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Urban Sustainability

Urban Sustainability

Do you live in a rural area, a suburb, a small town, or a big city? No matter the place, built areas are facing the pressure to be more sustainable. Why? Resources are not evenly distributed across the globe. There is a limited supply of not only natural resources, such as oil and coal, but also things like housing and services within urban areas. Still, cities especially are experiencing a lot of growth that needs to be managed for not only current residents' needs but also the projected needs of future residents. This means that although your basic needs may be met, there's a chance that future generations may not have those same needs met. Let's take a look at how urban sustainability addresses those concerns, different methods that can be employed, and supportive examples.

Urban Sustainability Definition

Sustainability is the use of resources to meet the current wants and needs of the population while ensuring that future generations can do the same. Applying sustainability to urban areas means understanding that urban areas are growing and require long-term planning to ensure that future populations also have a hospitable home.

Urban sustainability aims to improve the social, economic, and environmental conditions of a city to ensure the quality of life and well-being of current and future residents.

Urban sustainability is driven by initiatives that address the challenges many cities are facing. As issues of climate change arise, people are demanding new urban designs that will account for environmental changes. New urbanism is one of those initiatives, an urban design movement focused on creating walkable and environmentally friendly neighborhoods. Let's take a look at some challenges urban areas are facing and why these initiatives are necessary.

Challenges to Urban Sustainability

To understand the need for urban sustainability, we must first explore the challenges facing cities. Most cities in the world are growing, especially in less developed countries. This is due to natural increase and rural to urban migration, the movement of people from rural areas to urban centers with greater access to jobs and services.

See the explanations on Urban Sustainability Challenges and Urban Change Challenges to learn more!

Suburban Sprawl and Urban Growth

With increasing urban centers, demands for housing, healthcare, schools, and other services also increase. To remedy this pressure, cities have encouraged suburban sprawl or suburbanization, unrestricted growth design outside of major urban areas with separate designations for residential, commercial, entertainment, and other services. Suburban growth is a quicker alternative to resolving issues of urban growth and affordable housing. This is because the land is cheaper outside of cities, with fewer restrictions on construction and design.

However, major issues arise with too much suburbanization. Since most housing is built outside of cities and away from businesses and other services, commuting times increase, particularly in the US. High car dependency is linked to greater air pollution, as carbon dioxide (CO2) and other particulate matter are emitted from vehicles. With a lack of public transport, walking, or cycling options, many people in the US rely solely on cars to complete even short trips. Despite cheaper land costs for building homes, higher energy consumption, sprawling highway and roads, and pollution indicate that uncontrolled suburbanization is not a sustainable urban design model.

Urban Sustainability A photograph of Colorado Springs from the sky  StudySmarterSuburban development in Colorado Springs, CO

Urban growth, whether within cities or in suburbs, can also lead to a loss of parks, agricultural fields, and green spaces. By reducing these sites, the effects of climate change can also be exacerbated, particularly when it comes to major environmental catastrophes. By removing vegetation, areas are not only more susceptible to floods, but also animal and plant extinctions.

With a greater concentration of populations in cities, the ecological footprint of cities remains higher than smaller towns or rural areas. An ecological footprint is a measurement of the impact one person's activity has on natural resources. Combined ecological footprints can indicate how many resources it takes to support society and the economy. Naturally, with more people in one place, the total ecological footprint can appear very high. However, taken individually (per capita), city residents emit and consume less than their suburban and rural counterparts. This is because city residents tend to live in smaller accommodations, drive less, and share more resources.

Urban Sustainability Initiatives

Urban sustainability initiatives serve to remedy the challenges cities are facing. Urban sustainability initiatives focus on improving the economic, social, and environmental conditions for residents in ways that minimize negative effects on the environment. This is primarily driven by urban development and planning projects.

Sustainable Urban Planning

Urban planning is the design and regulation of a city's infrastructure and transportation. This is usually done at the local political level, where planners and designers are hired by authorities that are voted in. Planners and designers must do their best to reflect and balance the political, economic, and social interests of a city in their projects.

Sustainable urban planning or sustainable urbanism is a way of planning a city that reduces suburban sprawl; promotes active mobility and public transit use; and increases green spaces and use of renewables. Support for urban sustainability can be traced back to the New Urbanism movement, an urban design movement focused on creating walkable and environmentally friendly neighborhoods.

