The Real Reasons Why Most Cities Aren’t Sustainable

Published Categorized as Sustainability
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The discussion of global warming, climate change, and sustainability has been a hot topic for years. We often hear: “Go vegan to save the planet,” or “Take fewer showers to conserve water!” Unfortunately, the real reason why most cities become unsustainable is a much larger issue.

The real reasons why most cities aren’t sustainable:

  1. A rapid increase in population.
  2. Increased use of fossil fuels.
  3. Increase in water consumption.
  4. Lack of organic farming.

You probably do not spend your day concerned about the ozone layer, GMO foods, and farmland but the need for environmental awareness and change is evident. See below for the fundamental ways cities are failing at sustainability.

What Is a Sustainable City?

Before I dive into why cities are becoming unsustainable, it is crucial to understand what makes a city sustainable.

A sustainable city has reduced its carbon footprint, allocated resources and money toward energy efficiency, and implemented measures to improve the environment and limit climate change.

Cities like Copenhagen, Denmark, Stockholm, Portland, and Berlin have adopted these changes to create healthier, more energy-efficient cities.

Some cities have become unsustainable because they have sacrificed the environment for the economy. While those areas improve the economy overall, the ability to maintain a viable system will fall when resources become scarce. Cities such as Brussels and Amsterdam are thriving post-pandemic with a new economic system focusing on reducing food and water waste and reducing the use of fossil fuels.

Many individual citizens implement these measures at home. You probably partake in recycling, walking to the grocery store for a few items, or even participate in “meatless Mondays” to do your part in saving the planet, which is excellent. Still, it’s not making as significant an impact as you may think.

In the United States, the government is the largest user of resources. Because the US government uses more resources than the average citizen, it needs to start at the top if you want to see change.

1. A Rapid Increase in Population

Thanks to modern medicine, people are living longer. Longer lifespans are not a bad thing. Science and medicine have allowed survival rates of deadly illnesses such as breast cancer and heart attacks. These advances made it possible for people to enjoy a longer, healthier life with their families, and I am grateful for that.

The problem arises when too many people flock to a location in addition to significantly longer lifespans. Therefore, that location requires an increased allocation of resources distributed to that location for a more extended time due to the influx in population.

The area requires more gas and fossil fuels due to more cars on the road. The city has to build more roads that need maintenance, buildings for people to work and live in, and energy to provide for the infrastructure.

Phoenix, Arizona, has received the label of “most unsustainable city” in the United States. Some statistics take it one step farther, saying Phoenix is the most unsustainable city globally. With a population of 4.6 million people in the metro Phoenix area, resources such as fossil fuels and water are consumed much more quickly and in astonishing amounts.

According to MacroTrends, the Phoenix metro area has shown a steadily decreasing growth rate since 2000, but it is still increasing in population.

You might think an increase in population would be a good thing, and to an extent, you are correct. The economy in Phoenix has also shown a steady growth from 2001 to 2020. An increase in population leads to more businesses, more customers, and more cash exchanged between merchants and consumers. However, there is a strong correlation between population growth, the economy, and sustainability.

The increase in population over the last 20 years has complicated the environment and sustainability of this city. The poverty rate in Phoenix was almost 21% in 2020, meaning nearly 1 in 4 residents were living below the poverty line.

Environmental difficulties and poverty are closely related. Every person requires food, water, and shelter to survive. Without feasible measures to reduce waste, conserve water, and provide viable housing, cities like Phoenix will continue to see a decrease in sustainability and an increase in poverty.

2. Increased Use of Fossil Fuels

As of 2020, there were 228 million licensed drivers in the United States and 276 million registered vehicles. Approximately 1.7 million of those registered vehicles are electric – less than 1% of the total number of registered cars. The increased use of gas-powered engines causes increased pollution due to the need for fossil fuels to power the motor.

The United Nations states cities use over three-quarters of the world’s energy. The UN also says cities account for two-thirds of the world’s pollution. It makes sense when you realize cities like Phoenix will use more resources with an increasing population.

The most sustainable cities such as Portland, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen have implemented programs to reduce gas-powered automobile use by providing electric charging stations and a solid public transport system.

The results significantly differ from unsustainable cities that do not promote or provide alternatives to fossil fuels. Copenhagen in Denmark is on track to be fully carbon-neutral by 2025 by increasing the availability and affordability of electricity-powered transportation.

In the United States, the White House aims to encourage the purchase of electric cars and cease the production of gas-powered engines by 2035. An effort to improve the environment without disrupting the economy by making electric vehicles more affordable to purchase, maintain, and charge.

The current administration also plans to allocate tax dollars toward revamping the infrastructure, including increasing the number of charging stations for electric cars available to the public.

Sustainable cities such as Amsterdam have already implemented alternatives to gas-guzzling transportation. Cycling is a popular alternative in Amsterdam and many other sustainable cities worldwide.

