The Importance of Sustainable Cities (2023)

If you are reading this article, you are more than likely already familiar with the concept of sustainability. Sustainability is popularly defined as meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability for future generations to meet those same needs. Sustainability is, at its core, the ability for a system to maintain itself over time and provide adequately for those in the system throughout that time. Depending on how you examine it, however, it can be far deeper than that. To truly achieve sustainability, we must think about how to implement it in all facets of life. We wish to have a sustainable attitude towards the environment and natural resources, towards our work, towards our infrastructure, and even towards our relationships. Sustainability is more than just a simple definition, it is a way of life that benefits all by examining the interconnectedness of things and how these things can work in a just and equitable manner for all. More and more frequently now, you may have heard talk of sustainable cities. But bearing in mind what it means to be sustainable, how do we go about making cities so? What are the facets of a city that we must reexamine to truly make them fit this goal of sustainability? How can we reimagine cities so that they are better, safer, healthier places to live which directly enrich the lives of those who inhabit them?

According to the United Nations, 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050. Thus, the goal of making cities sustainable, areas where the vast majority of the world’s population calls home, is an important one. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals even include sustainable cities and communities as goal number 11, illustrating their importance to a more sustainable future. A city is, in essence, a system composed of many parts. For a city to be truly sustainable, all of those parts must be sustainable as well. Public transportation should be robust, reliable, and free of fossil fuels. Buildings should be constructed with sustainable materials and incorporate public green spaces. Streets should be walkable and have places to rest and socialize. All citizens should have access to safe and affordable housing, and cities shouldn’t grow at a rate that is destructive to the surrounding natural environment. These are only a few facets of sustainable cities that we hope to achieve. To help further our understanding of what a sustainable city can be, we’ll take a look at some examples.


The Importance of Sustainable Cities (1)

Curitiba is a model for the development of sustainable cities today. Much of the progress made in Curitiba, which transformed it from just another Brazillian city into a global model for sustainability, came from Mayor Jaime Lerner. Lerner, who served as mayor three times from 1971 to 1992. Lerner advanced many innovative ideas in Curitiba’s planning and government which resulted in its current status. Curitiba’s public transportation is an excellent example. Curitiba has a Bus Rapid Transit system which is an evolved version of the current MUNI system here in San Francisco. There is an elevated entrance and exit platform which removes the hassle from boarding and exiting the bus. Bus fares are prepaid so that time is not wasted waiting for people to pay. Buses also have dedicated lanes which makes them faster and more reliable. Finally, the cost of a fare is only about 40 cents, meaning public transit is not cost-prohibitive to anyone. This cost barrier is further removed through Curitiba’s trash-for-tokens system. Curitiba residents are able to redeem collected trash, when sorted correctly, for bus tokens or fresh produce. This serves to beautify the city by removing trash from the streets, ensures the trash is sorted properly, and gives low-income residents access to food and public transportation. All of these factors add up to a public transit program that is utilized by 75% of commuters in the city. Curitiba also has an abundance of green spaces, which add up to 50 square meters of green space per person. This green space is not only aesthetic but serves an important purpose. Green spaces help to mitigate the urban heat island effect, which causes urban areas to be hotter on average due to urban ground cover absorbing more heat than undeveloped land. Furthermore, green spaces in Curitiba also serve as flood management systems. The city is located on the Upper Iguacu River Basin, and before Lerner’s new policies during his mayoral term, would routinely flood Curitiba, causing millions of dollars in damages. To remedy this, Curitiba constructed a park around the river basin, which helps to absorb excess precipitation and catch flood waters so the city is not damaged. This park also serves to refresh the water table, as water can permeate through soil but not concrete. These are only a few examples of the innovations in Curitiba which have transformed it into a model sustainable city.

