“Half of humanity—3.5 billion people—live in cities today, and this number will continue to grow. Because the future will be urban for a majority of people, the solutions to some of the greatest issues facing humans— poverty, climate change, healthcare, education— must be found in city life. “
Hello again folks!
Today I want to talk about the UN Sustainable goal number 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities. In many ways, cities are the real heart of our civilizations. Over half of all people live in cities, but cities are also responsible for a huge amount of energy, resource, and carbon emissions. As the facts and figures of this SDG point out;
The world’s cities occupy just 3 per cent of the Earth’s land, but account for 60-80 per cent of energy consumption and 75 per cent of carbon emissions” (UN SDG 11)
More than this, the percentage of people living is cities is estimated to increase over the course of the century. This poses significant challenges to building a sustainable and renewable world. Thankfully, there is a quite a bit that can be done to improve and retrofit our cities and create a civilization that is truly sustainable in the long run.
There are a lot of specific solutions that we will get into, but first I would like for you to use your imagination for a bit. I want you to picture a city with green roofs on every building, from the smallest structures up to massive skyscrapers. Imagine that some of these skyscrapers are not offices or hotels, but vertical food farms or urban forestry towers. These structures along with food forests and urban gardens throughout the city provide large amounts of fresh produce for local markets and restaurants. In addition, the greenery absorbs and sequesters carbon dioxide, and overall improves air and water quality.
Imagine too that these buildings have been built or retrofitted with sustainable materials, such as wood and alternative concretes. In addition, each building could have a net zero carbon impact, our could be a “living building” that creates more energy then it produces. Rooftops and carports could be lined with solar panels, or windows might actually create solar power.
The entire city would be powered by renewable energy.
From high atop one of these towers, you see an endless sea of greenery, from trees to plenty of accessible parks. More than this, the vehicles on the streets are fully electric, powered by a complex sustainable grid system. Far off in the distance you can see wind turbines that help to power the city.
The entire project has been a reintergration of humanity and nature, in which the forests and the wilds have returned to the city. Moreso, the city has become an integral part of the landscape, a part of nature and not separate from it.
Does this sound like pie in the sky, something form science fiction? What if I told you this isn’t some pipe dream? What if I told you that truly sustainable cities was possible, and with the technology of today.
It is possible, but it will also take a lot of collective work by everyone. Individual actions are great, but they are not enough. It will take a change in spirit, in culture, in policy, and in the direction of our planet as a whole.
And it starts with you and your city. Each and every one.
How you ask?
Let’s explore that a little deeper.
It should be stated right off that there is no such thing as a perfect solution. Every single idea we propose is going to have flaws, or is going to be outside of the realm of the possible. That being said, 193 countries have agreed upon the SDG’s, and I think it represents some of the more realistic options available to humanity.
These goal represent a collective agreement to give it our best shot, and I believe we can do this.
“By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums.”
Affordable housing is a big deal, especially with the rising costs of living in many cities. These kinds of costs displace people, or price people out of a given city. It also can increase homelessness, and contribute to the many problems associated with segregation. In my personal opinion, everyone should have the ability to have shelter. Now, there are a lot of different ways to do that, from low income housing options through ideas like Universal Basic Income. What each city will need to implement is the policies and practices best fit for their situation.
“By 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons.”
I think that this one speaks for itself. We need to be building more sustainable infrastructure for transportation; especially in the realm of public and mass transport. These solutions not only are necessary for sustainable communities, but also for the most vulnerable and marginalized. New electric vehicles do nothing for people who cannot afford them, but electric buses and trains might.
“By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries.”
To me, this one speaks for the need for democratic methods of government and planning. The ability for the people of each city to decide what is best practice for their communities, and for the plans for each community to be sustainable as possible. Sustainable urban planning needs to account for disaster resiliency, the needs of the masses, and the needs of the environment. Urban planning that ignores flood plains or wild fires is not sustainable.
By 2030, reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management.”
