Built for the Environment

Author RIBA

This report from RIBA builds on research and publications from across the sector and around the world to set out how the built environment can play its part in tackling the climate and biodiversity emergency.

Date added 2 November 2021
Last updated 2 November 2021

*This resource is about the built environment and sustainability. It is not specifically about the High Street, but has been included in response to requests for more studies/information about this topic, as well as linking to the High Street vitality and viability priorities of adaptability, liveability and redevelopment plans 


The foreword to this RIBA report opens with a stark warning that climate and biodiversity emergencies are currently unfolding, from sea level rises, extreme weather events and forest fires, in a way that threatens all life.

With nearly 40% of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions attributable to buildings and construction, the report notes that the COP26 climate summit in November 2021 is our ‘last best chance’ to take the action that is urgently needed to limit global temperature rises and avoid long-lasting and irreversible damage to our natural and human systems.

The demand for change is made all the more urgent when you consider that the construction sector is building the equivalent of a new city the size of Paris every week. More than two thirds of these new buildings are expected to be built in countries without energy codes and only 20% of countries include building energy codes as part of the conditions of the Paris Climate Agreement. However, the report notes that well-designed regulations can promote innovation, allowing us to achieve broader social, economic, and environmental goals.  

The potential of the construction sector to address the climate and biodiversity emergency, it states, can be realised through system wide analysis and action. By enabling greater collaboration between the sector and the public, policymakers, investors, owners, and regulators, we can scale up and speed up change.

Rather than waiting for new technologies, the report states that we already possess the skills and tools to help to restore ecosystems and limit the impact that the built environment has on the planet. What we need now is action to invest in these technologies, as well as leadership and regulatory oversight from government, to maximise the potential of the built environment to support all those impacted by change and provide the infrastructure that enables collective action from the sector and wider society.

The report helpfully sets out ten principles that should be followed to achieve a fair and sustainable built environment. They are as follows:

  1. The built environment is a system, and the transition to a fair and sustainable built environment can be brought about through collaborative and strategic system-wide analysis and action.
  2. Governments must deliver public resources and spending based on social and environmental justice, and not be restricted by surmountable limits.
  3. Environmental targets must be science-based and fair.
  4. Achieving net zero requires absolute emissions reductions, not reductions per square metre of building area, or per person.
  5. Carbon is not the only environmental indicator. Water, nutrient cycles, habitats, biodiversity, and many other indicators of ecosystem health must be considered.
  6. Mitigating and adapting to the climate and biodiversity emergency must happen together.
  7. Those operating within the sector must change the way we work. From breaking down silos between disciplines and competencies, to communicating and sharing information, to shifting our cultural ideas of beauty and design.
  8. The tools, knowledge, and technology to address the climate and biodiversity emergency exist. The challenge is to deploy them at the speed and scale necessary.
  9. Information should be shared openly and widely to enable collaboration and transparent decision making.
  10. Social justice must be at the heart of all action on the climate and biodiversity emergency. This means ensuring that decision-making happens with the involvement of those impacted by change.

The rest of the report explores these principles in more detail, as well as referencing a number of case studies that best embody these principles. One such example is that of Mayfield, Manchester, a new urban neighbourhood behind Piccadilly Station which will include the development of the city centre's first public park.  

The Mayfield park will deliver a 90% net gain in biodiversity and will open up a previously covered river, helping to reduce the urban heat island effect. Overall, the new park will be an important resource for the local community by increasing access to nature within an otherwise densely developed part of the city.

Other case study examples, from low-carbon social housing to schools built using straw bale construction, are found throughout the report, demonstrating the range of international interventions that are taking place to cumulatively reduce the global carbon footprint.