COP, Climate and Cities: 6 learnings from a decade of designing for sustainability in the places we live, work and play

Jak Spencer
Urban Scale Interventions
5 min readNov 9, 2021


Artist Oliver Jeffers: ‘People Live Here’ @COP26

For decades we’ve been paying lip service to real action on climate change. Lots of great ideas, discussions and plans — but with limited real action or impact.

But this time does feel different. Politicians from all sides have agreed action is imperative and public pressure is mounting to deliver real change at a neighbourhood as well as global level.

I’ve been working to design interventions for more sustainable cities for more than a decade — from a policy level looking at climate and resilience strategies for cities, to a local level delivering community interventions, public art and improved messaging, or even through working with big tech companies to develop interventions that scale.

We were at COP26 last week and it got me thinking about the advice we’ve given cities over the last decade for design-led change in cities.

Here’s 6 quick learnings for climate action in cities.

  1. Make it real and relatable

For the Belfast Resilience Strategy we engaged over 2000 citizens through creative engagements and installations to better understand the shocks and stresses on the city. The key challenge; climate change and its effects seem so distant — both so far ahead in time and so far away from people’s front door.

If we want climate action by everyone, it has to be relatable to the effect it will have on their everyday lives. Showing a map where most of Belfast is underwater in 20 years or seeing empty shelves in the supermarket caused by Covid disruption made climate change real and relatable to citizens’ everyday lives. We helped reframe the language of climate from CO2 emissions and low carbon zones, to a million trees and hero projects.

2. Provoke debate.

It’s taken a while, but climate action is now mainstream media. It wasn’t always like this, and along with many other factors, cultural installations have helped raise important questions and awareness on the issue. At COP26 we were working with artist Oliver Jeffers together with MDM Props to bring to life his incredible installations ‘People Live here’ and the ‘Celestial Census’ — all designed to raise awareness on the issues in his typical playful and interactive style.

Installations like this help raise awareness on issues and provoke debate at a citizen level — giving people something they can relate to and talk about.

3. Join the dots

This is a challenge we’re facing in trying to tackle all ‘Wicked’ problems across society; i.e. problems that are difficult to describe, have innumerable causes and have no one ‘silver bullet’ solution. We’ve built a society of boxes — health, infrastructure, tourism, economy etc. Climate change is a challenge that cuts across all of these silos — and therefore a more joined-up approach is needed.

I wrote a paper back in 2018 that suggested designers have the skills to break down these silos as they are people-centred, action-led, comfortable with uncertainty and multi-specialists. Having designers at a more senior level of policy design and decision might help to break down siloed thinking. We’re working on some exciting developments in this field — watch this space for more soon!

4. Quick action from communities leads to bigger bolder visions

This one is fairly self explanatory — but looks to build quick, meanwhile interventions on the ground to show action that leads to longer term visions and plans.

In one example, we’ve been working with the Public Health Agency and Department for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland to completely redesign the Westlink Motorway that divides Belfast. The co-design process has led to a grand vision of decking over the motorway and creating a climate-response urban greenway. Of course — this is a bold, expensive and long-term vision… but in the meanwhile, a series of bridge pilots, designed with local communities, help to build to the long term vision, but are being realised on a much shorter timescale.

5. Build design principles for action

Much of our work is focused around synthesising layers of people-centred insights and top-down strategies into key areas for intervention. This often means working on thematic or focus areas such as ‘young people’, ‘health & wellbeing’ or ‘better connectivity’. However, 1 simple change has been to reframe thematic areas around design principles. It’s only a slight tweak, but immediately focuses the discussion on action and implementation across wider teams.

In a recent project we were tasked with coming up with interventions for better wellbeing in Latrobe Valley, Australia. As well the interventions themselves, we outlined 4 key Design Principles and a series of actions and indicators that led to greater action. The Design Principles were framed as questions to encourage users to question how they might reframe their design to fit into the identified challenge e.g. Do I have a Reason to go there? Or Do I feel as though I belong?

6. Measure and monitor what counts…. not just CO2

‘Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts’

Measuring global emissions and temperature rises is obviously the order of the day — but it’s difficult to relate to you and me. We’re very good as a society of putting a number on something and then measuring it at all costs — but this can often be detrimental to the end goal, or the more ‘fuzzy’ parts of a challenge that are difficult to measure with a numerical value. An increase in urban greening might reduce a city’s CO2 footprint, but what could it also do for social connections, wellbeing, or education of young people. And how do we accept that some of that we might not be able to measure….



Jak Spencer
Urban Scale Interventions

Jak is a partner at Urban Scale Interventions; a creative studio tackling challenges in the places we live, work and play