Are cities the key to sustainability? It seems counterintuitive. Rural areas seem better positioned to be in balance with nature and achieve sustainability. Not true. We need to focus sustainability on cities.
The majority of people live in cities — ~ 4.3 billion people and growing.
The human population has expanded rapidly in the last 300 years. In 1800 there were 1 billion people. In 1950 there were 2.5 billion. Today there are 7.9 billion. The UN estimates that in 2100 the global population will be ~ 10.9 billion with a growth rate close to zero.
Urban migration is a worldwide phenomenon.
Today 55% of people are living in cities. By 2050, ~58% of people will live in cities. Urbanization is spread unevenly around the world. North America has 82% of its people living in urban areas, Latin America and the Caribbean have 81%, Europe has 74%, Oceania has 68%, Asia has 50%, and Africa has 43%.
The number of megacities is growing too.
Megacities each have more than 10 million inhabitants. The largest cities today are Tokyo (37 million), New Delhi (29 million), Shanghai (26 million), Mexico City (22 million), São Paulo (22 million), and many others close to 20 million. The world will likely have 43 megacities by 2030. At the same time, more than half the urban dwellers reside in settlements under 500,000.
Cities occupy only 2% of the landmass of earth, consume 75% of resources, and emit 75% of the global carbon dioxide.
Cities are both the driver of environmental impact and the key to transforming to sustainable living.
Sustainable cities need to be environmentally, socially, and economically healthy for all their citizens. At the same time, they need to make sure that they are not compromising the world for future generations.
High-density living is the easiest way to reduce the per capita footprint. Reorienting our cities around walking, biking, transit, and other sustainable practices is the winning strategy.
Cities and their citizens around the world are taking action in the following eight areas:
1. Energy – Energy production to transition to renewable energy delivered through the electric grid. Couple this with geothermal installations, household solar water heaters, rooftop solar arrays, and other green technologies. In the U.S. only 11% of the energy consumption is renewable energy. We have a long way to go. Energy fuels our lives. Moving to renewable energy would reduce CO2 emissions dramatically. Some of the technology exists but much more is needed. Shout out to the renewable energy companies and people designing long-lasting, low-cost batteries for cars and homes.
2. Water – Safe and adequate supply of fresh clean water is available. State-of-the-art infrastructure filters, stores, and distributes water to citizens while protecting water sources. Today we have almost casual use of plastics and toxic chemicals that end up in our water and our land. At the same time, ~663 million people around the world lack access to water sources. We need to stop turning a blind eye to how we pollute precious resources and make them safe for people and nature. Shout out to New York City for its forward-thinking water supply and infrastructure.
3. Solid Waste – Garbage everywhere. What can we do? We can transition from a ‘buy and trash’ culture to a more sustainable approach.
Reduce Waste. Stop the use of single-use plastic, bags, bottles, straws, and so on. Did you know that every plastic toothbrush is still in the landfill and will be there for another 2000+ years?
Reuse. There used to be a time when we were proud of something that lasted. Buy products that last.
Recycle and Composting. Like nature in a circular economy, things are not waste. They are the input into something else. Composting your food scraps becomes fertile soil to grow plants. Recycling can be tricky as less than 10% of plastic is not recycled even though you place it in the recycling bin. Everything does not get recycled. It is best to check it out and reduce it as much as possible. Check out our blog, Why is Plastic a Problem?
Energy Recovery, Treatment & Disposal – State of the art waste management processes. Shout out to San Francisco as they work towards a zero-waste goal. They have already diverted 80% of their waste from landfills.
4. Sewage – Advanced sewage systems will handle wastewater and rainwater with minimal impact on the environment. The infrastructure is getting old. New treatments based on levels of purification are needed. Instead of mixing rainwater in the sewer systems, cities are leveraging green-designs that mimic natural systems to manage rainwater where it falls. Shout out to Fourth Ward in Atlanta — they built the Clear Creek Basin servers as a stormwater run-off reservoir. This 2-acre detention pond with the surrounding park has dramatically reduced flooding in the nearby neighborhoods. And it is a lovely park to take a nature walk.
5. Food – Urban environments depend on industrial farming. It has a high environmental impact. As people moved into cities, we lost the connection with our food chain. In the 1900s about 40% of Americans worked agriculture. Today only a little more than 1% work in agriculture. Shopping at a local farmers’ market or growing your vegetables can increase your connection to food production. Some food production damages the ecosystem more than others — with beef and other meats being the most destructive. Fertilizers and pesticides used in growing crops end up in our waterways and the ocean. We need to transition to sustainable farming practices. As a consumer, changing your diet can reduce your footprint and increase your health — certain foods contribute to obesity, diabetes, and other diseases. Some cities are exploring urban farming. Shout out to Atlanta — transformed a former food desert into a 7-acre food forest to provide its citizens with free veggies and fruits. A sustainable city will need to have nutritious food security for all.
6. Transportation – People need to easily travel from one place to another for work, education, medical services, and entertainment. Moving away from the need for an individual to have a vehicle to public transportation fuels renewable sources benefits for all. Personal transportation moves to electric. The growing population can move around effectively and safely while reducing air pollution. In the U.S., transportation accounts for 70% of petroleum consumption and 27% of greenhouse gas. Shout out to all cities creating bike lanes and operating bike-share systems.
7. Green Design & Building – Designing our cities for people to flourish. One way to think about this is to design walkable cities that reduce the need for cars — and are safer, healthier, joyful, and better for the environment. Automobiles become obsolete — and people travel by bikes, walking, or renewable energy fueled public transportation. Buildings and streets are constructed with sustainable materials; housing is attainable; parks and green space are everywhere; all this plus lighting and layout work together to make cities interesting, vibrant, and safe. There are great examples of this around the world. Check out the International Living Future Institute to view buildings in cities around the world that are both sustainable and beautiful. Shout out to Atlanta –The Kendeda Building at Georgia Tech is among the greenest buildings in the world. This building is regenerative. Each year the photovoltaic system supplies over 200% of its energy needs. It gives back more than it takes.
8. Consumer Changes – Stepping away from the fast product/fashion and trash culture. Simplify life by reducing our consumption of things. Buying products from ethical companies with high levels of sustainability. We think the book The Sustainable City describes the future best. “Consumer items remain valued, but they become means rather than ends. Consumption becomes more oriented toward services and entertainment, travel, experiences, and less oriented toward possessing manufactured products. Such products become commodities in the sustainable city, providing the necessities of life, but no longer serving as self-justifying goals.” Read our book summary. Environmentally conscious consumers can drive the shift.
Cities around the world are transforming. To dramatically reduce climate change impact, we need to accelerate this transformation.
At the same time, we need to keep each city’s unique cultural identity and vibe. There are many solutions available, and the journey will be different for each city. It will require individuals, organizations, companies, and governments to transform to sustainability.
Want to learn more? Here are our recommended reads:
The Ideal City – Exploring Urban Futures by Space10 gestalten
The Sustainable City – Second Edition by Steven Cohen and Guo Dong
Walkable City Rules – 101 Steps to Making Better Places By Jeff Speck
If the World Were a Village – Second Edition Written By: David J Smith
Illustrated By: Shelagh Armstrong