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What is a sustainable city and why are they important?

    Have you ever heard of the term sustainable city? With the impacts of climate change being felt in waves across the globe, it is no surprise that people and corporations are coming up with more and more ways for the population to live sustainably. One of these is the idea of a ‘sustainable city’, and in this article I’ll dive into exactly what that is, and why these cities are so important for the future of our planet.

    What is a sustainable city?

    What is a sustainable city and why are they important?

    A sustainable city is essentially a city area which has been designed with sustainability in mind; through its daily existence, it actively reduces climate impact while promoting sustainable consumption within the city itself. These cities also aim to be much less susceptible to the general (and unpreventable) impacts of climate change. A sustainable city is one which is designed with the three pillars of sustainability in mind: social equity, economic viability, and environmental protection. 

    In the United Nations’ list of Sustainable Development Goals, number 11 is to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Their aim is to make *all* cities safer and more sustainable, and as such there is not really any set definition of ‘a sustainable city’ – it is not an official merit of any sort, more a descriptor which certainly exists across a spectrum. I will look at this spectrum throughout this blog post, examining what makes a city sustainable and why any of this matters.

    What makes a city sustainable?

    What is a sustainable city and why are they important?

    Again there is no set criteria – there is no way of ticking some boxes and being awarded the status of a sustainable city. There is no official definition, as mentioned, but there are various ways to make a city (more) sustainable…

    Public transportation

    There are two arms to this when it comes to a sustainable city; encouraging the use of public transport, and also making sure the public transport available is more sustainable in itself. Cars are a huge polluter, and having so many vehicles on the road isn’t healthy for a city. By encouraging inhabitants to use trains and buses, for example, this reduces the number of cars on the road and therefore the number of harmful emissions.

    Schemes like the UK’s Park and Ride as well as the implementation of congestion charges in certain (densely populated) cities are really important for this. Encouraging the use of cycling by ensuring there are safe cycle lanes, as well as promoting walking as both a free and healthy option, are further ways to improve sustainability.

    And public transport itself needs to be sustainable and eco-friendly. Electrifying public transport, for example, means that there are less emissions, better air quality, and lower noise levels across cities. This is much better for sustainability!

    Air conditioning 

    In cities where the temperature regularly reaches high enough numbers to require the use of air conditioning, there are things that can be done to combat this. Air conditioning, according to The Guardian, uses 10% of global electricity – and units often leak gases into the atmosphere which contribute to global warming. But by planting more trees and painting buildings in lighter colours, for example, as well as creating more green spaces, cities can reverse the ‘heat island effect’ caused by having a lot of tarmac and dark-coloured ground/building space. This effect makes cities and urban areas hotter than rural areas by around 6 degrees celsius.

    Renewable energy

    Of course, one of the major factors in fighting climate change is the use of renewable energy rather than traditional (and finite) energy sources. Adding solar panels to buildings is one way to do this, and additionally the use of wind turbines is great. Cities and their inhabitants create a lot of sewage, and really sustainable cities are able to treat and use this sewage to create biogas which in turns creates heat and electricity! This circular method is one which really represents what it means to be a sustainable city.

    What is a sustainable city and why are they important?

    Agricultural improvements

    When we think of agriculture, we generally think of rural areas. But in sustainable cities, there is space for various types of agricultural areas (such as urban farms) which means food can be grown and produced in the city itself. This leads to a huge reduction in the ‘field to fork’ distance (i.e how far food has to travel from where it is made, to where it is eaten). It can be hard as an inner-city inhabitant to eat sustainably, but this is one way of combating that in a sustainable city.

    Access to public resources

    When we talk about sustainability, we are often focusing just on being eco-friendly. But when we look at the three pillars of sustainability, as mentioned earlier, these incorporate the economy and social aspects too. Access to public resources such as libraries, healthcare, schools, the judicial system and so on is SO important for maintaining social equity. Allowing everyone equal opportunities to not only function but thrive within a city is one major part of making it sustainable. Happy, healthy inhabitants are vital.