This is a big one, as we all need to be doing the best we can to lower our environmental impact per person. Air quality is very poor in many cities, and there is more we can do individually as well as collectively that can make our air cleaner and more breathable. Waste Engagement is also a big issue, as the growing number of plastics in our landfills and in our oceans is a serious concern. Recycling and circular economic production standards should be the rule, not the exception.
“By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.”
We need more parks, more urban forests, more community gardens, all of it. Public parks and forests are vital to reintegrating ecosystems into our city systems, and it is an important step in transition from “grey” to “green” cities. The impact of more trees alone would be substantial in creating healthier and cleaner environments.
“By 2020, substantially increase the number of cities and human settlements adopting and implementing integrated policies and plans towards inclusion, resource efficiency, mitigation and adaptation to climate change, resilience to disasters, and develop and implement, in line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, holistic disaster risk management at all levels.”
As this target mostly speaks for itself, I am going to let it stand as is.
This gives us at least some ideas on how we may be able to push policies and implementation of crucial sustainability solutions. It is important to note that quite a bit of work towards sustainable cities is already being done.
As such, let’s look at a few examples from northern Europe.
Take a look at the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index and notice that two Nordic cities, Stockholm and Copenhagen appear in the top twenty. There is a lot of data in that index, spread across three major pillars; People, Environmental, and Economic. I invite you to browse that information more thoroughly.
In addition, the Sieman’s Green City Index has Copenhagen at #1, Stockholm as #2, Oslo at #3 and Helsinki at #7 on it’s overall ranking of green cities. It should however be noted that this index is from 2009, so represents dated information.
I feel it is safe to conclude then that these cities are on the right track, and can serve as models for cities across the globe. So the question then becomes; what are they doing that justifies such a high ranking? There is a lot of information in the Green City Index, so just like the previous link, please look it over for yourself. But let’s look at a few points covered in the Green City Index, and then more specifically at the four Nordic cities at the top of the list.
– There is a strong correlation between cities and the wealth they have at hand. This should come as no surprise, as wealth translates to the ability to invest in expertise and sustainable infrastructure. It is true that many of the cities in the index have quite the GDP at their disposal. But it is also notable that cities like those in the North have strong redistribution and taxation programs instead of the US’s obsession with “trickle down”.
– There is little correlation between city size and how well it does on the index. Though it is important to note that physically smaller cities make it easier for things such as biking or walking.
– Cities with an active civil society tended to perform well. There is a strong connection between the voluntary participation of citizens in organizations and how well that city performed in the index.
– Stemming from the last point, there is a decent correlation between citizen engagement and environmental performance. This is at the democratic governance level, as well as the local level. Sustainability is the result of collective action.
– Cities can approach sustainable development through a diverse range of options, ranging from policy and environmental governance, to volunteering and other organizations.
– Technology will be a factor in creating sustainable cities, implemented through all levels of government as well as individual actions of residents.
– Education and public awareness are very important to the development of sustainable cities. When people are given the necessary information, they can make greener choices. This cascades through all levels of society.
With all that in mind, let’s look the top Nordic performers; Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo and Helsinki.
“Copenhagen achieves the highest ranking in the European Green City Index, with a score of 87.31 out of 100. The city performs well in all eight categories of the index, and is ranked joint first in the environmental governance subcategory. Successive governments at both national and municipal level have strongly supported the promotion of sustainable development.
Copenhagen is at the top of the list as far as this index is concerned. Not only does support for sustainable development come from both national and local governments, Copenhagen also ranks real high for low C02 emissions, energy efficient buildings, and renewable energy.
This city also has an ambitious plan to be carbon neutral by 2025, and part of this initiative is carbon-neutral neighborhoods; a partnership between public as well as private agencies.
“Stockholm is ranked second in the European Green City Index, with a score of 86.65 out of 100. The city does particularly well in the areas of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, buildings, transport, air quality and environmental governance. It shares a number of characteristics with its Nordic neighbours, Copenhagen, Oslo and Helsinki (all of which rank highly in the index); these include a plentiful supply of water, a lack of heavy industry and a long tradition of policies aimed at protecting the environment.”
