How Can We Make Our Cities More Sustainable?

Effective techniques can ensure the sustainability of our cities for decades to come

Whether it’s a small town or a massive metropolitan area (Miami pictured), our urban spaces can and must be managed effectively. Photo by Chris6d.

A city is a complex organization of urban spaces containing essential functions for its populace, and there are a plethora of ways cities can be both efficient and sustainable. The concept of urban sustainability revolves around this very idea, that cities can be made sustainable through proper methods.

There are a wide variety of factors which influence our perspectives and approaches towards urban sustainability. This includes the use of numerous models such as the Just Sustainability Paradigm, approaches to the Carbon Cycle, the promotion of a common good such as transit equity, and their involvement in the choices we make about sustainability indicators. When all of these aspects are combined, they work in unison to influence the way we make decisions about urban areas.

The first method which can be used to promote the sustainability of our urban spaces is called the Just Sustainability Paradigm. Chances are you’ve never heard of this, and it sounds like a super-complicated term, but it really isn’t. The Just Sustainability Paradigm is one of the most commonly-used urban sustainability models, and is arguably the most equitable. The primary purpose of this method is to encourage sustainable development in urban areas regardless of the physical attributes of the people in its area.

In other words, this method promotes sustainable development and access to opportunity in all areas of an urban space equally, or at least tries to. Oftentimes, urban areas were racially divided and minority areas were offered less funding, resulting in those areas becoming poorer. The Just Sustainability Paradigm, called the egalitarian conception of sustainable development, attempts to correct those wrongs by promoting sustainability in those areas, discouraging ethnic and racial differences in our urban spaces.

The Just Sustainability Paradigm revolves around the ability to promote sustainable development across urban spaces as promoted by all peoples. It is important because it diverts away from the previous methods of urban planning which often involved government and corporate corruption, racism and prejudice, by highlighting the pivotal role that justice and equity could and should play within sustainability discourses.

This model allows for the promotion of urban development for all races, classes and ethnicities; as such, it can teach us the importance of treating all areas of an urban space fairly, regardless of the race or ethnicity of the area. This is especially important because areas of cities previously denied major services due to their minority populations are now seeing promotions of growth, including new public transit services and other transportation options, thus creating sustainability not just in certain, more white areas, but across the whole of the urban area.

Many of America’s highway systems, when built, willfully segregated neighborhoods. Photo by Humza Deas.

When the sustainability of our urban spaces is analyzed, its impact in regards to the Carbon Cycle must be addressed. Systems Approaches to the Carbon Cycle refers to a method of attempting to observe and understand how to reduce our carbon footprint. This approach involves using a systems approach to reducing our carbon footprint, by analyzing carbon-heavy areas of our urban spaces, such as industrial zones, and learn how to control and reduce the overall output.

According to David Griggs, professor and director of the Monash Sustainability Institute at Monash University in Victoria, Australia, this approach may include “targets on clean air that build on World Health Organization guidelines for pollutants such as black carbon; [and] reductions in emissions of stratospheric ozone-depleting substances”. This is important, of course, because it is an active and effective method of attempting to understand and limit our carbon output, which is imperative to slowing global warming.

This model can teach us the motivations behind enhanced carbon output per region, as well as methods on how to control and reduce it. This has profound effects on urban sustainability and urban transportation sustainability as areas with higher carbon outputs are prone to higher risk of disease, such as asthma, and it affects transportation sustainability as it encourages the use of public transportation and discourages the use of private cars, which function on fuel-cycle emissions which consider all parts of the transportation energy process that could produce greenhouse gas emission, and thus contribute greatly towards the carbon footprint.

A third method which can ensure the sustainability of our urban spaces is known as the Interdisciplinary Approaches to Sustainability in Cities. This refers to the encouragement of the process of urban sustainability through a number of different lenses. Many different approaches use learning to encourage this, by promoting knowledge about the topic to those interested, and by using indicators, which we use to figure out whether or not a city is becoming more or less sustainable.

According to PlaNYC, a strategic plan released by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007, indicators “help…assess whether changes to the plan are needed and are part of [the] ongoing commitment to transparency and accountability”. This is important because by teaching those interested about how they can contribute to sustainability in their urban spaces, it encourages them to actively become involved, and it can teach us how to get involved.

This can include the creation of strategic plans such as PlaNYC in New York City, which outlines the city’s plan for urban sustainability in a clear, concise manner to educate those interested. It has profound effects on urban sustainability and urban transportation sustainability because it encourages the promotion of urban sustainability itself, and encourages the creation of new efficient and carbon-friendly transit alternatives such as the BQX project in Brooklyn and Queens.

The BQX concept calls for a light rail connection between Brooklyn and Queens. It has since fallen on deaf ears.

Speaking of transit, the final method which will be discussed in this article, but certainly not the final method which can be used to promote urban sustainability in our cities, is transit equity. Transit equity is a similar concept which relies on the implementation of public transportation in our urban areas. Transit equity involves the benefit from public transportation no matter what class, race or ethnicity the passenger is.

It is the unfortunate reality that most cities in the United States do not have transit equity, as poorer areas of the city, or those containing the minority population (again, due to the lack of funding and racist policies implemented in the mid-20th century), do not have access to public transportation. According to Dr. Robert D. Bullard, Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University:

It is known that “inadequate public transit service in many central cities and metropolitan regions with a high proportion of ‘captive’ transit dependents exacerbate social, economic, and racial isolation, especially for low-income people of color residents who already have limited transportation options.

This is the primary reason why transit equity is so important, as it discourages racial segregation in transit-oriented spaces, and promotes a reality where citizens of urban areas and passengers using public transit receive an equal experience, regardless of class, wealth, race or ethnicity.

The choices we make about sustainability indicators play a monumental role in our advancement of urban sustainability. When combined together, transit equity, the Just Sustainability Paradigm, approaches to the Carbon Cycle, and the choices we make about sustainability indicators all influence the decisions we make about urban areas.

The Just Sustainability Paradigm ensures that sustainability is occurring equally in regions of an urban area which have not been treated equally in the past. One way this occurs is the promotion of transit equity in those regions, such as the implementation of new transit lines, or emission-reducing transit lines (such as EV buses or designated rights-of-way for transit lines which reduce traffic congestion and pollution output).

All of these factors influence the indicators we assign to study these areas, and thus, the decisions we make about how to improve these urban areas is shifted accordingly. Overall, these three concepts are vital to the sustainability of our urban environments, and function even better when combined.

These methods may perhaps be the real key to the city.

Chris is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Follow him on Medium to be informed of new articles.

Native New Yorker. Pizza, Sports, Games, Life. Writing about whatever my heart desires. Follow me for more articles!