What Is A Sustainable City & How Do They Benefit Us?

A sustainable city supported by renewable energy, surrounded by nature.

Urbanization has produced modern cities defined as monuments to concrete and steel.

Polluted air, sizzling heat islands, uncontrollable floods, and a lack of accessible green space – these are just a few common issues in our cities.

But as our climate continues to change, a future that values the concept of green city living is starting to catch on.

If our urban centers are unable to withstand extreme climate-related events, our global society will struggle to adapt and overcome the challenges we’re starting to face.

So how realistic is sustainable urban living?

What is a sustainable city?

Smog-filled skies, streets packed with old and inefficient cars, and an endless sea of people living their lives – things are looking grim for many cities right now, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

A polluted and crowded city street in downtown Dhaka, Bangladesh
Image by b k via Flickr

Sustainable urban planning has been around for awhile, but our rapidly changing climate makes it obvious that we need to drastically change how communities live within cities.

New paths are being charted by architects and residents of cities all over the world, with the goal of bringing balance to the needs of people and the natural world.

An ornamental garden on the streets of Singapore.

So what traits do green cities share? Here’s a quick summary:

  • Sustainably designed buildings
  • Lots of green and blue spaces
  • Renewable energy adoption
  • Public transportation, bikes, and walkability
  • Circular food systems

Why are sustainable cities important?

Cities are a defining characteristic of human society, and they aren’t going away anytime soon. Let’s take a look at some of the main reasons why we need to prioritize sustainability in cities:

Cities are home to billions of people. Half the global population lives within cities, so there’s no doubt that a sustainable future needs to include rethinking how we design, build, and fuel them.

The crowded Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, Japan.

The United Nations projects nearly 70% of people will live in urban centers by 2050, which means our already busy cities will have many more mouths to feed in the coming decades.

Cities are energy hungry and produce lots of emissions. Our cities have incredibly high urban metabolisms, meaning they use large amounts of energy and produce lots of waste. As the cornerstone of modern society, making our cities more efficient would substantially lower the burden of climate change.

Cities both help and hinder our health. Modern city services have a variety of health benefits, as these urban centers are home to some of our most productive institutions, and in general a well-functioning city is a telltale sign of a prosperous society.

An asian city-scape filled with smog and pollution.

However, city pollution is also considered a silent health emergency, with a variety of diseases related to air and water pollution such as asthma affecting millions around the world.

What makes a city sustainable?

Sustainable city design is complicated – and lots of moving parts means that finding solutions for common problems will be a gradual process of upgrading outdated cities.

While building climate resilient cities from the ground up sounds great, billions of people live in urban centers, and the earth simply doesn’t have enough room for many more cities.

So let’s talk about what innovative design solutions are being put forth as solutions to this tricky situation:

Sustainable building design

Imagine living in a city where every structure is built according to principles of efficiency, circularity, and a focus on minimizing carbon footprints.

This is a major part of what the green urbanism movement is trying to achieve – and many cities are starting to realize the importance of a foundation of efficient, sustainably designed buildings.

And sustainable architecture isn’t just an idea, there are legitimate certifications like the globally recognized LEED rating system, which help define realistic goals for community planning.

singapore supertrees
Image by Rod Waddington via Flickr

Singapore, a city-state in Southeast Asia, is one of the most famous examples of sustainable cities in terms of its inspiring buildings – hailed as one of the greenest cities in the world.

Also known as the Garden City, Singapore has a long history of prioritizing environmental protections within urban planning; and in many ways its smaller size makes it an excellent place to test out emerging ideas.

Singapore isn’t the only example, however. Cities across Europe and the rest of the world are also rushing to retrofit aging buildings – after all, these concrete behemoths are what define our most populated cities and towns.

Green and blue spaces

An abundance of green and blue spaces is another incredibly important aspect of sustainable urban living.

Who doesn’t love to be surrounded by city streets and parks filled with living plants and watery landscapes?

Simple aesthetic movements like eco brutalism are appreciated by most who come across them, even if they don’t always amount to more than slapping some plants on aging concrete giants.

Other concepts like biophilic design take this a step further, inviting us to embrace both the beauty and functionality of nature. Biophilic streets are a great example of this, designed to reconnect us with nature by offering refuge, food, and even breeding sites for native and migratory plants and animals.

city green corridor

Urban forests, public parks, rooftop gardens – these are all examples of biophilic design in action, and they come with benefits to us as well as the natural world.

