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What makes a sustainable city?

With an ever-growing world population and worsening climate changes, it's important that we build sustainable cities that can house everyone throughout future generations to come. These cities must be inclusive, safe and resilient. Developers and city planners across the globe are focusing on solutions that benefit people, communities and the environment. 

Mark Watts at C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, Guillaume Charny-Brunet at SPACE10 and Morten Kjer Jeppesen at Gehl are involved in creating sustainable cities through urgent climate actions. Initiatives like the 15-minute city, bringing the public and private sectors together to move toward sustainability, and coming up with holistic solutions are key to designing and building sustainable cities.


Rethinking city development 


Traditional cities were designed with the center in mind: transport systems and road networks were created to bring people into the city center by car from the suburbs and outer limits. To reduce emissions, it’s essential that we rethink how cities are designed and planned. The way people move throughout urban spaces can have major long-term impacts. The decisions that city planners make now will determine whether the world can get to net-zero by 2050. 


Most city-dwellers globally don’t have access to a car. When cities are created with pedestrians, cyclists and public transportation at the forefront, there is automatically less of a focus on the private motor vehicle for getting around. Seemingly small changes like using your bike to get to work or hopping on the bus or subway can have a positive impact.  Once such ideas are adopted, cities can be planned in a different way, and there is much greater emphasis on green space, public spaces and on the community in general. 


Mayors and policymakers can make a real difference


Mayors have the ability to create and shape the market, particularly in areas such as the design of buildings through planning codes. Many progressive developers who want to design sustainable cities are working with mayors and policymakers to set the strategic direction of planning and other policies, rather than purely reacting to existing regulations.


Copenhagen can serve as a model sustainable city. The mayor of Copenhagen is a member of C40, a global network of city mayors who are taking urgent climate action. Because the city has a powerful policymaker who knows the importance of sustainability, new innovations are able to pass easily and quickly. By reducing its energy consumption, it is on the way to becoming the first carbon-neutral city by 2025. Much of the recent urban development there has been around energy consumption — in fact, it’s one of the fastest-growing sectors in the Danish economy.


Most people living in Copenhagen ride a bike instead of driving a car. There is a fantastic network of infrastructure for bikes that many use daily. All the public transportation buses are electric, 25 percent of the city is made up of green spaces and you can even swim in the canals that run through the city center. 


While there was once a desire to use up green spaces for urban development, cities such as Copenhagen recognize that expanding green space is essential for a livable city. These “lungs” within the city can reduce emissions and create a place where people are excited to live. Design has changed greatly in recent years, making it possible to have compact densities with more green space, trees and a greater ability to absorb rainfall and manage rising heat.


Designing holistically and getting involved locally


A sustainable city is not only livable and healthy but also boasts easy access to quality public spaces, green spaces and low-carbon public transportation. It uses holistic solutions to shape an enjoyable place to live and work. 


Many cities traditionally have been planned with different functions divided by infrastructure: one area for housing, another for work and another for leisure. Designing holistically means creating mixed-use cities. This means rethinking the city as a complex system so that collective transportation, green spaces, bike paths, schools, offices, art galleries and grocery stores are easily accessible no matter where you are. 


Community engagement is a huge part of reimagining cities to make them more holistic. If you don’t engage the local community, it won’t take advantage of what’s on offer. And the entire idea behind designing a sustainable city is to create places that everyone can use and benefit from.


Trends in recent years show that people care more about sustainability than before. They care about their neighbors, their quality of life and the surroundings of their homes. A rising number of people are concerned and willing to shape and create their ideal cities themselves. Community gardens, intergenerational living and the like foster and reinforce the social fabric — after all, cities can only be as successful (and sustainable) as the people who live in them. 


Initiatives that are supported by the people who actually live, work and play in cities are more easily enacted by policymakers like mayors. When everyone works together to move toward sustainable cities, going carbon neutral becomes achievable.