Stockholm is second only to Copenhagen as far as the index is concerned. As the quote above points out, this city does quote well for low CO2, and transportation. In fact 75% of the city’s public transport runs on renewable energy. Some of the buildings in Stockholm are some of the most energy efficient in the world.
“Oslo is ranked third overall in the European Green City Index, with a score of 83.98 out of 100. It is also the best-performing city in terms of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, largely because of the use of hydroelectricity to power rail-based public transport.”
Olso takes the cake for having low CO2 emissions, in addition to the city getting nearly 70% if it’s energy from renewable sources. Strong environmental policies from the city council have noticeable affects on sustainability.
“Helsinki ranks in seventh place in the European Green City Index, with a score of 79.29 out of 100. Helsinki is ranked fourth among the Nordic cities, largely because of its relatively high carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and energy consumption, even though the city is a leader in energy efficiency. “
Helsinki, while scoring lower than other Nordic cities, still rounds out the top ten. While it puts out more CO2 than the others and has more work to do in terms of energy, Helinski ranks real high in energy efficient as well as environmental governance.
As always, there is a lot more information to be found out there, but for now I want to move to the Drawdown section of this piece. I have talked a lot about renewables energy, and energy efficiency, and clean transportation. You might be wondering what exactly those kind of ideas look like.
Well, let’s explore that too.
Now comes the part where we get into the real nitty gritty of how to create sustainable cities. There are countless numbers of interconnected solutions presented by Drawdown, and as per usual I encourage you to visit the site yourself because there is no way I am going to be able to cover them all.
This is because cities are really complex, and the specifics on the ground will vary from city to city; based on needs and on environment. We also need to be honest about cities, in that in many ways they are resource pits. As was pointed out earlier in this article, cities use the bulk of energy on the planet. They also require constant supplies from concrete, to metals, to food, and countless others resources besides. Over half of our population lives in cities, and that requires constant inputs.
That means there are countless of different ways to create sustainable cities, and that this can and needs to happen on every scale of society. From individuals up to the international level, our cities are deeply interconnected with each other and with their environment. The only way to truly create sustainable cities is in a holistic and systemic fashion.
As has already been pointed out, cities are resource pits. You need wood, steel, glass, concrete, and other materials for building. You need (currently) fossil fuels to power transportation and industries, as well as to just keep the lights on. Plastics, electronics, and on and on and on. The resource requires are immense, and so sustainable cities starts with using sustainable materials.
Alternative Cement and Bioplastics would be a great start. The current processes we use for both requires huge amounts of energy during processing as well as fossil fuels as raw materials. Long string polymers for biodegradable plastics are found in natures, such as cellulose and chitins. More than that, we should design productions for a circular lifecycle, instead of for the dump. If we build our products and buildings to last, and then to be recycled or bidegraded at the end of life, we would be off to a good start.
Recycling is an obvious step as well. At the individual , industrial, as well as materials such as paper, recycling is a vital part of the process. Comprehensive municipal recycling programs are an integral part of the sustainability equation, as well as designing products to be recycled in the first place.
One of the large factors in energy use and emission is heating and cooling, and the includes refrigerant management. In fact, managing refrigerants it the number one solution according to Drawdown, and will help to keep almost 90 gigatons of CO2 out of the air.
Buildings and Cities
Building scale solutions are vitally important to creating sustainable cities, and there is plenty of diverse ways to retrofit and redesign cities of the future. Some of the more impactful solutions include energy efficiency and heat management. This includes solutions such as insulation and LED lightings for both households and commercialentities.
Much of the green construction applies to new buildings, but cities are not made of just new buildings. Many cities have been around for hundreds of years, and have many old buildings and historic districts. That is which retrofitting is so important for old buildings.
That said, imagine new construction being a mosaic of many of the different solutions present here. New buildings could be net-zero buildings, buildings that create as much energy as they use. An entire city could be constructed of buildings like this, and combined with urban farming and forestry, it is possible to envision a city that meets most of its energy and food requirements in a self-sufficient manner.
