When it comes to the planet’s future, the news is not good. Yet if you chose not to simmer in the relentless soup of negativity, The Sustainable City is a welcome call to arms. Written by Harriet Thorpe, formerly of the Wallpaper* architecture desk, with photographs and portraits by photographer Taran Wilkhu, The Sustainable City is a deep dive into London’s well-established role as a place of innovation and invention in the face of adversity. 

Phoenix Gardens Community Building, Office Sian Architecture + Design, from book The Sustainable City by Harriet Thorpe
Phoenix Gardens Community Building, Office Sian Architecture + Design (photograph by Taran Wilkhu)

The adversity, of course, is climate change. As Thorpe points out, the construction and occupation of buildings are responsible for a vast, seemingly insurmountable chunk of global emissions. Add in all the accompanying traffic and industry, and cities account for around 60 per cent of all global resources.  

So why are cities considered the glittering jewels of a zero-carbon future? Thorpe addresses this paradox in her introduction, ‘How can a city be sustainable?’. The answers, broadly, are space, pace, planning, and resources. Denser living reduces emissions from transport, freeing up green spaces to promote health and biodiversity (and even food production). Careful planning that acknowledges the importance of connectivity as well as the embedded value of existing buildings, makes density work even harder. 

15 Clerkenwell Close, Amin Taha Architects, from The Sustainable City book by Harriet Thorpe
15 Clerkenwell Close, Amin Taha Architects (photograph by Taran Wilkhu)

The Sustainable City sets out to bring statistics to life. It identifies six key factors behind sustainable architecture and development – use timber, re-use existing buildings, make structures self-sufficient, enhance the incorporation of greenery, lead the way with energy reduction (and self-generation) and, finally, ‘create places that people care about’. 

Parsloes Park, Yinka Ilori (photograph by Taran Wilkhu)
Parsloes Park, Yinka Ilori (photograph by Taran Wilkhu)

The last is evidenced in many of the case studies, which are drawn from a mix of projects large and small, built in and around London over the last two decades or so.

Taking in private housing, offices, open spaces, and community-focused structures, the book captures a time of change. In particular, it highlights the point when left-field self-builders and eco evangelists suddenly found themselves many years ahead of the curve. 

Cork House, Nimtim Architects (photograph by Taran Wilkhu)
Cork House, Nimtim Architects (photograph by Taran Wilkhu)

The Sustainable City is highly recommended, a toolbook for change that should spur practitioners on to do better, whilst also giving potential clients enlightenment and inspiration about the power of quiet change. §

Private House, Hugh Strange Architects, from The Sustainable City book by Harriet Thorpe
Private House, Hugh Strange Architects (photograph by Taran Wilkhu)
Taran Wilkhu and Harriet Thorpe
Taran Wilkhu and Harriet Thorpe