Urban Sustainability: Definition & Issues

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

In this lesson, learn about the unique challenges cities face when trying to be sustainable. Explore some of the key problems and issues they have to combat, and look at ways they can solve them.

What is Urban Sustainability?

There are few places that are worse for the environment than a city. Huge numbers of people coming and going, driving cars, buying products, while factories pump all kinds of pollution into the atmosphere. The way people in the Western world live would not be possible for everyone in the world without destroying the planet in the process. Sustainability is the ability for the world and its resources to endure forever. It's a way of living without actively using our resources, such that we can continue to live that way indefinitely. So urban sustainability is about building cities that could continue without running out of resources.

The urban environment has unique challenges when it comes to sustainability that other areas do not. Cities are growing bigger and bigger every year, demanding more and more land, and requiring more and more buildings to be built. The outer parts of cities quickly become just as built-up as the inner parts, and the suburban edges of cities move further and further out. This rapid development makes sustainable growth more difficult.

Cities pose unique sustainability challenges
Cities pose unique sustainability challenges

Let's take a look at some of the challenges faced by advocates of urban sustainability and what it would take to solve them.

Pollution: Sanitation, Air, and Water

Perhaps the most obvious and well-documented issue with urban sustainability is pollution. Pollution takes into account how cities dispose of the huge amounts of garbage and waste products that they produce, the smog that factories and businesses release into the air, and the chemicals that find their way into bodies of water.

Pollution is a major problem in cities
Pollution is a major problem in cities

Pollution is a major problem in every city, and generally the bigger the city the worse it is. It's in the economic interests of a city that it continues to be popular and grows, but as a city grows the issues of pollution grow with it. Regulating pollution from businesses can be a way to solve the problem, but it can also discourage businesses from moving to the city. Sanitation can be improved by improving refuge collection, instituting recycling programs, and even composting food and human waste. Public transport can also be built by the city, or subsidized, to reduce pollution and traffic from cars. However, all these programs cost money, which can lead to higher taxes. For political reasons, taking action to prevent pollution can be difficult. However, if pollution gets bad enough, the public will accept virtually any measures to fix it - such is the case in places like Beijing, China, where smog has become a major health crisis.

Ecosystems and Farmland Protection

While discussion of ecosystems might not seem like something that is relevant to urban sustainability, in some ways it is even more important. As humans become more concentrated inside cities, those cities expand and disrupt more natural ecosystems. The cities themselves also contain ecosystems, especially birds, insects, and plants, even if there is less plant and animal life than elsewhere.

In terms of urban sustainability, it is possible to carefully design urban environments to have minimal impact on ecosystems by understanding how they interact with ecosystems inside and outside of the boundary of the city. Migration routes of animals can be taken into account, leaving green areas for them to safely pass through. Havens for birds and insects can be built throughout the city, providing recreational areas for humans at the same time. Urban farming is also becoming increasingly popular. This is when people in urban areas grow small amounts of food for themselves, often on rooftops or in fenced courtyards.

As a city expands, it impacts ecosystems outside of its boundaries and begins to encroach on farmland. City dwellers move out to what was once countryside, and this has impacts on those rural communities. For this reason, many cities have instituted farmland protection policies, to try to prevent the city from encroaching on valuable nearby farmland.

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