Sustainability Starts with Cities

Focusing on urban sustainability is a worthy cause, and certainly efforts to this end are supported by a range of stakeholders. A recently released “Sustainability Planning Toolkit,” published by ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability, helps the cause by setting forth a process to “create a successful, long-term plan that brings together environmental, economic, and social initiatives under one holistic vision to improve the livability of communities and create lasting benefits.” It seems, however, that the underlying basis gets lost in translation, as evidenced by Worldchanging.com’s blog on the document. Despite a long list of measurable and commendable efforts by Worldchanging.com’s team, one passage is questionable:

There has been a lot of talk about the place of cities in a transition to a greener world (or at least one that won't fall apart at the seams). Somewhere between 50% and 70% of global greenhouse gases come from cities – we've all heard that statistic so often we probably know it by heart. But despite all that…there are only a select few examples of cities making real progress of sustainability issues.

This goes back to the David Owen book, Green Metropolis. Stop blaming cities and start emulating cities. If somewhere between 50%-70% of global greenhouse gases come from cities (a debatable statistic, in and of itself), and 75%-85% of the world’s population lives in cities, then one might draw the logical conclusion that cities are pretty efficient. And, if you take away emissions created by cars driving from the suburbs to the cities and back every working day, then that efficiency quotient would go even higher.

While cities can certainly become more sustainable through more efficient building construction and systems, some utilization of alternative energy sources, reductions in solar heat gain, increased recycling, and accommodating more alternative modes of transportation, let’s not vilify cities. Although not perfect, cities are hyper-efficient and drive a lower per capita consumption of energy and resources through density, public transportation, proximity of mixed uses, and walkability. So, with that, there is a clear counter to the statement that “there are only a select few examples of cities making real progress of [sic] sustainability issues”: simply by virtue of being a city, cities are making real progress on sustainability issues. More can be done, surely, but the foundation is set.