From Extinction Rebellion shutting down Oxford Circus to Greta Thunberg sailing around the globe to deliver her stark message to the world’s leaders, last year was perhaps when acknowledgement of the climate crisis became mainstream. 

Indeed, according to a recent YouGov poll, the majority of people across the world think climate change is happening, with humans at least partly responsible for it.

This shift in attitudes has spurred policymakers to start setting ambitious targets, with the UK becoming the first major global economy to commit to being net-zero by 2050. 

Authorities at the local level in Britain are starting to follow suit. York City Council announced on 31 December 2019 that it plans to ban private cars from the city centre by 2023, as part of the Liberal Democrat and Green controlled council’s wider strategy of making the historic city carbon neutral by 2030.

Certainly banning cars from city centres makes sense from an environmental standpoint.

The impact of cars on our towns and cities is massive. In 2018, a third of all UK carbon emissions came from transport, the large majority of which came from road transport, according to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. And cars in urban areas also give off further harmful particles that affect air quality, meaning that more than 40 towns and cities in the UK are above the safe air pollution limits set by the World Health Organisation.

York is far from the first city to consider reducing car use in city centres.

On 22 September 2019, London had its biggest ‘car free’ day ever with the equivalent of nearly 200 football pitches of city centre roads closed to vehicles and opened up to pedestrians and community events. 

But it’s not just the environment that can benefit from car-free areas. Businesses profit as well, as traders in Barcelona discovered after the rollout of nearly traffic-free ‘superblocks’ began in 2017. There has been a 30% increase in the number of local businesses in pilot areas, and the scheme could now be rolled out across the city with over 500 superblocks planned.  

Real estate has a key role to play in imagining and developing our future car-free cities that are better for business, and also better for citizens. For example, improved outdoor landscaping can create walkable environments that take advantage of the huge amount of extra space freed up by banning cars. 

Assael Architecture’s redevelopment of Millbrook Park in Barnet, North London is a good example of how to design car-free areas. The scheme’s design is underpinned by the village green, which aims to connect the wider community to the heart of the site, aided by the introduction of pedestrianised lanes and a reduced number of cars at street level due to the sunken car parks.

As the growing impact of climate change forces us to rethink the way we live and the ways we travel, it’s time that the real estate industry steps up and prepares for a car-free future. Whether it’s Copenhagen’s Strøget, car-free Zermatt, or soon the ancient walled streets of York, there is a premium for areas that have been made more liveable by the removal of cars. As more cities consider the environmental benefits of removing cars, they should consider the placemaking benefits too.