    Waste management

    Waste management is a huge factor in sustainability. Giving people the option to recycle is so important, and this can be hard when there is not a massive amount of space to dedicate to waste and recycling plants. But there are ways around this! In various German cities, for example, public bottle recycling bins across the city reward people with a small monetary compensation when they deposit a plastic bottle. Often, people will give their bottles to the homeless to deposit so they can benefit from the money – which is an example of people working together to make small improvements to the place where they live and the people who reside within.

    Ensuring that household waste is well-managed is really important, too. Sustainable cities need to make sure that rubbish from peoples’ homes is collected regularly, and managed effectively – for example, not dumped in landfill!

    Some big names in the field of ‘sustainable cities’

    What is a sustainable city and why are they important?

    When discussing sustainable cities and how to ensure they work, it is important to also look at who the leaders in the field are – or at least, who the big thinkers are. Some important names to know are:

    • Richard Register, who coined the term ‘ecocity’ and later went on to found the company Ecocity Builders. He has decades of experience in city design and planning, and works with environmentalists and developers in order to build better cities.
    • Paul F Downton, an ecological architect who has written extensively about eco cities and the various theories behind them; he has been described as an ‘urban evolutionary’.
    • Steffan Lehmann, an architect known for his innovative work in advancing sustainable architecture and design.
    • Baharash Bagherian, CEO of Baharash Architecture who are the lead designers of the Dubai Sustainable City.

    There are of course plenty of other people involved in the theory, creation, design and implementation of a sustainable city – but these are just some of the big names to know!

    The world’s most sustainable cities

    There are various cities across the globe that are often labelled as being really sustainable. Let’s have a look at each of them, as listed by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and Arcadis, an engineering company…

    1. Oslo
    2. Stockholm
    3. Tokyo
    4. Copenhagen
    5. Berlin
    6. London
    7. Seattle
    8. Paris
    9. San Francisco
    10. Amsterdam

    Let’s look a little deeper into the top five!

    Oslo – the most sustainable city

    Oslo comes in at the number one spot as the most sustainable city, labelled as a climate leader. It uses electric public transport en masse, hydropower, district heating from municipal waste incinerators, incentivised use of electric vehicles, a low carbon footprint and good air quality amongst many other factors. They aim to cut their carbon emissions by 95% by the time we reach 2030, compared to their 1990 levels.

    What is a sustainable city and why are they important?


    The first-ever European Green Capital, Stockholm has the world’s first carbon neutral airport and one of the best public transport systems worldwide; it is also one of the most walkable cities, reducing the need for transportation of any kind. Stockholm has some of the cleanest tap water in the world too, reducing the need for people to buy single-use bottled water; it is definitely a sustainable city!


    Stepping out of Europe, Tokyo is regarded as one of the world’s most sustainable cities; one initiative is the Ginza Honey Bee Project, with 30,000 bees living on top of one of the city’s skyscrapers. Bees are integral for a thriving ecosystem. All of the city’s energy is being replaced with renewable energy, and there are rules in place for buildings to help curb climate impact. There is also a tax in place for companies who create too many emissions.


    Copenhagen aims to be carbon neutral by 2025, one of the earliest targets of any city; their energy-use is efficient, and the public transport system is great. This sustainable city also really encourages cycle use, with brilliant infrastructure in place; they also work hard to preserve green spaces and prevent the aforementioned heat island effect. Copenhagen is retrofitting a lot of public buildings too – replacing old windows, improving insulation, adding solar panels and so on – to modernise buildings for energy efficiency without ruining them.


    There are a lot of aspects that make Berlin a sustainable city; many of their restaurants work in conjunction with organic farms to reside food scraps, the city has solar-powered ferries, bike & footpaths can be found all over. Public transport is really well maintained, and there are a lot of green spaces across the city. Sustainable fashion is a huge part of life in Berlin, too!

