Making cities more sustainable is a win on multiple levels. The benefits are numerous, and it’s exhilarating how improvement in one area can positively impact other areas as well. Join us on an excursion of the world's most sustainable cities and what makes them tick!
Our team is spread out across the globe, from a diversity of cultures and backgrounds. One thing we all share in common is that we live, or have lived, in a city. Love them or loathe them, for centuries cities have been a melting pot of people and cultures, combining different backgrounds and experiences, resulting in arts and culture, engines of economic growth with thriving businesses and institutions, and – perhaps most importantly – hotbeds for innovation.
Although cities only cover 4% of the earth's land area, they are home to more than half of the world's population. By 2030, that percentage will likely swell to 60%. The United Nations predicts that cities will absorb most of the world's population increase between now and 2050. By that time, it’s predicted 68% of people will live in a city.
As such a prominent feature of modern and future living, we’ve decided to delve into cities and how they will fit into humanity’s need to build a more sustainable world. In this piece, we’ll explore some of the key features and advantages of sustainable cities. In subsequent editorials, we’ll dive deeper into specific cities to discuss what makes them stand out in their sustainability efforts.
What makes a city sustainable?
According to the World Bank, sustainable cities are “resilient cities that are able to adapt to, mitigate, and promote economic, social, and environmental change.” Ultimately, for a city to develop sustainably, it must meet the demands of its present inhabitants without compromising those of the future. Some key areas of focus are transport, infrastructure, recycling, energy, food production, pollution, technology, education, housing, land use, culture, and commerce.
Surprise surprise, making cities more sustainable is a win on multiple levels. The benefits are numerous, and it’s exhilarating how improvement in one area can positively impact other areas as well. For example, improving air and water quality leads to improved overall health, resulting in happier, more productive citizens who contribute more to society.
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
― Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
These extra resources can then be used elsewhere, for example education. Such investments pay dividends in the long run. Simply, this is how cities thrive. Let’s not also forget that a lot of cities are situated on coastlines, and are vulnerable to rising sea levels and extreme weather, so combating issues such as climate change is very much in their interest.
Designing these cities of wonder
Cities come in all shapes and sizes, that’s part of the draw of visiting somewhere new, right? Each city has its own unique set of challenges to overcome and resources that can be utilised. What’s available in Dubai, for example ample sunlight, isn’t as abundant in London, which instead has ample fresh water. Innovation also comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, from both the public and private sectors. The impact of governmental policy, be that at a national, citywide or local level, cannot be understated. Focused efforts by governments along with municipal and city councils, working in partnership with institutions, organisations and citizens, this is by far the most effective way to push the envelope when it comes to sustainable initiatives.
As such, designing a city for sustainable living requires the combination of a wide range of skill sets, to create an integrated system of solutions that add up to a sustainable city. Sometimes the right ingredients in terms of resources, skills and, just as importantly, drive are there, and local governments can really take the initiative and put themselves at the vanguard of sustainability.
Top 5 world-leading sustainable cities
Copenhagen has pledged it wants to be the first carbon neutral city by 2025 – a joint operation between the mayor’s office, architects, tech companies and, of course, the city residents themselves. The results are a combo of relatively low-tech solutions, like bike lanes, and next-gen technologies such as state-of-the-art sensors tracking air quality.
Stockholm is also leading the way with regards to sustainability. 100% of the energy used comes from renewable sources and 99% of solid waste is recycled. The city has also introduced a number of initiatives such as the ‘Kranmärkt’ label, a label for businesses and organisations that choose tap water over bottled water (Stockholm’s tap water is amongst the cleanest in the world).
Outside of Europe, Vancouver has a long history of supporting climate action. Their Greenest City 2020 project launched in 2011 with the aim of making Vancouver the greenest city on earth. Citizens were encouraged to get involved by participating in surveys, and green grants are awarded to projects that will help the city achieve its goals. As a result, so far over 1000 projects have been funded and green jobs have increased by 35%. Also, significant upgrades have been made to the infrastructure to encourage cycling and connecting with nature.
4. San Francisco
San Francisco is a leader in waste reduction. Whilst on average the US sends 66% of its waste to landfill, San Fran sends only 20%. To achieve this, in 2009 the city made recycling and composting a requirement for all businesses and residences. They made it easy by installing containers for waste division in stores, restaurants, campuses, and residential streets, and building state-of-the-art recycling and composting facilities.
Singapore calls itself the garden city, one of its most recognisable landmarks being the alien-esque treelike structures called Gardens by the Bay. New developments must include plant life in the form of green roofs, living walls or vertical gardens. Due to space restrictions, nature is weaved between high rises, connecting a vast network of parks and public footpaths.
Stealing with pride
Whatever the sustainable initiative is, what’s cool is that innovations developed in one place can be replicated elsewhere, making cities around the world laboratories for change. Solutions don’t have to be super hi-tech either. Simply pedestrianising areas, not building new roads, or imposing taxes on private transportation are great examples.
We hope this article has given you a flavour of this fascinating and important topic. Cities are about people after all, so making them easier and nicer places to live together is an obvious course for sustainable development, as well as being conscious of the city’s wider impact on the environment.
Keep your eyes peeled for future articles on sustainable cities!
Check out what’s going on in your city, if you have an idea for improvement then talk to your local council or join an action group. And of course we want to hear how you get on. If you want us to feature your city, and your efforts, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll be on the lookout for your report.