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Sustainability in Urban Areas

Updated: Dec 8, 2021


Singapore is a great example of sustainability and greenery in an urban area

What is sustainable urban development?


Sustainable urban development are the developmental strategies and practices that ensure liveable, self-sustaining communities over the long term. According to a 1987 United Nations report, sustainability is "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Sustainable urban development is the way forward for cities to counter the effects of climate change.


Integrated urban places are designed to bring people, activities, buildings, and public spaces together with easy walking and cycling connections between them and clean transportation services to the rest of the city. It means inclusive access for all to local and citywide opportunities and resources by the most efficient and healthful combination of mobility modes, at the lowest financial and environmental cost, and with the highest resilience to disruptive events. Inclusive development is an essential foundation for long-term sustainability, equity, shared prosperity, and civil society in cities.


Milan green building Bosco Verticale shows an environmentally friendly building in an urban area

What are the basic considerations necessary for sustainable urban development?


Concerns over climate change, access to clean air and water, renewable energy and land use continue to draw attention to sustainable urban planning. Sustainable development strategies focus on five dimensions: economic sustainability, social sustainability, ecological sustainability, sustainable spatial development, and cultural continuity. Sustainable housing is therefore one of the most integral pillars of sustainable development. The target of the sustainable urban development process is to achieve the status of "sustainability" in urban communities and to create or to strengthen the sustainability’s characteristics of an economic, social, cultural and environmental city.


Sustainable urban planning involves many disciplines in order to achieve their sustainability goals including the use of architecture, engineering, biology, environmental science, materials science, law, transportation, technology, economic development and government. Sustainable urban development also encourages innovative and practical approaches to land use and its impact on the wider natural world.


New sustainable solutions for urban development problems can include green buildings and housing, the pedestrianisation of town centres, greenways and open spaces, alternative energy sources such as solar and wind, and transportation options including access to safe cycle paths and renewable e-bike hire areas. Sustainable use of land can help to improve the welfare of its residents and their wider communities, shaping urban areas into healthier, cleaner and more efficient spaces.


Singapore landscape building which is both modern and green

Why is sustainability important in urban areas?


Urbanization will be the defining trend over the next several decades, especially in East Asia, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, where the bulk of extreme poverty is concentrated. Cities will play a central role in the ability of nations to achieve sustainable development as these are where the bulk of waste, pollution and consumption comes from and are also the primary engines of economic growth and development. Today, half the world’s seven billion people live in cities and by 2030 there will be over one billion more urban residents. Urbanisation can transform the social and economic fabric of nations.


Roughly three-quarters of global economic activity is urban and as the urban population grows so will the urban share of global GDP. Cities are home to extreme deprivation and environmental degradation with one billion people living in slums. In many countries the number of slum dwellers has increased significantly in recent years and urban inequality is deepening. Effective sustainable urban development can create jobs and offer better livelihoods; increase economic growth, improve social equality, promote increased standard of living and economic growth from environmental resource use as well as protecting local and regional ecosystems. This can all help to counteract urban and rural poverty and drastically reduce pollution and waste. Sound urban development will accelerate progress towards ending extreme poverty. On the other hand, mistakes made in managing urban growth are very hard to undo. Infrastructure investments, urban land-use systems, and layouts are literally cast in stone – with impacts that may be difficult to alter for many decades. Without adequate management and investments, slums may expand, and cities may fail to generate the jobs necessary to improve livelihoods. As a result, inequalities, exclusion and violence may increase. Countries may fail to decouple economic development from resource use, and cities may fail to provide economic opportunities to surrounding rural areas and become vulnerable to climate and other environmental changes. Cities around the world are struggling to accommodate their rising populations and address the multidimensional challenges of urban development.


sustainable city featured by Black Sheep Design Team who specializes in sustainability and architecture

How can urban areas be more sustainable?


There is no single environmental solution that can be applied to all cities across the world. Each city has individual issues, needs and opportunities. Some of the common factors which must be considered are where cities obtain their energy and how it’s used. This ultimately trickles down into where people live and how they get around. Aims for sustainable urban development include the reduction of energy use, resources and utilisation of clean sources through improving the efficiency of systems such as transportation. The reuse and recycling of waste energy and materials in constructions. While there is no single technological magical bullet, cities can make significant reductions in the carbon emissions by using many different measures together.


Many cities can create cleaner energy within their boundaries but as they consume tons of energy it's very unlikely that most cities could be “self-sufficient”, though this is certainly an aim. Clean ways to generate energy in a city include using building design and solar thermal panels to heat buildings and water, using timber from local woodlands to generate low-carbon energy for heating, electricity generation, and transport fuels as well as tapping into geothermal energy. Affordability is a key issue here as the costs of clean energy can vary massively from one place to another depending on the landscape and geographical location.


Buildings often use the most energy and emit the biggest quantities of carbon in cities. We know creating efficient buildings (insulating walls, windows, and roofs, and using energy efficient lighting and heating systems) is often more cost effective and productive than generating green energy. New York and Singapore have shown how tiny steps such as painting roofs white and planting trees can reduce city temperatures and reduce city energy consumption significantly. In Scandinavian and Eastern European countries, hot water for heating is delivered to buildings through insulated pipes beneath the streets. The heat can be generated from highly efficient power stations that generate both electricity and heat, or use heat recovered from businesses such as breweries, bakeries, and distilleries. In the UK, Glasgow is fitting smart streetlights in some areas. Older yellow sodium street lights can be replaced with LED lights that can reduce emissions while making streets safer.


Transport systems are vital to the smooth running of a city, but they can also produce traffic jams, poor air quality, and gas emissions. The goal here is often to reduce the number of private cars on the roads though the tactics to achieve this differ everywhere. Edinburgh has one of the largest carpool apps in the UK, meaning households who subscribe don't necessarily own their own cars, but pay to use one only when they need it. Many flat European cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam encourage cycle commuting through cycles being given priority at traffic lights, easy access to bike lock ups on every street corner and in most apartment buildings, bike rails to help them up big sets of stairs and acceptance of bikes on trains. Cities like London and Singapore have created high-quality bus and underground rail systems, as well as low-emission zones where only electric vehicles are allowed. Many European cities also encourage e-bike rentals within city limits which can be used and left at many of the electronic docking stations all over the city.

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