Driving through the endless houses and development of Orange County, I begin to think about all of the things that could make our cities more sustainable. We as individuals often want to make ourselves more sustainable and eco-friendly, but what about the cities we live in, how can these be designed and modified with the environment in mind.
The sustainability of cities can be seen in policies and programs implemented and by the design of the city itself. When a city implements programs that are designed with pedestrians in mind or incentivize renewable energy, it indicates that a city may be greener, compared to others. This change makes the choices of the individual much easier, they help us waste less, emit less, and overall limit our ecological footprint.
What does it mean to design a sustainable city?
A sustainable city works to be environmentally friendly in a multitude of areas, taking small steps that sum up to a big impact, including transportation, energy, waste management, and the creation of community spaces.
Many American cities are designed for transportation in personal cars and vehicles, but this is not the most sustainable way to travel around the city. The bus, train, or even just walking are more sustainable. With the car in mind, cities are spread out, split between residential and commercial, made less walkable and more drivable. But if we were to integrate our cities, making the places where people work and live closer, we could reduce emissions by reducing the distance people commute to work, school, and home. If your workplace is just a couple of blocks away, you are much more likely to walk, bike, or utilize public transportation. Walkability and available public transportation make cities not only more eco-friendly, but also more appealing to live in. With reliable and developed public transportation infrastructure, a city can cut back on its greenhouse gas emissions on a large scale, just by reducing the number of cars on the road. One person switching from a 20-mile commute by car to one by public transit can reduce their annual CO2 emissions by 48,000 pounds in a year. On a larger scale, in the US, public transportation already saves 37 million metric tons of CO2 annually, and with more public transportation implemented, even more can be saved. (More information)
Cities can also become greener by becoming less dependent on fossil fuels for their energy. When a city relies more on renewable energy such as solar power or wind power, they have a much lower carbon footprint. Additionally, with integrated electric grids and distributed generation, people can share the excess energy created by their renewable sources, such as the solar panels on their roof, harnessing energy that may otherwise be wasted, and limiting the loss of energy as it travels from generation to implementation. We can then make the smaller community of our cities more reliant on smaller renewable energy technologies. And while renewable energy in the form of solar and wind is not entirely dependable due to limited daylight hours and changing wind patterns, we can find a balance in which fossil fuel energy is used as a backup while we still transition to renewables.
The waste management system of a city is also important in its ecological footprint. When people are educated on waste management and how to correctly dispose of each type of waste, recycling and composting can become much more efficient. With the addition of composting initiatives in cities, food waste can be reduced as well as the greenhouse gas emissions, especially methane, which occurs when organic waste decomposes in a landfill. The city of San Francisco has implemented a comprehensive waste management system, which includes a mandatory recycling and composting program and a long-term goal of zero waste. Their original goal was to divert 75% of waste by 2010 and exceeded this goal by 2008, diverting 80% and cutting its waste disposal in half. This program has helped the city of San Francisco greatly decrease their waste and therefore their ecological footprint. (More Information)
A sustainable city does not just mean an ultra-urban area in which everything is very close and infrastructure is well built with sustainability in mind, it also includes the integration of green spaces for the public in the form of parks, open space corridors, and/or green roofs. Green spaces have a number of ecological benefits, including decreasing urban heat islands, mitigating pollution, preventing stormwater runoff, and absorbing carbon dioxide. They also have immense benefits on the communities around them, promoting physical and mental well-being from leisure activities in a natural setting or serving as meeting spaces and community centers.
Sustainability is an incredibly broad term that can be implemented in so many ways, from policy to urban design to waste management. There are a multitude of ways for a city to become more green, far more than mentioned here. If you are interested in learning more about sustainable city design, check out the websites linked throughout this article and the OCH Coffee and Conservation presentation covering Sustainable Cities by Jackie Tran (2021). You can get involved by supporting sustainable legislation in your community by writing to your representative, and by practicing sustainable practices like those mentioned above in your daily life.