The New Urbanism movement is currently organized by the Congress for the New Urbanism. The movement emerged in the 1990s when many urban planners, engineers, and architects grew frustrated with the sprawling American city design. They argue that people were forced to move farther and farther away from downtown economic, social, and cultural centers, reducing the quality of life of residents and placing greater pressure on costly car ownership. New Urbanists work in different cities all over the US trying to plan and consult for sustainable cities. Major neighborhood objectives for New Urbanists include walkability, diversity, public transport access, density, and mixed development.

Sustainable Urban Development

Some major sustainable urban development projects include mixed-use development, transport-oriented development, and green building construction. What does this look like in a city? Let's dive into some urban development projects through the lens of urban planners.

Mixed-Use Development or Mixed Land Use

Mixed-use development is a planning style that mixes residential, commercial, entertainment, and other services together on the same block, street, or neighborhood. Imagine you leave your home and are able to walk to a grocery store a two-minute walk away, or can see a movie at a cinema that's just down the street. Successful mixed-use development requires density, so homes and businesses need to be in proximity to promote walking, cycling, and public transit use.

Urban Sustainability Photograph of a street in Kirkland  StudySmarterFig. 2 - An example of mixed-use development design in Kirkland, WA; stores on the first floor and apartments above

Transport-Oriented Development

Transport-oriented development is a planning design that aims to tie mixed-use development with public transportation. In other words, a bus, tram, or metro station stop serves as the center point for building highly-dense mixed-use development around this. This promotes both dense mixed-use development, public transport use, and increased walking and cycling.

Green Building Construction

Green building construction or green infrastructure aims to conserve both energy and water resources by using them more efficiently. This is done by using sustainable building materials and design which reduce the amount of energy needed to power a building. One step further can include using renewable energy to power buildings. For a building to be more water efficient, conservation and recycling can be practiced. For instance, recycling greywater from rain runoff can be used to water local vegetation in the area.

Critiques of Urban Sustainability

Some critiques of urban sustainability planning and development are that initial investment costs are very high for governments, businesses, and residents. This is because renewable energy technology is still relatively new and costly, requiring a steep up-front expense. Public transportation is also costly, requiring greater taxpayer contribution to ensure long-term planning and maintenance. However, it can be argued that even without transitioning to urban sustainability, climate change effects will also be costly to clean up. With the increased frequency of environmental disasters, droughts, and energy insecurities, these problems will only continue to be exacerbated without greater intervention.

Urban Sustainability Examples

There are successful examples of urban sustainability all over the world. In these examples, different governments, agencies, private developers, and residents work together to ensure sustainable urban planning projects are implemented. Even after design and construction, residents and developers may request new changes, requiring prolonged participation from all members in the process.

Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen was once a car-centric sprawling city, despite historically dense design within the downtown core. Since the 1990s, Copenhagen began tackling issues of traffic congestion and air pollution from car dependency. They did this by investing heavily into public transport options and prioritizing transport-oriented development and mixed-use planning. Further, they promoted bike use through expanded bike lanes. Currently, almost half of residents in Copenhagen cycle to work or school. As a result, air pollution has improved and car dependency has reduced drastically.

Urban Sustainability Photograph of a street with a wide bike lane in Copenhagen  StudySmarterWide bike lanes in Copenhagen promote safe bike use

Portland, Oregon, USA

Portland, Oregon is another great example of a city that has taken urban sustainability measures in recent years. Most of the energy that powers the city comes from different renewable sources. Portland is also one of the first cities in the US to produce a master plan for bicyclists and pedestrians, i.e. major infrastructure and design plans for walking and cycling. Transit-oriented development has also been a priority for ensuring residents can use local public transit to reach locations and services they need.

Urban Sustainability - Key takeaways

  • Urban sustainability aims to improve the social, economic, and environmental conditions of a city to ensure the quality of life and well-being of current and future residents.
  • Urban growth is fueling suburban sprawl as well as a loss of parks, agricultural spaces, and green spaces.
  • Some major sustainable urban development projects include mixed-use development, transport-oriented development, and green building construction.
  • Some critiques of urban sustainability planning and development are that initial investment costs are very high for governments, businesses, and residents.

References

  1. Fig. 1, Suburban development in Colorado Springs, CO (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Suburbia_by_David_Shankbone.jpg) by David Shankbone (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/en:David_Shankbone), Licensed by CC-BY-SA-3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
  2. Fig. 2, An example of mixed-use development design in Kirkland, WA; stores on the ground floor and apartments above (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kirkland_Vertical_mixed_use_(4575235975).jpg), by Brett VA (https://www.flickr.com/people/23351990@N03), Licensed by CC-BY-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about Urban Sustainability

Urban sustainability is a way planning cities that aims to improve the social, economic, and environmental conditions of a city to ensure the quality of life for current and future residents. 