    Why do sustainable cities matter?

    Sustainable cities are so important if we want a chance to prolong healthy life on this planet. The human population has, over the years, damaged the planet in many ways – some are irreparable but by developing sustainable cities we can put things in place to prevent any further damage from being done. 

    As I’ve touched upon, sustainability isn’t just about the health of the planet – it also relates to people. Social equity is super important, and sustainable cities mean healthy and happy people. Encouraging inhabitants of sustainable city to walk rather than drive, for example, is twofold: it’s good for the environment but it is beneficial for people, getting their blood pumping and allowing them to breathe in fresh air as they get from A to B.

    Active Sustainability says, sustainable cities and communities have the potential to transform the current rate of climate change, biodiversity loss and social stress. They can catalyze transformation through innovation, education, employment, the economy, entertainment and cultural interaction. And this is so true!

    Key takeaways about sustainable cities

    As you can see, sustainable cities are on the rise around the world as the concept of sustainability becomes ever-more prominent. Here are the key points to note about sustainable cities.

    1. Sustainable cities are designed to minimize environmental impacts while promoting economic growth and social equity.
    2. Sustainable cities use resources efficiently, reduce waste and emissions, and protect natural resources.
    3. Urban areas are responsible for about 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions, making sustainable cities critical to addressing climate change.
    4. Sustainable cities prioritize public transportation, walking, and cycling over private vehicles to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution.
    5. Green spaces, such as parks and gardens, are essential components of sustainable cities, providing benefits such as reducing the urban heat island effect, improving air quality, and enhancing biodiversity.
    6. Sustainable cities prioritize renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and hydro power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve energy security.
    7. Sustainable cities prioritize green building practices, such as energy-efficient construction materials and designs, to reduce energy use and promote sustainable living.
    8. Sustainable cities promote sustainable agriculture and local food systems, which reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and provide access to healthy, fresh food.
    9. Sustainable cities prioritize waste reduction and management, including recycling and composting, to minimize the amount of waste sent to landfills.
    10. Sustainable cities engage in sustainable planning and governance practices, which involve collaboration between local governments, businesses, and residents to create sustainable policies and programs that benefit the entire community.

    Sustainable city FAQs

    Naturally, people have a lot of questions about sustainable cities. Lets take a look at some of the most common.

    What are the benefits of sustainable cities?

    Sustainable cities provide a range of benefits, including improved air and water quality, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, enhanced biodiversity, better public health, increased economic opportunities, and improved quality of life for residents.

    How can I contribute to creating a sustainable city?

    Individuals can contribute to creating sustainable cities by using public transportation, walking, or cycling instead of driving, conserving energy and water at home, supporting local businesses that use sustainable practices, and advocating for sustainable policies and programs at the local government level.

    How do cities incorporate sustainability into their planning and development?

    Cities incorporate sustainability into their planning and development through a variety of strategies, including setting targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, promoting green building practices, supporting public transportation and alternative modes of transportation, preserving green spaces and natural resources, and engaging with stakeholders to ensure that sustainability is integrated into all aspects of urban planning and development.

    What are some examples of sustainable cities?

    There are many examples of sustainable cities around the world, including Copenhagen, Denmark; Curitiba, Brazil; Portland, Oregon; Singapore; and Stockholm, Sweden. These cities prioritise sustainable transportation, green spaces, renewable energy, and sustainable building practices to minimise their environmental impact and improve quality of life for residents.

    What challenges do cities face in becoming more sustainable?

    Cities face a range of challenges in becoming more sustainable, including financial constraints, political opposition, lack of public awareness and support, and difficulty in implementing sustainable policies and programs at a large scale. However, many cities are making progress in overcoming these challenges and moving towards more sustainable and livable futures.

    Sustainable cities- To conclude

    Sustainable cities are just one way that we can better live on this planet and with each other. If you enjoyed reading about what makes a sustainable city, read these posts next: