Episode two, Season three of the Climate Curious podcast is now live with our special guest, Vishaan Chakrabarti.

“The average New Yorker uses a third less energy than the average American. Because we have collective infrastructure, we actually use a lot less carbon,” says Vishaan Chakrabarti, an architect, author, TED speaker and self-confessed ‘professor skyscraper’ on the latest episode of the Climate Curious podcast by TEDxLondon.

In our most joyful chat to date, he debunks why cities are climate leaders thanks to their independences, interconnectedness, and scale, and not the dirty, lonely, unfriendly places which we’ve been taught about. From his new Goldilocks home model to how we must clean our electrical grid, Vishaan calls for designing homes that aid in the fight against climate change.

Every winter the Delhi region of India is covered in thick smog. Pollution reaches 50 times the level deemed safe by the World Health Organization, making breathing Delhi’s air as bad as smoking 50 cigarettes. Photo credit: Raunaq Chopra / Climate Visuals Countdown

Why cities are best placed to drive change

A native New Yorker originally from Calcutta, Vishaan has 50 first cousins, drives like an Indian cab driver, and wants to grow old in the city – yep, he’s not your average climate expert! Taking a refreshing, joyful view on the role cities can play in fighting climate change, Vishan shares why cities are best placed to drive change. That’s due to three big things:

  1. Cities’ mayoral leadership means they have the legal powers to make policy changes outside of government
  2. Cities are home to 56.2% of the world’s population and therefore have the scale to drive real change
  3. Cities’ collective infrastructure means they use a lot less carbon than e.g. urban sprawl

Vishaan believes in the importance of collective living. He also shares how the climate movement must be inclusive and reflect the diversities of the people bearing the brunt of climate change, as well as help people live better, happier, healthier lives:

“I think it’s really important to not talk about the demands on us in terms of climate change… It has to be about the fact that you can actually live a better life, a more fit life, a more enjoyable life, you can have more time with your friends and family because you’re not stuck in traffic for two hours. It’s those lifestyle things that I think like our entire climate community needs to get across more.”

So what’s the challenge here?

“Cities are still a hot mess,” Vishaan explains. “They produce much more carbon than they should. They’re heat islands. So there’s a lot to do in cities.” From greening the electrical grid, to improving the way we construct our buildings (using less concrete and steel), there’s lots still to be done.

By 2100, the UN estimates that the Earth’s population will grow to just over 11 billion people. Architect and author Vishaan Chakrabarti wants us to start thinking about how we’ll house all these people, and how new construction can fight climate change rather than make it worse. While tall-timber construction, solar glass and green energy grids offer hope for future skyscrapers, these technologies are still new (and expensive).

A man works on his rooftop garden in Kolkata, India. People use roofs as a secondary source of food production, relieving pressure from industrial agriculture and drought. Photo credit: Sudip Maiti / Climate Visuals Countdown.

Vishaan’s “goldilocks” solution

Chakrabarti proposes a “goldilocks” solution: compact, walkable neighborhoods where all buildings are human-scale, meaning two and three stories tall like the row houses in Boston or the hutongs in Beijing. By designing at this scale, we can construct buildings to accommodate more people than single-family homes and still have enough roof space to generate solar power to meet each building’s needs.

Vishaan’s fierce love for cities will get you reconsidering concrete, flat-shares and even riding the tube/subway: “One of the things I love about cities: it’s both community and millions of people living at scale,” he shares.

Co-hosts Maryam and Ben, both Londoners and city-lovers, felt so happy to finally be seen and heard by this architect who celebrates the power of urban living: “cities aren’t about where you’re from, they’re about where you’re going,” he says. Maryam hit the nail on the head when she said, “one of the reasons I love London is because you can be in London for five minutes or 50 years, and you’re a Londoner. It’s not just the people. It’s the city. It’s the thing that is bigger than the sum of its parts.” 

Vishaan, Maryam and Ben recording live at TED’s Climate Countdown.

In this conversation, hosted by TEDxLondon’s Maryam Pasha and advocate and activist Ben Hurst at TED Countdown in Edinburgh 2021, Vishaan explains how we can repaint cities’ role in the climate crisis. From supporting green mass transit systems such as light rail, to making express buses free and building more bike networks. It’s an inspiring vision for the future where housing works in harmony with the planet.

Until next time – stay curious!

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