Sustainability applied to urban areas means understanding that urban areas are growing and require long-term planning to ensure that future populations also have a hospitable home.

Sustainable urban development are projects that include mixed-use development, transit-oriented development, and green building construction. 

Urban living can be made more sustainable by ensuring that people have options to walk, cycle, or take public transit. 

Urban sustainability is important because cities are growing and consume the most resources in the world. 

Final Urban Sustainability Quiz

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What is sustainability? 

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the use of resources to meet the current wants and needs of the population while ensuring that future generations can do the same

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What is urban sustainability? 

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to improve the social, economic, and environmental conditions of a city to ensure the quality of life and well-being of current and future residents

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Why are most cities growing so rapidly?

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Natural increase

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What is suburban sprawl? 

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unrestricted growth design outside of major urban areas with separate designations for residential, commercial, entertainment, and other services.

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Why is suburban sprawl favorable for some growing cities?

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Quicker alternative to urban growth and affordable housing concerns

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What are main characteristics of suburban sprawl? 

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Cheaper land and housing

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The ecological footprint of a city is 

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a measure of the impact human demands have on natural resources, i.e. how many resources does it take to support society and the economy.  

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Urban sustainability initiatives address

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urban challenges

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Sustainable urban planning is 

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a way of planning a city that aims to reduce sprawl, promote active mobility and public transit use, increase green spaces and use of renewables

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New urbanism is 

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an urban design movement focused on creating walkable and environmentally friendly neighborhoods

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What is an example of sustainable urban developments?

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Mixed-use development

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What is mixed-use development? 

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a planning style that mixes residential, commercial, entertainment, and other services together on the same block, street, or neighborhood

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What is transit-oriented development? 

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planning design that aims to tie mixed-use development with public transportation

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What are critiques of urban sustainability? 

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Steep investment costs

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What's a step cities can do to make urban living more sustainable?

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Create bike lanes

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What is sustainable design? 

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creating concepts and plans for a city that improve social, economic, and environmental conditions for current and future residents. 

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Why is sustainable design necessary? 

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Pressure from urban growth

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What is a resilient city?

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a city that can prepare, absorb, and recover from economic, environmental, and social shocks

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What are three major principles of sustainable design? 

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Social sustainability

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What is the opposite of sustainable design?

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Suburbanization

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What are characteristics of suburban designs?

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Low density

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How is suburban growth contributing to climate change?

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High emissions from commuting

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What are characteristics of sustainable design?

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High density

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What has prevented mixed land use policies?

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Suburban growth policies

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What is an example of mixed land use?

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Building apartments with retail and shops on the first floor

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What is an example of a smart growth policy?

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Directing development to denser, walkable areas

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What is a benefit of sustainable design?

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Reduction in air pollution

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What is a challenge in implementing sustainable design?

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Costs

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What is an example of a sustainable design?

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Superblocks in Barcelona

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How are resilient cities and sustainable design related?

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They have similar guiding concepts

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What is mixed land use? 

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Development that combines residential, commercial, cultural, or institutional functions into a building, block, or neighborhood. 

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What is single-use zoning? 

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When only one kind of use or purpose can be built. 

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Historically, cities were never built with mixed land use. 

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True.

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The main component(s) of mixed land use development are:

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land use functions, density, building height and placement, and walkability. 

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Vertical mixed use

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combines different functions within one building.

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Horizontal mixed use

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combines different functions within one building.

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Walkability is not an important factor in mixed land use development. 

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True.

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What are some factors that make a street walkable? 

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Quality of sidewalks, connectivity to other streets, safety, and right-of-way.

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Mixed land use benefits include

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environmental benefits from decreased car use. 

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What is the disadvantage of mixed land use?

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Affordability.

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What is transit oriented development?

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Planning of strategies to increase transit ridership.

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What is transit oriented development meant to address?

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Suburban sprawl and car dependency.

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Public transit is used a lot in the US and most people have access to it.

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True. 

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Transit oriented development has the possibility of...

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increasing transit ridership. 

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What kind of building density does transit oriented development need?

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High density. 

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There should be mixed-use areas within transit oriented development. 

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True. 

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Transit oriented development should be within a ___ walk of a transit stop. 

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10 minute.

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A good example of transit oriented development is...

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Seattle's transit communities.

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What are the possible disadvantages of transit oriented development?

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Gentrification.

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What is an environmental benefit of transit oriented development?

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Reduction in car emissions.

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