8 Ways That Cities Can Become More Sustainable

Published Categorized as Sustainability
Tram at Sustainable City Station

Globally, cities consume around two-thirds of the energy produced and generate four-fifths of greenhouse gasses and half of the total waste. Beyond the environmental factors, many cities don’t offer sustainable living for many people. Thus, cities need to become more sustainable.

Here are 8 ways that cities can become more sustainable:

  1. Expedite the transition to renewable energy.
  2. Expand and promote public transportation.
  3. Encourage and subsidize electric vehicles.
  4. Conserve and build more green spaces.
  5. Upgrade civic infrastructure to smart buildings.
  6. Implement strategic urban planning with a practical vision.
  7. Support initiatives to create a circular city.
  8. Legislate environmentally friendly laws and policies.

These solutions are not unrelated silos that can lead to a paradigm transformation of any city’s sustainability. Also, each solution is a cluster of measures that policymakers and administrators must act upon holistically. Read on to explore how cities can become more sustainable.

1. Expedite the Transition to Renewable Energy

International organizations like the United Nations, federal agencies, and researchers use many metrics to assess a city’s sustainability. However, you can broadly classify all these metrics into three categories:

  • Social or people
  • Environmental or planet
  • Economic or profit

Given the climate crisis at our doorstep, let me talk about our cities’ environmental sustainability before discussing the social and economic aspects.

Everyone knows and concurs that renewable energy is quintessential for a sustainable future, not only for the cities but the entire world. The global consensus led to the Paris Agreement, but all developed nations are lagging far behind the accord’s objectives on climate change.

Thus, expediting the transition to renewable energy is the foremost way for our cities to become sustainable.

Take the examples of New York City and Detroit.

  • According to an Arcadis report on the most sustainable cities in the world, the overall rank of New York is 30, and Detroit is 71.
  • The same report’s environmental sustainability sub-index ranks New York City at 20 and Detroit at 56.
  • According to a Bloomberg report, the Detroit city region is among the least sustainable in the United States.

This vast difference in sustainability explains why the transition to renewable energy should be much faster than the current pace.

  • New York State’s dependence on coal is almost 0% of its total energy needs. In contrast, Michigan meets almost 32% of its energy requirements using coal.
  • Renewables account for more than 31% of New York State’s energy requirement. In contrast, only 13% of Michigan’s energy production is through renewables.

Furthermore, New York uses natural gas for 44% of its energy production, whereas Michigan’s proportion is 24%. While natural gas is still a form of fossil fuel, it burns cleaner and is thus much more eco-friendly than coal.

Therefore, cities that transition to renewables faster will become more sustainable sooner.

However, it is not pragmatic to expect all major cities to immediately and completely transition to solar, wind, hydro, etc. Thus, cities should at least attempt to increase their share of relatively cleaner energy sources, such as nuclear and natural gas, to reduce their dependence on coal.

2. Expand and Promote Public Transportation

Cities with excellent public transportation infrastructure are more sustainable. Mass transit systems, such as metros and trains, have a phenomenal impact on the planet, people, and profit.

The Arcadis study finds London to be the most sustainable city overall. The metropolis ranks second for people and profit. Evidently, the London Underground or Tube has a critical role in this accomplishment.

The same index places San Francisco at the 16th rank overall and 9th for people. Like London, San Francisco has a vast public transportation system with BART.

Similarly, New York City has one of the best urban transportation systems in the world. Naturally, both San Francisco and New York City are among the top five greenest cities in the country.

Two of the most sustainable cities in Asia are Singapore and Hong Kong. Unsurprisingly, both cities have exceptional public transportation systems that are also among the most affordable in the world.

The correlation between public transportation and sustainability is evident in all major cities that have a metro or mass transit system. The carbon footprint of people commuting in their private cars for routine work and other chores is exponentially higher than that of metros, trains, etc.

Thus, any city that wants to become more sustainable should create, expand, and promote its public transportation systems.

3. Encourage and Subsidize Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicles are undoubtedly the future. However, the low carbon footprint or switch to renewable energy isn’t the only merit of electric cars. For all practical purposes, electric cars can improve a city’s sustainability for the people, environment, and economy.

The cost of driving an electric car or vehicle is around 60% less than the gas or diesel expense for internal combustion engines. So, cities can achieve the following:

  • Reduce the overall carbon footprint, pollution, and dependence on gasoline and diesel.
  • Facilitate private vehicular movement fueled by clean energy, i.e., solar, wind, hydro, etc.
  • Boost the economy as reduced operating costs increase consumer purchasing power.

Still, the straightforward benefits may not cause a tectonic change immediately. Like the reality of transitioning to renewables, people may take years, if not decades, to switch to electric cars in many cities. Hence, cities or states should encourage and subsidize electric vehicles.

Many electric vehicles and hybrid cars are currently eligible for a federal tax incentive. Cities can have a supplemental tax credit or some incentive to encourage more people to go electric or at least hybrid.

Additionally, cities should create an ecosystem for electric vehicles to thrive. Tesla has built its network of charging stations, including superchargers. Large cities can do the same, and many administrations may set up much larger and more widespread infrastructure than Tesla.

4. Conserve and Build More Green Spaces

Conserving and building more open and green spaces significantly impact a city’s sustainability.

Consider the example of Canberra, ranked as the most sustainable city by Uswitch per its green index. Uswitch scored all major cities in the world using a few sustainability factors, including:

  • Green energy
  • CO2 emissions
  • Air quality (pollution)
  • Percentage of green space

Comparing the Australian capital city of Canberra, having a population of half a million, with New York City (~8.5 million) or Los Angeles (~4 million) is unfair. However, the effect of green spaces on pollution and air quality is worth noting for many cities trying to be more sustainable.

