All over the world, people are increasingly drawn to cities, attracted by the promise of better living conditions. However, residents soon realize that the beautiful urban sprawl presents environmental and social challenges. Years of human-focused development have had devastating impacts. With the rise of sustainable urban development, there is still hope.
This article discusses the challenges of urban areas, green practices, and a few urban cities with exemplary sustainable urban planning.
Related Read: Sustainable Development Examples.
Before climate change and environmental protection gained relevance, urban planning and development focused on beautifying cities2; however, in recent years, urban planning policies have focused on sustainability due to worsening environmental problems.
Sustainable urban development is a type of city planning guided by the desire to protect nature, promote equity, and maintain resource efficiency.
Sustainable urban development aims to provide a healthy environment where the natural world and human communities can flourish. Almost all the methods for achieving that kind of urbanization can be collectively called new urbanism.
In a sustainable city, the needs of humans are met without depleting natural resources. Also, resilient cities withstand disruptive environmental and social events. They are better equipped to deal with the effects of climate change and mitigate social upheavals.
Sustainable urban development is a multi-dimensional and multi-layer concept that can provide economic, social, and environmental benefits. Developing sustainable cities falls on the local authorities and national governments.
Other stakeholders, such as citizens, business owners, policymakers, developers, the educational community, and civil society, also have roles to play.
Cities are human-dominated and shaped by human activities. Unfortunately, human influence on the environment hasn't always been positive or forward-thinking. Urban development has seriously affected the environment, wildlife, and humans.
Population trends in cities are a cause for concern. More than 56% of the world's population lives in cities, which is expected to double by 2050. Such a population density immediately makes cities more vulnerable to infectious diseases.
Overpopulation pressures infrastructure, public amenities, housing, food supply, and economic resources. That eventually leads to infrastructural collapse and a high cost of living due to resource scarcity.
Many cities are unprepared for the population explosion and are struggling to keep up with providing basic amenities. To that end, many city dwellers end up living under poor conditions. Over 880 million people around the world live in slums.
Many of the world's biggest cities were established before sustainability was essential. Therefore, city authorities find themselves in a difficult situation. Trying to cater to a ballooning population with no fundamental sustainable systems.
The world's cities cover just about 3% of land but account for 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation, buildings, and manufacturing activities are the leading contributors. All that points to the fact that the urban landscape contributes significantly to global warming.
Cities are more vulnerable to extreme natural events. 1 in 4 people live in areas with high flood risks, and other cities may have to endure heatwaves and drought. Clustered high-rise buildings, heat-retaining asphalt, and inadequate tree growth worsen the urban heat island effect.
Extreme heat has caused more than 129,000 deaths in European countries between 1980 and 20201.
The climate impacts of urbanization extend far beyond city lines. Rural areas, hundreds of square kilometers away from cities, can experience changes in precipitation patterns.
Pollution in cities arises from different sources. Municipal authorities often need more resources to manage solid waste and sewage adequately. So, uncollected garbage lies around, affecting air quality and constituting health hazards. It is also common for people to litter drainages, sewages, streams, etc.
Factories improperly dispose of wastewater and chemicals on land and in water. Also, untreated sewage and runoff can contaminate rivers, streams, and other sources of freshwater supply. Pollution makes water unsafe for drinking but much worse for marine species.
Air pollution is one of the leading risk factors for early death in cities4. It contributes to 11.65% of deaths worldwide. In urban areas, 91% of people breathe polluted air. Dust, smoke, soot, and other types of particulate matter and high energy consumption contribute to poor air quality.
Urban sprawl and commercial agriculture continue to encroach on wild forests. Converting the natural environment for industrial and urban use causes biodiversity loss. Wild animals and plants lose their habitat, food supply, and natural protection. Urbanization also introduces harmful chemicals and invasive species that affect untouched natural land areas nearby.
Water resource depletion is another problem urban dwellers face. Developers often convert slow-moving streams into drainages. Groundwater and surface water can also be depleted for domestic and industrial purposes, leading to water scarcity.
Excessive consumption puts undue pressure on resources like trees, metals, and minerals. Some resources are not renewable, but even those renewable are being consumed faster than the Earth can renew them. Overconsumption of natural resources affects humans and wildlife.
Urbanization stimulates growth but also widens the gap between the economically advantaged and those who are not. Nearly 1 billion urban poor live in less-than-ideal conditions to be near opportunities. Unfortunately, discrimination and incompetent governance make it so those opportunities stay put.
The local governments usually cannot cater to the population, so many communities need more public amenities. Close to 40% of urban dwellers need access to sanitation services and adequate drinking water.
Small businesses in urban areas need help accessing the financial and structural support that big corporations enjoy. Roads and other public amenities are often set up to favor large companies influencing the political class—that sort of infrastructural discrimination fractures urban communities.
Cities are spearheading economic growth in countries worldwide, contributing about 80% of global GDP. That also means they can lead the way for the emergence of a circular economy. They have access to technology, experts, and materials required to develop sustainable solutions for our world.
Below are some principles that guide how they implement sustainable urban development in various sectors of the urban context.
Concepts in sustainable land use include compactness, redeveloping existing infrastructure, green spaces, and housing affordability. Eliminating unnecessary space consumption in the name of luxury and mixed-use development helps save space. Hydroponics enables space-saving urban farming, while permaculture allows agriculture to co-exist with wildlife.
