Sustainable Cities

black and white bikes
There’s a better chance at winning the lottery than finding a bike spot in Madison.

Whether or not bicyclists obey the bike light installed on the bike path near my apartment is up for debate. What’s important is that it’s there. As a new resident of a bustling city, I got to thinking what makes one place more sustainable than another. Determining factors of a sustainable city will vary depending on who you ask. If you ask me, an eco-friendly city needs these things:

  1. Public transportation. Transport that is accessible to residents across the socio-economic spectrum will lessen the amount of vehicles on the road, encourage ride shares, and subsequently decrease emissions. And when I’m talking transport, it needs to be reliable, fast, and fairly priced.
  2. Community-based city planning. As put by the Center for the Living City, this emphasizes “higher density in cities, short blocks, local economies and mixed uses”. Think how convenient it would be if you didn’t have to travel 45 minutes to get to work every day. Instead of worrying about traffic jams, you could make coffee and casually stroll down the street to your place of work. Most cities put the residential neighborhood, industrial sector, and entertainment businesses all in completely different locations. A sustainable city would hire an urban planner to merge the areas in which people “live, work, and play”, as The Center put it.
  3. Local economy. This goes to the aforementioned city planning, except it involves government policy. While intercontinental trade boosts the federal economy, local business is beneficial to everyone. People are able to purchase fresh foods and locally made products at a slightly lower price. Small business owners make more frequent sales and have less competition. Finally, less trucks and planes are required to get items to market. The government plays a role by providing incentives or designated locations for people to sell their products. For example, a “local only” farmer’s market will encourage local produce and set a standard for high-quality goods.
  4. Renewable energy. Sometimes, private companies and wealthy people are the only ones capable of investing in renewable energy. Towns that embrace sustainable energy by making it available to everyone have the future in mind.

A few sustainable cities that pop into my mind when I consider these factors are:

  • New York City. Hello, if you expected me not to include one of my favorite cities, you were hugely mistaken. Believe it or not, NYC is a sustainability heaven! The closely-knit skyscrapers, strict carbon emission standards, and up-and-coming environmental technologies make it the gold standard for the rest of the world. While the population has been on the rise, emissions have been decreasing and are now lower than America’s total emissions on average. Don’t believe me? Read up on this detailed DEC report.

    NYC emissions
    From the NYS Inventory of New York City Greenhouse Gas Emissions.
  • Melbourne, Australia. I cannot give this city enough praise. Although this part of Australia was inhabited since forever by the Kulin people, it was not established by Europeans for some time. After facing turmoil with war and unstable economy, it did not endure a solid population boom until recently. Melbourne is basically the new America. They’ve signed on to the Paris treaty, helped businesses switch to renewable energy, embraced biodiversity in a city teeming with people, and loads more. My favorite thing is probably the rainwater harvesting. Read more on Australia’s environmental efforts on the City of Melbourne website.
green roof
A green roof in Melbourne from Lunchbox Architect.
  • Tokyo, Japan. If you lived on an island, you’d probably rethink how you used the water supply and where you dumped your trash. Perhaps that’s why the people of this city are so forward-minded when it comes to environmental issues. You’ve probably heard about the famed zero-waste lunches in Japan. This is just one of many wholesome environmental movements the island has made for the better. See this website for more on waste disposal in Japan.
Picture from Kyodo News.

No modern cities meet all the sustainability criteria. Regardless, the potential for future cities to be built with these goals in mind is certainly there. I would also love to see sustainable suburbs and environmentally conscious farmlands. It’s a difficult prospect.

For example, I learned about a city that is entirely powered by renewable energy in Missouri. Then I discovered the little town of Rock Port, MO has a population of approximately 1,000 people, some of whom might reside outside county lines. No wonder the entire town can run on renewable energy. If someone could put the spotlight on suburbs where the majority of the US population lives, they would have cracked the code.

“Nationally, 26 percent of Americans described where they live as urban, 53 percent said suburban and 21 percent said rural.”  –

Where would you rank your town on the sustainability spectrum? Are there factors you think about that you don’t see here? Cities you’ve visited that set a precedent for environmentalism? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

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