Marvin Rees used a global platform at TED2022 to focus on the potential for cities to be vehicles for change in the face of climate crisis.
Topics that have sparked plenty of debate in Bristol, including the controversial vision to build higher density housing and the role of the mayor itself, were strong themes throughout the mayor’s 15-minute talk.
He was one of a lineup of global speakers at the international TED conference in Vancouver, billed as a “chance to co-create an unforgettable gathering of minds and souls determined to play our part”.
Taking to the stage for the session on cities, Rees said he has “one of the biggest honours any politician can have in that I was elected as mayor of the city I was born and brought up in” before outlining the scale of the job of mayor.
“As the mayor, I’m the accountable person within Bristol. The buck stops with me and that’s sometimes even over issues over which I have little control or power,” he said.
“But I have another constituency to whom I’m accountable and that’s one that’s within my city but reaches beyond my city boundaries and that’s the planet. And the 7.9 billion other people who depend on it for their survival.”
At home, Rees has faced criticism from opposition councillors and campaigners over his failure to speak out against airport expansion and dismissed a stunt by members of Extinction Rebellion, who took to the roof of City Hall to demand clean air, as “privileged activism”.
He has aligned with other city leaders to call for a power shift to meet climate goals and even Prince Charles, with whom he jointly called for collective action on sustainable urbanisation.
The latter were themes that were repeated during the TED talk in Vancouver on Wednesday.
“Cities occupy less than three per cent of the Earth’s land surface,” said the mayor, setting the scene.
“Yet cities are home to over half – 55 per cent – of the world’s population and we anticipate this will grow to two thirds. Cities are responsible for around 75 per cent CO2 emissions and we’re also prodigious emitters of nitrogen dioxide and methane – cities consume 80 per cent of the world’s energy.
“It’s the characteristics of cities – their reach, size, density, close proximity of the leadership to the people, their adaptability and their capacity for reinventions that means we can actually plan to manage these numbers. Through our cities we can plan to do more for more people with less.
“We can house and employ more people in less land – minimising the pressure on urban sprawl which competes with land for nature while minimising the distances people have to travel to meet their basic needs.”
Rees said there is huge global potential of a worldwide network of cities scaling up efficiencies for a large chunk of the global population.
Speaking about Bristol and the housing, the mayor continued: “We must build homes, but we are very conscious that the kind of homes we build will be one of the biggest determinants of the price the planet pays for our growth.
“So, we’re focused on delivering net zero homes at higher density on old industrial land in the middle of the city. This allows us to relieve the pressure of urban sprawl it allows us to design in active travel and design out car dependency.”
It’s a policy that has met with criticism from some in Bristol who argue the shift to build more high-rise buildings is not right for the city or people living in them.
Rees also took the opportunity to extoll the benefits of city mayors ahead of the referendum on May 5.
“We mayors are not just focused on what happens in our city boundaries,” he told the TED audience.
“Mayors all over the world are leading beyond their authority. They are coming together in international networks to set themselves hard targets for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.
“What you get with mayors is a commitment to ensure these global commitments are turned from words into actions.”
Rees added: “Mayors, city leaders – we haven’t got time for abstract debates or flowery declarations. Our populations want change today, they want change yesterday. The climate crisis we’re in demands leadership and mayors I met around the world are stepping up.”
He went on to speak about the need for cities to be properly funded and resourced and for action on climate change that transcends national borders.
Concluding, Rees said: “Investing in the increased efficiency of the world’s cities is key to our future and key to unlocking our full potential.
“If we can unlock the full potential of our cities, we can minimise the price the planet pays for hosting us in our growing numbers.”
Main photo: Ryan Lash / TED
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