Rather than buying up virgin land, developers should consider redeveloping brownfields and gray fields. Preserving historic sites, biodiverse green spaces, and recreational open spaces should remain critical.
Filling up every open space with buildings and factories is not sustainable. An open space can be used as a park or some other recreational purpose that promotes the well-being of residents.
Urban growth boundary is a technique used to control urban encroachment. It involves designating certain areas of a state for urban expansion and mandating that developments are contained within them.
The transport system accounts for 23% of global emissions, 27% of energy, and 64% of oil consumption. Cities must design transport systems to reduce carbon emissions3, traffic jams, and fuel consumption. They need a combination of mobility modes that are cost, energy, and emissions-efficient. They should incorporate electric and alternatively fueled vehicles.
A sustainable transport system incentivizes people to use shared mobility rather than depend on personal cars. It also encourages zero-emission transport modes like walking and cycling by providing people-oriented road design. A compact mixed-use development also reduces the distances people need to cover to enjoy amenities.
Cities run on energy, accounting for about 75% of global energy consumption. Sustainable energy allows cities to power development while reducing adverse environmental effects. They can save energy in all sectors, including transport, building, street lighting, and agriculture.
Renewable energy is one of the strategies for sustainable energy use. Cities should intensify efforts to leverage solar, wind, hydro, and biomass to produce clean and sustainable energy. That would help cut back on fossil fuel emissions significantly.
Energy-efficient buildings also offer opportunities to cut back energy use, covering the construction phase and its operational life cycle. So, builders should use eco-friendly construction materials and techniques that allow natural thermal regulation and lighting.
The world generates an average of 2 billion metric tons of waste annually. That amount of waste threatens the well-being of humans and wildlife. Sustainable and adequate waste management can significantly reduce pollution and improve air and water quality.
The most crucial strategy in sustainable waste management is reducing the amount of waste generated in the first place. Cities should encourage low-waste manufacturing, zero-waste design, and closed-loop systems. They can also use a Pay As You Throw policy to curb wasteful linear consumption.
Cities should encourage innovative sorting systems that can reduce how much waste goes to landfills. Additionally, citizens should prioritize recycling, reusing, composting, and waste-to-energy options over landfilling and incineration.
Sustainable urban development advocates integrating biodiversity into the built environment. It aims to ensure that plant and animal communities remain resilient not as immaculate lawns and potted plants but as biodiverse ecosystems that offer ecological services.
Biodiverse green spaces, green roofs, natural waterways, bio-corridors, eco-brutalist architecture, etc, typify sustainable urban landscapes.
To achieve that, city authorities mandate the conservation of high-value ecosystems home to critical or endangered species. They also ensure that green spaces are occupied by appropriate native vegetation that supports pollinators and small animals.
Sustainable urban development recognizes that urban areas are a mix of people with different races, ideologies, and economic capacities. Therefore, one of its goals is to establish a just society with equal opportunities for all. Inclusive cities are more resilient socially and economically.
The government and local authorities are responsible for creating and enforcing policies that address environmental and social equity issues. All communities must have access to open spaces, green spaces, and recreational amenities.
One of the challenges of sustainable urban development is inadequate funding, especially for the experimental research phase driven by passionate individuals. The government can solve that problem by incentivizing the private sector to invest in the green economy.
Environmental policies can make or break sustainability efforts. Bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Association of City and County Health Officials, the National Park Service, and the American Planning Association can help develop such policies. They should also lead the way in measuring the progress and impact of eco projects.
Another important factor is support from the residents. The city should organize sensitization programs for the public. Schools should also educate students about environmental sustainability and how the students can contribute.
Some say sustainable cities are a utopia that can only exist in imagination. However, various sustainable practices executed across America and Europe prove possible.
San Francisco is famous for being the most eco-friendly city in the United States. As of 2019, the city had reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 41% below 1990 levels while recording 199% economic growth.
About 50% of all trips are powered by low-carbon mobility modes. The city powers public transportation with electric vehicles and 100% renewable diesel.
San Francisco has since banned single-use plastic bags. The city has kept over a million tons of construction debris, 3 million tons of recyclables, and 2.5 million tons of organic waste out of landfills. In 2019, 83% of the city's electricity came from GHG-free sources, with 69% being renewable.
Stadtwerke München (SWM) is one of Germany's largest energy and infrastructure companies. The company operates the Munich energy grid and supplies clean energy to the city. It also provides safe drinking water, district heating and cooling, sustainable transport, and recreational facilities.
In 2008, the city began expanding its renewable energy supply for heating and electricity. The company has established 46 solar power systems, 14 hydropower plants, two wind energy plants, a biomass power plant, and more.
It works with partners across Europe to generate more green energy. Currently, the company provides green energy to meet 90% of the city's energy needs.
Sustainable development aims to improve cities' environmental quality and urban resilience. It requires looking into every urban development sector and finding more eco-friendly operating methods. It also calls out cities' responsibility and potential to lead climate change reforms and conserve natural resources for a more sustainable future.
European Environment Agency. (2022). Cooling Buildings Sustainably in Europe: Exploring the Links Between Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation, and Their Social Impacts.
Mersal, A. (2016). Sustainable Urban Futures: Environmental Planning for Sustainable Urban Development. Procedia environmental sciences.
Mead, L. (2021). The Road to Sustainable Transport. International Institute for Sustainable Development.
Ritchie, H., & Roser, M. (2017). Air Pollution. Our World in Data.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.
Fact Checked By:
Isabela Sedano, BEng.