What Is Urban Sustainability?

Jan Fletcher

Urban sustainability is the practical application of community planning to ensure long-term, viable, and self-sustaining community vitality in urban settings. Sustainability refers to practices developing an environment in which degradation does not exceed the capacity of regeneration within the system. An example would be a public park. If the number of visitors exceeds the carrying capacity of the park, degradation occurs and public officials may have to limit hours or visitors to ensure the sustainability of the park’s attributes.

Community planners try to keep urban areas sustainable for those who live and work in the area.
Community planners try to keep urban areas sustainable for those who live and work in the area.

Community planners achieve urban sustainability through a political process that taps the opinions, contributions and expertise of community leaders, special interests, and citizens. A multi-disciplinary approach is applied to urban sustainability creation and maintenance. Experts and officials working within the fields of architecture, transportation, natural resource management, and economic development come together in a collective manner to design solutions to unsustainable practices. Community planners and environmental experts monitor the sustainability on a long-term basis as the urban environment undergoes demographic and environmental changes.

Proper planning helps to preserve self-sustaining vitality in urban communities.
Proper planning helps to preserve self-sustaining vitality in urban communities.

The goals of urban sustainability are sometimes categorized as the triple-bottom line, which addresses the management of three areas, often referred to as profit, people, and planet. John Elkington, founder of SustainAbility, coined the wordplay in 1994. The triple bottom line philosophy ascribes equal importance to each of these three areas. Businesses and communities that pursue this strategy aim to achieve a long-term balance between economic, social and environmental sustainability.

Disciplines within urban sustainability include architectural and community planning, with an eye toward enhancing sustainable transportation choices. These choices may include promotion of pedestrian modes of transportation over other modes. Village clusters, which are also known as town centers or urban villages, may achieve preference with urban planners over suburban communities. This planning strategy clusters housing, transportation hubs, commercial enterprises and social and medical services within walking distance.

The challenges of creating sustainable urban development are significant. Existing architecture and transportation modalities may represent a huge economic investment. These structures were built for permanence and can be replaced only at significant expense. Politically, it is a challenging process to convince people living in a democratic society to destroy and replace these structures, because doing so will affect a person’s habit and mode of transport.

Large companies and organizations may also present obstacles to urban sustainability, as they have an investment in the current structures and modes of transportation. This is why urban planning is a lengthy process typically done in a piecemeal fashion. There are new communities constructed from the ground up that are free from these obstacles to incorporating urban sustainability. These communities may also serve as models and laboratories for understanding the human factor in urban sustainability. By observing the real-life actions of people within these planned communities, urban planners may discover data that will lead to more sustainable urban communities in the future.

Half the world now lives in urban areas.
Half the world now lives in urban areas.

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Discussion Comments


@Mor - I wish that people would start conserving water as a sustainability strategy rather than coming up with ways of getting more water. We waste a lot of it at the moment and it's only getting worse.

It's the same thing with food. We throw out so much food that could be used either to eat, or even as compost to grow more food. There is no reason that people can't live in sustainable cities, but at the moment we just can't seem to grasp the idea that we need to compromise a little bit in order to get there.


@irontoenail - That's definitely a good thing in places where there is a lot of rainwater and groundwater available, but I think the push in most cities is going to end up being directed towards collecting rainwater for human use, rather than just letting it go back to the ocean. It's a lot easier to purify rainwater than it is to process salt water so that it can be used. And the biggest issue most cities have to face in order to become sustainable is the lack of water they need.


One of my favorite examples of urban sustainability is a project in my home town where they established a cultivated swamp area on the harbor in order to clean the water runoff before it reaches the sea.

This is a huge problem in a lot of cities that are based near a big water source, because water ends up running along concrete, picking up pollution, and goes straight into the source instead of being absorbed into the earth like it normally would be.

So the ocean or river or lake just gets more and more polluted over time. But by letting the water move through the swamp area first, that allows it to be naturally cleaned as it would be in nature and helps to keep the ocean clean without any special infrastructure. The swamp basically takes care of itself.

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