Amsterdam continues to implement safe areas for cyclists to avoid accidents with cars, such as increased and improved bike lanes for travel. In addition to decreasing the amount of pollution, Amsterdam has also installed 300 charging stations for electric vehicles.

3. Increase in Water Consumption

You may have heard the phrase, “There is the same amount of water on the planet as when the dinosaurs walked the earth.” This statement is factually correct. Water on the earth evaporates into the atmosphere and then comes back as rain or snow. There is no more and no less water on the planet than billions of years ago. So the question remains, how is water becoming more scarce?

The good news: In 2019, some areas experienced heavy precipitation, which resulted in relief from prolonged droughts.

The bad news: Flooding and rising ocean levels have caused a decrease in usable drinking water.

A rapid increase in population over the last 20 years has resulted in higher water consumption with fewer clean water resources. In addition to drinking, people use water to clean, cook, and cool housing and equipment. For example, your car uses radiator fluid to cool the engine. Many tools require water to cool down the equipment to avoid overheating.

Like the southwest United States, areas prone to drought have a higher risk of wildfires, requiring more water to eliminate the threat to homes and wildlife. These factors cause a significant drop in available water for household use.

The EPA estimates that 40 states in the US will start to experience water shortages by 2024, and water conservation measures on a larger scale need implementation. 2024 is arriving quickly, and the country is already beginning to see the effects.

Irrigation and power plants account for over 75% of the freshwater use in the United States. Households only use around 5% of the available freshwater. These statistics are why your efforts to reduce the number of showers per week are not affecting climate change.

You should still do your part in conserving water by shutting off the tap when brushing your teeth or limiting watering your lawn during a drought. However, even if every household made an effort to conserve water, the effects would be minimal until more giant corporations and the US government make water conservation a priority.

In Denmark, Copenhagen has eliminated the need for water as an energy source by increasing the number of solar panels. While solar panels are popular as an energy alternative in the United States, they are still wildly expensive. Certain tax breaks have made solar panels more affordable, but the start-up can cost $3,500 to $35,000.

The benefit of solar panels is that you can be carbon-neutral in about 3 to 8 years, start seeing a reduction in your energy bill, and reduce your carbon footprint as soon as the first day. Solar panels and other renewable energy sources can replace the need for fresh water as an energy resource.

In addition to reducing pollution from vehicles, cities like Amsterdam have found methods to reduce water pollution. These methods include building dams to prevent flooding. The reduced flooding has increased the amount of drinkable and usable water.

4. Lack of Organic Farming

Farmers’ markets are a popular staple in the United States. You may enjoy Saturday mornings picking out your fruits and vegetables right from the source. However, organic farming only accounts for about 1% of field crops in the US.

The reason for the low production is simple: money. Typically, conventional farming costs less to grow, maintain, distribute, and purchase crops.

Controversy over the difference in health benefits between conventional and organic food continues to drive a wedge between the two options. Some resources say the pesticides used to maintain the crops are safe for human consumption, while others say the opposite. The pushback against organic farming comes down to the cost to the farmers and the consumers.

However, surprisingly, an increase and the availability of sustainable farming would be more cost-saving and energy-efficient in the long run. Improving water quality and retention has made organic farming more profitable in Copenhagen. Almost one-fourth of food consumed in Copenhagen is now organic, and 88% of public food services have followed the trend.

The economy is changing in the Netherlands, which focuses on sustainable measures, including farming. Citizens are starting to grow their own food and supplement what they need for their families with less water and less waste.

Statistics show that conventional and organic farming produce similar amounts of soybeans and corn with strikingly different resource needs. Organic farming does require more acreage but the resources used to maintain the land are far less than conventional measures.

At Cornell University, professor of ecology and agriculture, David Pimentel, says, “Organic farming approaches for these crops not only use an average of 30 percent less fossil energy.”

Pimentel continues, “[organic farming] also conserve[s] more water in the soil, induce[s] less erosion, maintain[s] soil quality, and conserve[s] more biological resources than conventional farming does.”

Recalling back to the water usage statistic mentioned previously, irrigation accounts for one of the most extensive needs for water in the US. Approximately 42% of water is used for irrigation to provide food to the citizens. Reducing that amount by 30% with organic farming would improve water waste. The higher costs would be temporary, but the availability of affordable food while preserving resources is necessary.

Using fewer resources to grow food would benefit the environment and the citizens. Incentives for organic farming implemented by the United States would reduce the overall cost of organic food, making it more affordable to the customer and more profitable to the farmers.


Cities are becoming more unsustainable due to increased population, increase in fossil fuels, increase in water usage, and lack of organic farming. The government is responsible for allocating resources to improve the use of water and fossil fuels to increase sustainability.

On a smaller scale, individual citizens do what they can to reduce their carbon footprint, but the impact is minimal when looking at the bigger picture. Unsustainable cities will continue to see increased pollution and poverty unless there are changes on a grander scale.


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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