In 2008, humanity reached an important milestone that speaks to an ongoing trend. For the first time, more people lived in urban areas than lived in rural areas. This is important for various reasons, among them that cities can promise greater opportunities for people and help reduce people’s impact on the planet. It also presents key challenges. We have seen what lack of planning can do to large cities, including widespread sprawl and reduced quality of life for people. So, if the vast majority of people will eventually live in urban centers later this century, we have to make sure that we build cities to guarantee the highest quality of life for their residents while also minimizing the impact on their surroundings and the rest of the planet. How do we do that?
While there isn’t one clear way to guarantee that this happens, every city can work towards finding the right ingredients that will spur increased quality of life for people and lower per capita ecological footprint. As a goal, sustainability, or the ability for populations to endure for long periods of time while improving themselves, is the key to ensuring that every city guarantees the best quality of life for its residents while safeguarding the planet. Sustainability can lead to greater innovation, better-paying jobs, an improved urban environment, and lower resource intensity.
Throughout the world, many major cities are embracing the goal of sustainability through specific action plans drawn up by coalitions of government agencies, businesses, non-profit organizations, and individuals. In such action plans, everything that can help increase quality of life while minimizing the city’s impact is on the table. This includes replacing fossil fuels with clean energy, improving overall health of residents, increasing pedestrian-friendliness, building more energy efficient and livable buildings and neighborhoods, creating new and improving existing recreational opportunities, improving transportation, preventing urban sprawl through zoning, reducing waste, enhancing educational and job opportunities, and much more. All of these things not only help reduce a city’s ecological footprint, but also increase the quality of life of its residents through improved social conditions, greater outdoor opportunities, and enhanced economic growth.
One example of such an action plan is New York City’s PlanNYC, which not only initially set a host of specific goals to be achieved in the short term, but also sets long term ambitions to the year 2030. The plan is ever-evolving to align with technological improvements, economic conditions, and experiences. In addition, many of its goals include specific legislative provisions, economic incentives, and public engagement. It covers eighteen specific areas, among them Housing and Neighborhoods, Parks and Public Spaces, Public Health, Transportation, and Climate Change. It is a holistic plan that clearly states what the city will look like in 2030 and specifies how it will get there. It clearly understands the city’s challenges and impediments, and realizes that it needs to constantly evolve and engage politicians, businesses, and the public.
Over the coming decades, it is important for cities large and small to draft such comprehensive and inclusive sustainability action plans. Not only is this important because it can lead to innovation due to the uniqueness of most cities, but also because it will ensure lasting growth. We cannot continue to allow models where urban centers grow outwards into suburbs, leading to decreased quality of life, increased infrastructure costs and pollution, and greater ecological footprints. We need cities to lead in this wave and engage other cities in sharing what they have learned along the way. Sustainability needs to be taken seriously at every level by governments, businesses, and the public. And it needs to be seen as the way forward, not as a political tool or simply a nice thing to do.
As the human population increases and people continue to move towards cities, it is imperative that we act now before it is too late. We can do this through public engagement, city to city engagement, national policy, or international accords, but in the end it must be done if we are to reach sustainable levels of resource use that can guarantee better opportunities for future generations. Urban sustainability needs to become a bigger topic in the international public debate, not just in international conferences, but in mainstream media, government action, business outreach, and public advocacy. We now have enough examples throughout the world of how this can be done, and it is time for cities everywhere to take sustainability as their key to the future.