Canberra has a fascinatingly well-connected greenscape throughout the city. That explains its low pollution despite the city lacking a comprehensive public transportation system.

Likewise, Singapore is a practical case study in favor of green spaces. The island nation has around 50% green cover with ~72 hectares (720,000 sq m) of rooftop gardens, green walls, etc. Also, Singapore uses natural gas, not coal, to generate ~95% of its electricity.

Singapore is among the most sustainable cities in Asia mainly due to its green cover, public transportation, and other eco-friendly systems. Otherwise, a relatively small city-state with the third-highest population density in the world is unlikely to be among the most sustainable.

Therefore, cities should have more parks, green rooftops, and open spaces. Also, some cities can have mini urban forests, subject to geological factors.

5. Upgrade Civic Infrastructure to Smart Buildings

The Internet of Things or IoT has made smart buildings viable. Commercial properties and civic infrastructure have been using a few types of sensors and other modern systems to simplify building management. But cities should take a step further to endorse smart buildings fully.

Most cities cannot make policies compelling all private properties to become smart buildings. However, the public infrastructure and properties owned by the city can undergo an extensive upgrade to use IoT-enabled smart sensors and adopt several green ideas.

Here are a few practical upgrades for the civic infrastructure and public buildings:

  • A city can maximize the generation of onsite renewable energy: solar, geothermal, etc.
  • Public properties can use various smart sensors: motion, light, temperature, water, etc.
  • Old buildings can have green roofs, walls, and windows with impeccable insulation.
  • New properties can have a passive solar design and use eco-friendly building materials.
  • Old and new buildings can use greener heating, cooling, and ventilation systems.
  • Properties can be more energy-efficient with IoT-enabled automation.
  • Smart buildings enable onsite and remote intervention in real-time.
  • Property or building management systems can use big data and machine learning.

IoT’s applications aren’t confined to smart buildings. A vast component of civic infrastructure is the citywide utilities, amenities, and other resources. However, such changes usually require an extensive urban plan.

6. Implement Strategic Urban Planning With a Practical Vision

Every city needs a strategic urban plan to become more sustainable. City planning is generally limited to the neighborhoods, wards, precincts, etc. However, sustainability isn’t confined to the designated borders of a city. Most cities invariably expand and become larger urban regions.

Thus, all major cities need elaborate urban planning with a practical vision. Prioritizing greener energy sources is no longer a choice. Besides, a consequential difference lies in planning and execution.

Here are a few essential elements of an urban plan for a city to be more sustainable:

  • Energy-efficient street lights
  • Solar panels atop public facilities
  • Parks and tree plantation drives
  • Walkable areas and pedestrian lanes
  • Dedicated lanes for cycles and bikes
  • Fleets of electric buses, taxis, etc.
  • Electricity and water conservation
  • Waste management and recycling
  • Climate-specific urban architecture
  • Region-based urban design or layout

Arcadis ranks Zurich at 6 overall, 9 for economics, and 3 for environmental sustainability. The Swiss city is known for its banking and financial services. However, its greater accomplishments regarding sustainability are the car-free streets, bike lanes, and open spaces.

Not every city can adopt the city or urban planning of Zurich. Thus, every administration should weigh its options, whether it is land use development or infrastructure planning. Likewise, cities with densely populated areas and old infrastructure can consider urban revitalization.

Sustainability of any kind, social, economic, or environmental, isn’t an afterthought. Thus, a city’s planners should have the vision to account for potential economic and industrial zones without compromising environmental sustainability.

7. Support Initiatives To Create a Circular City

A circular economy is easier on paper than in reality. Although theoretically possible, not every city has the raw materials, resources, systems, and industries to create a circular economy.

However, many places can be more sustainable as circular cities.

Unlike a circular economy, a sustainable city doesn’t need regenerative or restorative industrial practices in manufacturing, agriculture, etc. I’ll highlight two possibilities that are pretty much relevant for all cities.

The first factor is waste management. Efficient waste management, including recycling, can be instrumental in land use planning. For instance, if a city can segregate the total waste into a few well-defined categories, the impact on recycling is likely to be consequential for sustainability.

Waste-to-energy plants can generate electricity and steam using biomass and non-biomass solid materials disposed of as garbage. Such planned approaches can reduce the net waste requiring landfills and other means of disposal.

The second factor is water management. Similar to solid waste management, a city can plan to treat gray water and black water differently. Such sustainability ideas are not exactly new, but cities must fully capitalize on solid and liquid waste management and recycling.

The eventual impact of these ideas depends on execution. Like rainwater harvesting, several practical concepts have existed for decades, so cities need only to maximize their utilization to enhance overall sustainability.

8. Legislate Environmentally Friendly Laws and Policies

Last but not least, cities should legislate and make environmentally friendly laws and policies. Not all policies may be popular or viable based on local factors. However, postponing some of the necessary policies can have a detrimental effect on a city’s sustainability.

Consider the example of single-use plastic bags. Dozens of American cities have banned plastic bags. But our country still uses billions of plastic bags every year. You can extend this principle to apply to disposable chopsticks and wet wipes.

Most cities source disposable chopsticks from regions afar. Thus, the environmental impact and sustainability issues may not concern a city. However, the wet wipes containing plastics end up in the city’s waste, sewer system, and immediate surroundings.

Therefore, city policymakers can legislate to phase out the products that compromise its social and environmental sustainability.


By Giovanni Valle

Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.

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