkshire and the West Country, all of which have to transport the food for miles. I have a small garden and grow and preserve as much as I can but it is a feeble addition to our food consumption.

    I look around at the people who live near me and they are sublimely uninterested in any notion of sustainability. They buy new cars every couple of years, pave over their gardens, front and back, and put our more rubbish for collection each week than our household produces in a year. And in any case, if the population of the world is set to double by 2050 as reported in the article, anything we do now will be wiped out by the need to feed those kinds of numbers. Thankfully by 2050 it won’t be my problem but I fear for the upcoming generations.

    I find it all very disheartening – I’m not going to abandon my principles just because they are not universally shared, but I do feel sometimes like alone voice crying in the wilderness.

    1. Hi Doingmybest,

      I can relate when it comes to that feeling of conflict you’re describing and not knowing what is the best option. Although it sounds like you’re taking a lot of steps to lessen your impact, where do you think you could do more and what sort of information are you after on this side of the debate? Jack

  4. Thank you, Jack, for your message. Your question made me sit down and think hard about what I should do.

    I think I need actively to seek out like-minded people in my area, first so that I don’t feel that I am the only one interested in sustainability and secondly, so that I can get involved in some group attempts to encourage others. There isn’t a great deal in my corner of North East London; I am Chair of our local Agenda 21 group but that is focused on monitoring the activities of the Local Authority and preventing the borough being completely covered in concrete. Necessary, but not quite what I am looking for. There is a Redbridge sustainability forum, but a number of local councillors sit on it and their agenda seems to be anything that will save the Local Authority money and nothing that will reduce its income. I went to my first meeting of the Ilford Horticultural Society in March 2020 and we all know what happened next. The Society hasn’t met since. I can’t say I haven’t tried..

    I can hear the self-pity as I write this so now is the time for action. I need to look harder at what people are doing locally and if anybody reading this has any suggestions, they will be very welcome.
    I already support Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Garden Organic and the RHS but, as you will have realised from reading this, national movements are only part of the story for me.

    Thank you once again for the prompt.

    1. You live in North East London? Have you ever been interested in getting involved with Growing Communities, the Hackney based organic veg box scheme. As far as I’m aware they’re always keen for people to volunteer. These schemes or community gardens are a bit of a hub for like-minded people from different backgrounds and contexts, and places of resistance against the industrial model of agriculture.

      Otherwise, our fellow reader Adam42 is launching an initiative in North London about tracing our carbon footprint and things we can do to reduce it in the city! I think he’s looking for participants, so if you’re keen to get involved here’s his website:

      Finally, we’re launching a whole series about sustainable cities, so stay tuned for lots of articles around how we can connect to sustainable food in the city and the people behind it.

      But i think what you’ve touched on is really important. It can be demoralizing if you’re doing lots to address these issues, but no one else around you is. Community, and feeling part of something bigger than ourselves is a key part of building this movement and inspiring positive change.


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