(Video) Sustainable Cities: Crash Course Geography #49


The Importance of Sustainable Cities (2)

Singapore is another city leading the sustainable revolution. Also dubbed “the garden city,” Singapore is doing everything it can to live up to that name. One of the most drastic policies helping Singapore become sustainable is mandating green construction of all buildings. Since 2008, all buildings must meet a set of minimum specifications imposed by the Building and Construction Authority of Singapore’s Green Mark program. These standards are comparable to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program we have here in the United States. Buildings are one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in a city, so this mandate is essential in helping Singapore reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Singapore, like Curitiba, also has innovative, people-focused transportation systems. The city places a cap on the number of residents who are allowed to own a car, keeping the roads clear and vehicle emissions down. To even own a car in the first place, one must bid on a permit that allows car ownership for 10 years. As a result, the rate of car ownership in Singapore is just 11%, while in the US it is a staggering 80%. To compensate for this, Singapore has built a robust public transportation system with the aim of having 80% of households be only a 10-minute walk from the nearest train station by 2030. All of these policies help to make Singapore one of the most sustainable cities in the world.


The Importance of Sustainable Cities (3)

As residents of San Francisco, many of us may overlook the great efforts our city is undergoing to evolve sustainably to enrich the lives of those who inhabit it. San Francisco has adopted an ambitious climate action plan to outline the city’s goals and how it hopes to achieve them. Although ambitious, these goals set us on a path of concrete milestones to work toward. One of these goals was to be a zero-waste city by 2020. While we have not yet achieved it, we are close. In 2012, for example, we diverted 80% of our waste from landfills. That is more than any major city in the United States. Along with more lofty goals like these, we are also passing policies which will help reduce our city’s carbon footprint. Just this year, San Francisco passed a policy to ban natural gas in all new city buildings and is looking to expand this policy to all new construction. Buildings generate 44% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the city, falling just short of transportation as the largest source of emissions. Creating policies that reduce emissions is a great step to reducing our overall carbon footprint. Speaking of transportation, San Francisco is making improvements on that front as well. MUNI buses are hybrid and fully electric, with a goal of an entirely electric fleet by 2035. This means they are almost entirely emissions-free, contributing only .03% of San Francisco’s transportation emissions. San Francisco has almost recently made one of its busiest streets, Market Street, car-free. This leads to less congestion and emissions from idling cars and commuters. Car-Free Market Street also creates an environment that incentivizes the use of bicycles, a mode of transportation that emits absolutely no greenhouse gases. Finally, San Francisco is a national leader in access to (and quality of) parks and green spaces. According to the Trust for Public Land, 100% of San Francisco residents currently live within a 10 minute walk to a park. This unparalleled access to green spaces affords great physical and mental health benefits to San Franciscans and shows that not every city investment needs to be profit-driven. Clearly, San Francisco is on the right track, and as citizens it is our duty to continue to support legislation that puts us on a path to becoming a sustainable city.

The above examples illustrate how sustainable cities are not that radical of an idea. Efforts are being made all over the world to transform cities to become more sustainable, equitable, and enjoyable for all. Sustainable cities aren’t just beneficial for the environment, they benefit all who live there as well. In a time where the majority of the world’s population live in cities, making them attractive places to live which integrate systems thinking principles into their fundamental design should be our goal. A sustainable city examines the city ecosystem holistically. It makes sure aspects of the city system are working in tandem for its people and the environment. The push to make more cities sustainable is a noble one which will enrich the lives of all people who inhabit them.

(Video) Creating Sustainable Cities

Works Cited

68% of the world population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, says UN . (2018, May 16). Retrieved from

Adler, D. (2016, May 6). Story of cities #37: how radical ideas turned Curitiba into Brazil’s ‘green capital’. Retrieved from

Busta, H. (n.d.). Retrieved July 26, 2016, from

Flood Management in Curitiba Metropolitan Area, Brazil. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Goal 11 : Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform. (2019). Retrieved from

(Video) Understand Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities (Secondary)

Grossman, N. (2006, April 10). Curitiba Bus Rapid Transit System. Retrieved from

Kirschbaum, J. (2020, January 29). Looking Down the Road At Battery Powered Buses. Retrieved from

Moench, M. (2020, January 20). SF bans natural gas in new city buildings, plans all construction ban. Retrieved from

MOT Singapore: Trains. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Pierce, P. (2020, January 8). Car-Free Market Street starts January 29. Retrieved from

(Video) Sustainable Development Goal 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities - Tommy Wiedmann

San Francisco’s Climate Storyboard. (2019, June 12). Retrieved from

San Francisco, CA 2019 ParkScore® ranking. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Singapore to freeze car numbers. (2017, October 24). Retrieved from

Thomas, A. (2012, March 1). Curitiba waste as resource. Retrieved from

Zero Waste Case Study: San Francisco. (2019, June 14). Retrieved from

(Video) What Is the Most Sustainable City in the World?


