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Sustainable Cities

Sustainable urban development - Contemporary opportunities and challenges in developing more sustainable cities.

“If you want to make life better for people make the cities better for people.” Jaime Learner

Urban sustainability is a massive issue both in the UK and globally. The goal of URBAN SUSTAINABILITY is ensuring that cities and towns have a minimal ecological footprint (they don't pollute too much and don't consume too many natural resources) on their surrounding area, allowing local people a say so that society and communities are sustainable and making cities pleasant places to live through the provision of adequate open spaces and recreation facilities. Biocapacity is the capacity of a given biologically productive area to generate an on-going supply of renewable resources and to absorb its wastes. Unsustainability occurs if the area's ecological footprint exceeds its biocapacity. This is generally the case for most urban areas.

In contrast a sustainable city can be defined as;

"Improving the quality of life in a city, including ecological, cultural, political, institutional, social and economic components without leaving a burden on the future generations. A burden which is the result of a reduced natural capital and an excessive local debt."

Urban21 conference in Berlin 20001

Nature and features of sustainable cities.

You could consider urban sustainability considering the following dimensions;

  • Physical or Natural - - Human are part of nature, nature has limits, and communities are responsible for protecting and building natural assets.
  • Economy - Economic activity should serve the common good, be self-renewing, and build local assets and self-reliance.
  • Social - The opportunity for full participation in all activities, benefits, and decision-making of a society.
  • Political - how include are the people of the city

The 4 pillars of urban sustainability

The concept of liveability.

The concept of liveability is simple: it assesses which locations around the world provide the best or the worst living conditions.2 According to the Economist, “every city is assigned a rating of relative comfort for over 30 qualitative and quantitative factors across five broad categories: stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure. Each factor in a city is rated as acceptable, tolerable, uncomfortable, undesirable or intolerable.” The scores are then weighted and a total score out of 100 is awarded. The results from 2019 are;

Rank 2019 City Score
1 (top) Vienna, Austria 99.1
2 Melbourne, Australia 98.4
139 Lagos, Nigeria 38.4
140 (bottom) Damascus, Syria 30.7

Ecological footprint of major urban areas.

According to the Global Footprint Network3The global effort for sustainability will be won, or lost, in the world’s cities, where 70 to 80 percent of the world’s population is expected to live by 2050.” Indeed, in many countries, one or two major urban centers are major contributors to the national Ecological Footprint. They also run significantly higher per capita Footprints than the average for their nations. In the graphic below, it is clear that whilst there is variation in the footprints of the cities shown (the data is old too so may have changed), all of the UK cities shown have footprints that are well above the biocapacity of the Earth so are UNSUSTAINABLE. Just one component, Housing, takes most of those cities above the 1.63gha available as the biocapacity of the Earth, without even considering transport, food, consumer items, private services, public services and capital investments!!!

Ecological footprint

Data Source4

Another narrower way to consider sustainability of cities would be to exam their carbon footprint. NASA5 produced the graph below and there is a loose relationship between population size and the total Carbon footprint of cities, especially those in high income areas with many industrial processes taking place.

Carbon footprint of cities

NEXT TOPIC - Sustainable Cities Case Studies


1- WWF (archive – no date), What is a sustainable city? Accessed15th January 2020 at

2- Economist Intelligence Unit (2019) The Global Liveability Index 2019. The Economist.

3- Global Footprint Network (2020) – Cities Accessed 13th January 2020 at

4- Alan Calcott and Jamie Bull, CarbonPlan (2007) Ecological footprint of British City Residents, WWF. Accessed 13th January 2020 at

5- Joshua Stevens (2019) Sizing Up the Carbon Footprint of Cities, NASA Earth Observatory. Accessed 13th January 2020 at


Written by Rob Gamesby April 2020



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