For as long as humanity has become sedentary, cities have been built, conquered, destroyed, rebuilt, and grown. They have always been centers for progress, the arts, ideas, political power or symbols, and more.
Today, as humanity faces new challenges, cities have a key role in tackling them.
A sustainable city is a city designed with consideration for social, economic, and environmental impact and built to be resilient, without compromising the ability of future generations to experience the same conditions. It’s a city capable of lasting over time. And with today’s challenges such as climate change, high pollution levels, social inequalities, food insecurity and more, our cities cannot survive. They need to adapt and transform.
Here are some reasons why we should focus on building more sustainable cities.
#1. To help tackle climate change
“Climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying” as stated in the last IPCC report from August 2021.
Cities are a major part of the problem. According to the UN, cities consume 78 percent of the world’s energy and produce more than 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, they account for less than 2 percent of the Earth’s surface.
Making our cities sustainable means making them resilient to future climate conditions, stopping them from harming and pressuring biodiversity and preventing spread and emission of greenhouse gasses or pollutants.
Integrating climate change into the way we design and build our cities is the only way to make them thrive in the future.
To tackle climate change, our buildings have to be built and retrofitted from consuming energy to producing energy, our cities transportation systems have to be reorganized, and nature has to be brought back in order to help cities adapting to rising temperatures.
#2. To allow for a growing urban population
According to the UN, in 1990, there were 5.3 billion people on the planet, of which 43 percent were living in cities. Today, there is more than 7.5 billion inhabitants, 50 percent of us living in cities.
Forecasts estimate that the human population in 2050 will be close to 9.5 billion, with 70 percent of the population living in cities. This means that cities will have to welcome an additional 3 billion inhabitants in less than 30 years!
The future of humanity will be urban.
This staggering growth already causes many issues. According to UN Habitat, in 2021, a third of urban dwellers in developing countries are living in slums. Most of our cities today have inadequate urban infrastructure (health, education, etc.), in addition to a lack of basic services, such as water supply, sanitation, and waste management
This population growth and density is also responsible for environmental degradation, traffic congestion or pollution. Problems which can be solved by planning and organizing our cities in a sustainable way, by building adequate infrastructures and planning building and growth areas around them, or by planning the city so that each service or equipment of the city can be reached in a short time either by feet, bikes, or public transportation.
Our cities will definitely be larger and denser than today. It is in them that today’s and tomorrow’s challenges and problems will be solved and tackled, and the sustainable city approach is one of the best answers to the challenge.
#3. To bring back nature in cities
Cities have been built to protect humans from nature. They have been developed in opposition to nature, protecting humans from its threats, such as diseases, natural catastrophes, wildlife, etc.
Today, we are scientifically and technologically more advanced and more equipped to fight these threats. We have vaccines to prevent diseases and our constructions are advanced enough to withstand most natural events. Nowadays, in our post industrial and modern cities, the relationship between city dwellers and nature is at best rare and complicated, and at worst non existing. Scientific studies have recently proven that nature has lots of positive impacts on human beings’ physical and mental health.
Nature could also help cities tackle the coming threats linked to climate change, by implementing nature based solutions to tackle things like rising temperatures or floods.
Sustainable cities are integrating nature in their core, in order to profit from it on numerous levels.
We have to bring nature into cities, to change the nature of our cities.
#4. To fight inequalities
The environmental issues caused by cities and their fragility have raised efforts to promote solutions to tackle these issues, but less attention has been put on the social issues of our cities, which threatens their social sustainability.
Depending on their location, cities face different social issues and inequalities, such as inequalities of income and economic deprivation, violence, unequal distribution of urban mobility solutions and public and health infrastructures, food or water insecurity, and more.
Designing and building sustainable cities means creating infrastructure while integrating the whole population of cities. The urban periphery, often poor, has to be connected to the city centers and given access to the same services as the rest of the city.
It also means de-concentrating wealth and investing in all cities or all parts of a city, not only in major hubs or city centers where wealth accumulation leads to clustering of jobs and opportunities, rising prices and tends to wall off ever richer people from ever poorer populations.
Fixing inequalities through sustainable city solutions is a need for the future of our cities.
Developing, designing and building sustainable cities is a long term project that can be implemented today. It is not only an urban project, but also a political choice, allowing cities to organize their land and activities in order to have a positive impact on both the environment and the people.
Our future is going to be urban in this century. Sustainable cities are a tool to design and help cities become more equitable and thriving places for all.