Some solutions are bigger than any one building, and need to be implemented across several buildings, communities and neighborhoods. These include things such as water and heating infrastructure, as well as transportation.
One of most impactful solutions is district heating, several buildings have their heating and cooling needs met by a central facility, cutting down on the need for distributed heating systems and the energy inefficiencies that result. Copenhagen is a global model for DHC’s sytems, as it now meets 98% of its heating requirements with the world’s largest system.
Water distribution is very energy intensive, and efficiency here can reduce not only the monetary costs, but the energy costs as well. Huge amounts of electricity are wasted pumping water through leaking systems or outdated infrastructure.
Our current economic system is incredibly wasteful, so inevitably a lot of what we use ends up in landfills. A sustainable city will have to get rid, to the best of its ability, such waste. A lot of reductions can be found in designing products to be durable, reusable, and easily recyclable at the end of life. Following all the solutions of Drawdown, landfill waste should reduce from the change in diets, waste reduction, and comprehensive recycling and composting programs. Some more waste can turned into energy from waste-to-energy plants (rememeber, this is a regrets solution), but some will still reach the landfill. Landfill methane extraction can help to recapture some lost energy, and turn it into energy for limited use.
Cities require the movement of people and materials in an out of the city, and as such transportation is an important aspect to creating a sustainable city.
The most obvious solutions are those that reduce the demand for inner-city transportation in the first place, such as walkable and bikable infrastructure. It can help too if some of those bikes are electric, as it is one of the most environmental forms of motorized transport on the planet.
Yet, it has to be said that biking or walking isn’t always the ideal form of transporation. If greater distances are involved, sometimes cars and trains are a better option. If a lot of cargo is involved, trucks, trains and ships come into play. This implies a radical need to redesign our transportation systems. Shorter distances between extraction and production can go a long way, as can localizing everything we can, be it food or manufacturing. But not every city is built on a iron mine, or near a stone quarry, so sometimes that transportation has to happen.
Therefore, the most impact we can have is by implementing forms of electric vehicles. Electric vehicles now means I am mostly talking about passenger cars, but in the future it will need to include all vehicles from cars to ships, and charged on a renewable grid. All of these options are being developed.
Other important solutions for cities includes the electrification and expansion of mass transit, as this keeps unneeded vehicles off the road. This solutions includes both buses as well as subways and passenger trains.
For connecting cities together, especially in the US, one of our best options is high speed rail, as it is fully electric and can help connect cities together across long distances.
Most of our heavy shipping relies on trucks, trains, and ships. In the short term, we need to be doing everything we can to increase efficient fuel use on these vehicles, from greater fuel efficiency, to aerodynamics, to hybrid fuel systems. In the long term these methods would be fully electric as well, in some form or another. A lot of work is being done here, and several companies have already ordered Tesla electric trucks for their fleets. It’s a step in the right direction.
For long distance travel, planes obviously come into play. There are savings and efficiencies to be gained here, and in the long term we can only imagine what the next generation aircraft may well look like. It is possible that future aircraft may be fully electric as well.
It would not be fair to end this post without some consideration of what is on the horizon. I want you to imagine, just for a second, a city created from living buildings. Picture a city build of buildings that create their own energy, their own food, and are built from sustainable materials such as wood. These are fully self-sufficient buildings that recycle water, collect rain water, create their own solar and renewable energy, and grow their own food. What would a city built of these kind of structures look like?
We don’t have to imagine, because some examples are already being built.
More than that, we could have cities built of sustainable materials, powered by renewable energy, and driven by electrified transportation. Our electric grid is considered to be one of the most complex and intergrated machine on the planet. Imagine for a second if it were a smart grid, that could help manage and balance demand and energy use across the network. Aside from the grid, electric (autonomous) transporation could also be running on smart highways.
Think about it.
Thanks for reading!
(From Plug In Magazine)