What is the importance of a sustainable city? ›

A sustainable city examines the city ecosystem holistically. It makes sure aspects of the city system are working in tandem for its people and the environment. The push to make more cities sustainable is a noble one which will enrich the lives of all people who inhabit them.

What is the most important factor that makes a city sustainable? ›

The perfect sustainable city would be one that is self-sufficient in energy, manages waste to produce energy, has more sustainable transport, maintains green spaces and manages and uses its natural resources correctly. It would be a city that is built on the principles of ecology, education and equality.

What is sustainable city in simple words? ›

A sustainable city is one designed to address social, environmental and economic impact through urban planning and city management. Many sustainable initiatives are achieved by building eco-friendly alternatives into city infrastructure, such as adopting walk and bike lanes.

What are the 5 key characteristics of sustainable cities? ›

Here are the ten characteristics of a sustainable city as a result of environmentally-conscious urban planning.
  • City-Wide Access To Public Transportation. ...
  • Pedestrian- and Bike-Friendly Sidewalks. ...
  • Electric Car Charging Stations. ...
  • Renewable Energy. ...
  • Sustainable Architecture. ...
  • Urban Agriculture And Food Production.
10 Nov 2021

What is a sustainable city essay? ›

A sustainable city is organized so as to enable all its citizens to meet their own needs and to enhance their well being with out damaging the natural world or endangering the living conditions of other people, now or in the future.

What city is a sustainable city? ›

The top 10 cities in the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index 2022 are:
  • Oslo.
  • Stockholm.
  • Tokyo.
  • Copenhagen.
  • Berlin.
  • London.
  • Seattle.
  • Paris.
21 Jun 2022

How can we maintain sustainable cities? ›

Five ways to make cities healthier and more sustainable
  1. Promoting urban agriculture. ...
  2. Encouraging healthy diets. ...
  3. Reducing and managing food waste. ...
  4. Boosting green spaces for healthier environments and improved lifestyles. ...
  5. Reconnecting cities with surrounding rural areas.
11 Feb 2020

What should a sustainable city be like? ›

Especially in densely populated urban areas, having green spaces and an efficient and cleaner public transport network, a solid waste management system, and a smart deployment of the resources available can have a massively beneficial impact on the environment.

Why are sustainable cities important for the future? ›

Among their goals is the care for the environment and the well-being of their inhabitants by promoting sustainable mobility, creating green spaces, reducing greenhouse gases, using renewable energy, and driving the circular economy.

What is a smart sustainable city? ›

A sustainable smart city (SSC) is a city that has developed technological infrastructure to develop, deploy, and nurture sustainable operations and facilitate to meet the growing urbanization needs.

What are sustainable cities called? ›

The sustainable city, eco-city, or green city is a city designed with consideration for social, economic, environmental impact (commonly referred to as the triple bottom line), and resilient habitat for existing populations, without compromising the ability of future generations to experience the same.

What are two Sustainable Cities examples? ›

The Alliance for Climate Protection®: Five Sustainable Cities Making a Difference for the Planet
  • Copenhagen, Denmark. Copenhagen is often ranked as one of the greenest cities on the planet. ...
  • San Francisco, California. ...
  • Vancouver, Canada. ...
  • Stockholm, Sweden. ...
  • Singapore.
10 Mar 2017

What is a good example of sustainability? ›

The foundations of environmental sustainability are: safeguarding water, saving energy, reducing waste, using recyclable packaging, limiting or eliminating the use of plastics, using sustainable transport, reusing paper and protecting flora and fauna.