And these benefits are multidimensional: green and blue spaces help regulate temperature, purify the air, reduce flooding, and just generally improve urban livability.

singapore botanical gardens
Image by Catherine Tan via Flickr

One highly successful example is the Green Corridors project in Medellin, Colombia. Over 3 million trees and plants were given a home in an interconnected network across the city, resulting in an average surface temperature drop of over 10°C along the greenway.

Denser cities lacking space are also coming up with innovative solutions, like the High Line located in New York City – in which an old unused railway line was transformed into an elevated, walkable nature park crisscrossing Manhattan.

The High Line garden park in New York City, USA.

While the city of New York isn’t considered among the greenest cities in the US, even our most populated urban centers are capable of change.

Nature’s ability to help us create resilient, future-proof cities is unmatched, and the benefits of natural spaces goes beyond simple aesthetics. Promising studies have linked green spaces in cities with lower levels of stress, and these benefits tend to increase in more urbanized areas.

Over time, the cost of man-made infrastructure is also beaten by nature-based solutions, so a future filled with BiodiverCities could be both cheaper and healthier for every living thing residing within.

Renewable energy systems

Currently, our world’s cities consume a sizable portion of energy produced, and emit around 75% of energy-related emissions. So, rethinking how our cities use and produce energy is clearly a key part of planning sustainable cities.

Kicking our addiction to fossil fuels is a high priority, of course. And we can already see this in action, with more than 180 cities in the United States pledging to shift energy supplies to renewable sources in addition to many other cities across the world.

las vegas solar panels
Image by pony rojo via Flickr

Some eco cities already run on 100% renewables, as is the case with Burlington, Vermont – a previously coal-heavy city located in the US. In 2014, Burlington became the first US city powered by 100% green energy – serving as an excellent example of how to improve cities across the world.

More examples can be found all over the world, as governments and city planners begin to embrace principles of sustainable design that not only aid their local environment, but consider global implications as well.

A renewable energy transition is crucial, but it does come with many challenges; high upfront costs, overwhelming amounts of aging infrastructure, large-scale energy storage issues, and the slow adoption of technology – these are problems that need to be solved.

Billions are flowing into cutting-edge technologies, but one major issue consistently stands in the way: outdated grid systems.

los angeles power lines
Image by Chris Yarzab via Flickr

One promising solution takes the form of smart grids, which use decentralized methods to distribute energy to those in need, and are easy to set up to include renewables.

Governments and individuals are making massive investments in clean technology, with some speaking of a new “clean tech arms race” that involves every one of us – not just technical experts.

Even if your skillset doesn’t immediately come to mind, there’s a good chance some of the best paying jobs in energy could be a perfect fit for you.

Transportation, bikes, and walkability

Perhaps the most defining characteristic of a city is how people move – whether it’s by train, car, bike, or on foot.

Vehicles moving about in cities and other built environments emit a lot of carbon, so tackling the problem of individual reliance on vehicles is catching the attention of scientists all over the globe.

While still in the early stages of adoption, electric vehicles (EVs) are starting to slowly replace combustion vehicles. A lower-carbon solution, at least in terms of emissions on the road, governments and businesses alike are heavily investing in charging infrastructure to encourage industry growth.

An electric vehicle charging station within a city's limits.

Oslo, Norway is one shining example – known as the EV capital of the world, Oslo has over 2100 charging ports throughout its city.

Here are a couple of other things some cities offer EV drivers:

  • Toll road discounts
  • Free parking
  • Allowing EVs in bus lanes
  • Rebates and loans for EV buyers

Cities like Tokyo, Japan already have a growing fleet of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, including buses. Japan is also home to the largest hydrogen refueling station network in the world, recognized as one of the most ambitious current hydrogen experiments.

Public transportation is another area of interest, and new innovations like shared-use fleets are being used to decarbonize cities. With shared-use fleets, freight loads are optimized and carried together, an attempt at solving the issue of less than full vehicles driving around.

new york electric bus
Image by MTA via Flickr

Some go as far as to predict that the private car – a staple of contemporary life – may begin to fade into oblivion.

