What Is a Sustainable City? The future of urban living

The global population has exploded over the past century. Advancements in health care and technology means people live longer, and thus we have more people living in crowded spaces.

Projections show that by 2050, 70% of people in the world will be living in urban environments compared to 55% today. This means that cities will need to become more sustainable and have solutions for more problems. A lot of cities are already taking these steps, but there are many who rely heavily on aspects of society that means they eat up a lot more resources than needed.

We will take a look at some of the key aspects that can enable cities to become more sustainable.

What does it mean to be a sustainable city?

A sustainable city is an urban area that tackles the problems that arise from expanding populations in densely built areas. People are demanding a higher quality of life, because with the expansion of remote working and the younger generation not being afraid to move, cities have to step up their game or they will lose their lifeblood, the people.

Characteristics of a sustainable city

There’s an incredible number of things a city can do to increase its sustainability. From transport to architecture and everything in between, here’s some of the key things that can be done:

a picture of people walking and biking in Oslo

Make it easier to get around without a car

In a staggering number of cities today, the car is still king. And while cars will always have a place in society, it’s not a very practical way to travel relatively short distances. Traffic jams, pollution and parking is an issue that clogs up urban environments in different ways. And even with the advent of the electric cars, these issues will not disappear.

That’s why a sustainable city will have to make it easy to travel around without the need for car ownership.

Automobiles are the cause of 75% of pollution in the U.S., which is quite clearly not sustainable. And as more and more people move into the cities, this will cause further strain on the environment, as driving short distances with a lot of acceleration and deceleration pollutes considerably more than travel over longer distances.

Decreased congestion

Making sure that those who need to get somewhere in a car can do so on time is critical. An ambulance stuck in traffic is obviously bad and can cost someone their life. And even for the average joe who must drive somewhere, decreased congestion can save time and improve quality of life.

Los Angeles covered in smog

Better air quality

With just a few people in one vehicle, emissions will always be high. Electric vehicles will lower emissions, but the airborne dust particles from surfaces and wheels can still be a deterrent to air quality.

Building walking paths, bike paths and make sure these methods of transportation are prioritized will ensure that the reliance on personal cars will diminish.

Copenhagen has done this tremendously well, with bikes outnumbering cars 5:1. You can get anywhere on a bike in a timely fashion, and traffic is geared towards making sure of this.

copenhagen metro

Building public transportation systems

Public transport is key to a well-functioning metro area. People need to be able to move around longer distances that aren’t suitable on foot or on a bike.

Buses are the simplest form of public transportation, and have the benefit of needing little to no added construction work. They do however suffer if they are not timely, efficient, cheap and easy to use. If there’s no added benefit, people will still use their cars.

Subways, metro systems or whatever you want to call what is known as rapid transit systems running on electric railways, is key to bigger cities that sprawl large distances. London, New York, Tokyo and Moscow are cities with examples of highly efficient and widely used rapid transit systems.

Los Angeles is an example of a city where the car is still the king, and the expansion of the metro system is an extremely important part of how this city can become significantly more livable. Thankfully, they are expanding it considerably, but building a metro system is not easy or cheap.

Autonomous cars can soon become a reality as part of public transportation systems, as can hyperloop trains. But for now, we have to work with what we have.

A picture of a charging station in Germany

Vehicle charging stations

Electric vehicles produce zero tailpipe emissions. Compare that to your typical passenger vehicle, and you’ll find that number is 4.6 metric tons annually per vehicle. The difference in air quality this makes on a larger scale is staggering.

But in order for people to be incentivized to switch to cars that are better for the environment, they need to be able to be charged in an efficient manner. Having charging stations in key areas around the city will enable people to charge their cars as they are on the go.

Hydrogen-powered cars is another alternative which is much more eco-friendly than traditional cars. They are powered by a combination of hydrogen and oxygen, and have the ability to run twice as long on a single refill compared to an electric vehicle. Adoption here is key, and car producers need to step up their game. But in order for that to happen, cities should have refueling stations readily available. Unfortunately, less than 400 such stations exist in the U.S. today.