Why smart and sustainable cities are important? ›

A smart sustainable city is innovative. It uses ICTs to improve people's quality of life, make urban operations and services more efficient, and boost its competitiveness, while ensuring that it meets the economic, social, environmental, and cultural needs of present and future generations.

What is the most important factor for sustainable development? ›

For sustainable development, factors such as preserving the environment and natural resources along with maintaining social and economic equality need to be followed.

What are 3 major factors that influence sustainability? ›

Sustainability has three main pillars: economic, environmental, and social. These three pillars are informally referred to as people, planet, and profits.

What are the main factors of sustainability? ›

The term sustainability is broadly used to indicate programs, initiatives and actions aimed at the preservation of a particular resource. However, it actually refers to four distinct areas: human, social, economic and environmental – known as the four pillars of sustainability.

What are the 5 factors of sustainability? ›

... is about ownership beyond the community, an international responsibility for development. Sustainability can therefore be defined by five key factors: socio-cultural respect, community participation, political cohesion, economic sustainability, and environmental sustainability ( Table 2).

Why is it important to be sustainable? ›

Sustainability improves the quality of our lives, protects our ecosystem and preserves natural resources for future generations. In the corporate world, sustainability is associated with an organization's holistic approach, taking into account everything, from manufacturing to logistics to customer service.

What are the benefits of sustainable development? ›

The three advantages of sustainable development are as follows: It helps in ensuring a better life for present and future generations. Lowers the impact on the environment by reducing air, water, and soil pollution. Helps in achieving long-term economic growth.

How can we create a sustainable society? ›

Practical Steps Towards a Sustainable Society
  1. Raise Public Awareness. ...
  2. Promote Education. ...
  3. Increase Government and Business Investment. ...
  4. Conserve Resources and Eliminate Waste. ...
  5. Re-evaluate Values.

What is one of the main sustainability benefits? ›

Socially, sustainable practices can help strengthen community bonds, improve quality of life and provide hope for a better future. Environmentally, sustainable practices can help protect natural resources, mitigate and adapt to climate change and promote biodiversity.

How do humans affect sustainability? ›

Humans impact the physical environment in many ways: overpopulation, pollution, burning fossil fuels, and deforestation. Changes like these have triggered climate change, soil erosion, poor air quality, and undrinkable water.

How does sustainability affect the economy? ›

increased economic activity and property values. savings and lowered operating costs. uncertainty, such as potential rises in energy and water costs. investments that spur additional savings, revenues, and economic development.

How can you be sustainable? ›

  1. Think twice before shopping.
  2. Make sure your big purchases have big environmental benefits.
  3. Go #PlasticFree.
  4. Boycott products that endanger wildlife.
  5. Pay attention to labels.
  6. Be water wise.
  7. Drive less, drive green.
  8. Green your home.

What is needed for sustainability? ›

The concept of sustainability is composed of three pillars: environmental, social and economic—also known informally as profits, planet, and people.

What is the concept of sustainability? ›

Sustainability consists of fulfilling the needs of current generations without compromising the needs of future generations, while ensuring a balance between economic growth, environmental care and social well-being.

What are the 3 types of sustainability? ›

The figure at the top of this page suggests that there are three pillars of sustainability – economic viability, environmental protection and social equity.

What are 4 types of sustainable development? ›

The four main types of sustainability are human, social, eco- nomic and environmental.


1. Do sustainable cities need sustainable citizens? | Bret Willers | TEDxWarwick
(TEDx Talks)
2. SDG 11: Explaining sustainable cities and communities
(Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University)
3. Smart vs. Sustainable Cities
(Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech)
4. 'Sustainable Cities – the Importance of Collaboration' - Dr. Fedra Vanhuyse
5. Norman Foster and Ricky Burdett on Sustainable Cities - 'Future of Cities' Conversations Series
(Norman Foster Foundation)
6. Are Sustainable Cities Too Expensive? | Money Mind | Sustainability
(CNA Insider)
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