Many people use the word “sustainability” as a blanket term to describe any effort to improve the environment without fully understanding what sustainability entails. Sustainability refers to the utilization of natural resources in such a fashion that everyone has what they need to care for their basic well-being without depriving future generations of the benefits the resource provides.
In short, sustainability means replacing resources we’ve depleted. On an individual level, improving sustainable practices means taking measures such as composting old food rinds and tea bags, investing in reusable grocery bags and cleaning rags and planting a new tree to replace one we chop down for lumber.
But when improving sustainability on a city-wide level, city planners must balance the needs of thousands, even millions, of current citizens with strategies that provide for growth. Those involved with or interested in improving their cities’ sustainability should keep the following things in mind.
Walking, Biking and Riding
Probably the most important issue facing city planners involves getting people from Point A to Point B without creating traffic gridlock. All solid city planning should involve expanding public transportation options to limit the number of vehicles sharing the roadway. Increased access to public transportation helps cities reduce pollution from car exhaust. Ensuring adequate bus, subway and light rail routes helps keep traffic flowing smoothly while limiting environmental impact.
Walking or riding a bike to travel releases no damaging chemicals into the air. Therefore city planners must create safe routes to pursue these activities. The better the walk score a city receives, the more sustainable the city is.
Housing and Waste Control
Many rapidly growing cities in the United States leave lower income individuals out in the cold when it comes to affordable housing. This impacts the cities’ environment in several ways.
Lack of affordable housing means an increase in the homeless population. This often results in increased littering in public areas such as parks when rangers can’t keep up with garbage collection quickly enough. The U.S. is also in the throes of an addiction epidemic like no other, leading to drug-related litter piling up in the streets. Since drug use often disproportionately affects the homeless population, these are all important factors that should be taken into account as we look to build more sustainable city frameworks.
Since homeless people also lack access to affordable medical care, contagious diseases often flourish throughout entire homeless camps creating a public health risk. To minimize homelessness and to simply treat our cities’ citizens better, city planners should encourage builders to balance the ratio of luxury high rises with that of low-income, subsidized housing. In addition, building codes should reflect preferences for greener building materials and ban the use of certain hazardous materials like asbestos. Excellent trash collection services should also be prioritized in budgeting.
In addition, many cities exist along natural waterways like oceans, lakes and rivers. City planners should set strict rules regarding what flows into these public waterways. Both industrial and agricultural wastes can render waterways unsafe for fishing or swimming. Likewise, cities should limit the use of recreational watercraft such as boats and jet skis to minimize fuel waste.
Proximity to Needed Services
Finally, easy access to necessary resources cuts pollution by allowing residents to fill their needs in nearby businesses instead of driving to the next city over. While this impacts small, developing cities the most, all city planners do well to encourage a variety of hair salons, child care resources and shopping destinations in close proximity to residential areas.
Creating a more sustainable city takes time and hard work. However, the payoff in terms of keeping the city a pleasant place for future residents makes the time and effort needed to switch to sustainable practices well worth it.