Urban solar farms

The core of the issue of sustainability is that most energy these cities run on is not renewable. Demanding that all new buildings contain solar panels will ensure that cities can become energy producers in addition to consumers, thus improving air quality.

Even cities that do not see much sunlight will benefit from these, because even on cloudy days, solar panels will produce a certain amount of energy. And we must not forget that renewable energy creates high-paying jobs and adds to the economic growth as well.

A building covered in green in Singapore

Green buildings

It might surprise some, but building to an environmentally friendly standard is usually cheaper than traditional building standards. Buildings create a lot of greenhouse gasses, and with environmentally friendly buildings, these numbers can be cut by about 30%.

Some examples of ways to make buildings greener:

On top of building costs going down, maintenance will be significantly cheaper if they are built to last in the environment that they are in. Heating is a large cost for all older buildings, so making sure less heat escapes in winter will provide big savings for the owners, as well as for the environment.

Urban food production

With the world population growing, food production needs to increase by as much as 50% by 2050. At the same time, in order to meet the global goals for climate change, the greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by 66%. Cities can be a major force in making these changes happen.

This means keeping green areas alive as cities expand, as well as enabling use of rooftops to farm food. Right now, this is not a priority for governments, but if subsidies are shifted towards this, we could see an expansion. But the incentives must be there for this to happen on a bigger scale.

Producing sustainable food more locally will mean shorter transport, further cutting emissions. And we know that high quality food is a key part of improving quality of life.

Easily accessible public resources

All thriving cities have an identity. New York, LA, Paris and London are all cities that people that have not even been there know what represent. In order for a city to be a livable area, you need to have access to cultural centers that hit all of the inhabitants. Museums, stadiums and concert venues are examples of this, but they need to be easily accessible, both financially and physically. If people need to drive far outside the city to catch a concert or football game, the emissions removed by modern technology could be lost to transport.

Creating hubs for industries

Having industries that are similar or at least somewhat related, can give synergy effects as new ideas spring up. Ideas that could make cities more livable through improvements in technology or creating jobs that lift people out of poverty.

Silicon Valley is perhaps the most famous such cluster, and cities are desperate to create their own in order to keep companies moving to the west coast.

Urban water conservation

About 90% of the world’s urban areas are close to the coast. That means they are prone to climate change, and it necessitates good use of scarce water resources. The recurring droughts in California is an example of this.

Moving towards equipment that use water more efficiently will enable huge savings both in the resource itself, but also financially. Water is expensive.

Public parks and green spaces

The ability to not be surrounded by huge buildings is key to creating a livable city. Instead of having to travel long distances to get some peace and quiet, it is more efficient both when it comes to time and quality of life to be able to get this within a distance that can be travelled without a car.

Community gardens and urban farms are key in the food resource issue mentioned above, and create areas where people can get away from their everyday lives. It’s pretty to look at, and you can even eat most of it!

Efficient waste management

All cities today have some form of waste management, but the recycling rates still vary wildly. San Francisco sees a rate of 77% of waste NOT ending up in landfills, which is a result of long-term thinking and mandates. Throwing away things that should not be thrown away is bad for everyone.

Not all waste can be recycled, but we can use energy from these as we burn the leftover waste. It’s not particularly environmentally friendly, but it’s sure better than not recycling and leaving it in landfills for future generations. And with carbon capture technology improving, the emissions from all sorts of waste will go down if we apply it correctly.

What are the benefits of a sustainable city?

For the inhabitants themselves, it’s obvious that it will enable a higher quality of life. But with natural disasters increasing as a result of climate change, making the cities themselves more sustainable can lower effects of disasters. Smart planning of urban areas can diminish the effects of floods, fires and most other kinds of disasters.

We all need to do our part.