MIT’s SENSEable City Lab projects that some cities like Singapore could meet their mobility and transportation needs with only 20% of the vehicles they currently use.

In addition to reducing emissions, sustainable public transportation solutions have the potential to reclaim natural environments in urban centers, creating more bikeable, walkable, and liveable cities.

Numerous bikes being parked in the bike friendly city of Amsterdam.
Image by Sergiy Galyonkin via Flickr

This can take on the form of no-car zones, dedicated bike paths, and bike-sharing systems that prioritize safety and convenience; bike-friendly cities can both fight against climate change and help us stay in shape.

Walkability is an interesting concept that may be completely foreign to those living areas like the US, where most cities are designed for city travel – an effect of the political economy of car dependence.

Take a look at this TED Talk on walkable cities:

To put it simply, buying and using cars makes a select handful of individuals very wealthy – walking doesn’t. Walkable cities are common in many areas of the world, and come with a variety of psychological, physical, and financial benefits that cars actively work against.

If more people were presented with the opportunity to walk to work or the grocery store, they probably would!

Circular food systems

All of the above is great, but even electric cars don’t solve the issue of our global food system – a trade network that makes it easy for you to order tropical fruits while living in Iceland, but comes at a cost to the environment.

Urban citizens need permanent access to healthy food, so how would that work?

Regenerative farms, hydroponic rooftop greenhouses, backyard composting – the possibilities for implementing the core concepts of sustainable agriculture in an urban environment are endless.

brooklyn rooftop farm
Image by Justin via Flickr

Instead of relying on complex and vulnerable supply chains, some cities are starting to look for answers that might allow them to independently produce a sizable portion of their food needs.

Urban farms are mushrooming everywhere, and they’re all focused on an important fact: local food webs offer cheaper, fresher products and produce minimal waste via food miles.

Urban agriculture means self-sufficiency, and if genuine efforts to eliminate food deserts want to succeed – what better way is there than buying your fruits and veggies from your neighbors?

food deserts: areas lacking affordable, healthy food options

Even food waste can be recycled locally, and pioneering businesses focused on circular design are starting to turn food scraps into daily necessities and useful products – keeping organic matter out of our landfills.

For most people, the issue isn’t a lack of desire to have their waste recycled, it’s the absence of cheap or free organizations offering food recycling services.

Hydroponic farming is one ingenious solution to urban farming; the best part about it is that it doesn’t require a yard or even soil for that matter. Vertical farming is another promising technology, with yield estimates up to 20 times more than conventional farms.

hydroponic city herb garden
Image by Becky Stern via Flickr

A significant portion of the world’s arable land is being used for harmful monocrop farms – smart farming unlocks the possibility of growing food year-round in all sorts of city nooks and crannies, including underground subway lines.

Learning how to start a garden has never been easier, even in urban environments; alongside the food you’ll enjoy, planting native species enriches local ecosystems and encourages pollinator biodiversity!

How can these solutions be implemented?

If we want to make building sustainable cities a priority, nations need more holistic policies that ensure both people and natural ecosystems can survive.

The challenge lies in balancing the needs of humans with preserving the habitats of millions of other plant and animal species, in the context of a rapidly urbanizing world.

So what needs to happen?

Cities will need more financial support. Some cities, or entire nations, lack the budgets to invest in or implement solutions that address climate change and aging infrastructure. City investment plans and private financing sources need to be informed by science-based goals that highlight the benefits of modernizing our cities.

City planning policies need to be reformed. A legal transformation is underway in many cities, representing a major step in ensuring that climate resilient communities are supported by government institutions. Individual actions can only go so far – experts, stakeholders, and decision-makers need to be engaged in the process of incorporating new standards of sustainability into legislative and regulatory frameworks.

Decisions need to be inclusive and equitable. Everyone living in a city has a role to play in scaling up sustainable solutions for our cities – not just the wealthy. Those who need the most support are often undermined or excluded by traditional power dynamics, leaving marginalized communities without representation – these groups need to be empowered, not left behind.

Final thoughts

What makes a city green isn’t always the easiest way forward – but the cities of our future need to be designed and upgraded using principles of sustainable city planning.

If you see yourself living in an eco friendly city, now is the time to act and promote change in your local community.

Do you think self sustaining cities are possible?

We love hearing from you.

Feel like contributing or have a question? Comment below.