City Development and Urban Sustainability

Urban Development As It Currently Exists

Throughout history, humanity has never seen such incredible rates of population growth and urban development. Urban areas are home to nearly half of the global population and by 2050 will house 70% of the global population (Wu, J.). The United Nations’ definition of an urban area in the United States is “agglomerations of 2,500 or more inhabitants, generally having population densities of 1,000 persons per square mile or more.” Urban areas utilize most of the world’s resources and make a significant contribution to the global carbon emissions that are leading factors in human-induced climate change. Most urbanized areas do not operate sustainably, leading to a lack of and unequal distribution of natural resources as well as an uncertain future. In the words of fifteen-year-old climate activist, Alexandira Villasenor, this can be leading us to “the greatest generational inequality humanity is facing," (Johnson, Ayana Elizabeth).


Defining Sustainability

Sustainability is quickly becoming a buzzword, but what exactly is sustainability? It is the capability and discipline of a society to support its people and future generations with land, food, fresh water, housing, and a functioning economy. There are no signs of slowing the rate of urbanization, so how do we grow sustainably as a society? The solution lies in our ability to work collectively as community members, business owners, policymakers, educators, scientists, activists, city planners, and beyond. The outlook looks bleak, but cities are a symbol of progress. Densely populated areas are hotspots for innovation and have the potential to make the biggest impact on carbon emissions, use of resources, and replenishment. Both educational and industrial institutions bring communities together and become incubators of change.


Sustainability can be generally grouped into three categories: environmental, societal, and economical. For society to continue functioning—and being truly sustainable—all three of these categories must work on a united front. Societal sustainability is equal opportunity. It includes the preservation of culture, housing, education, community, job opportunities, nourishment, medical care, and all necessary factors humans need, plus a standard of living.

Economic sustainability depends on continued economic growth, so think profitable enterprises and both the production and consumption of goods and services. Environmental sustainability relates to the capacity of nature to maintain biodiversity and the ability to provide ecosystem services such as the supply of abundant food and water resources. Additionally, sustainability includes areas of overlap between the aforementioned categories: fairtrade practices, workers’ rights, environmental justice, energy efficiency, and business ethics. Society, economics, and the environments are intertwined and interdependent, but let’s not deny a fundamental truth—neither the economy nor society can sustain itself without the success of its environment (CAUSES).


Economics 2.0

Classical economists such as Robert Matheus and Carl Marx knew the product of economic activity was bound by its environment. This statement gives nod to the concept that without the necessary resources to create products or to support consumers, an economy will fail. Another concept from traditional economics is natural capital. Natural capital is the value of resources available to a community. When a system lacks natural capital, they lose their ability to stimulate their economy and eventually, the capability to stimulate the community when proper housing, food, and education are not available (Munda, Giuseppe). Putting sustainable practices in place protects the community’s natural capital, its economy, and community members.


Additionally, without sustainably focused efforts in society and the environment, the economy will feel major repercussions due to unplanned costs and restoration from natural disasters and public health catastrophes.


Economic sustainability depends on the ability of the market to create and sell enough product to provide for consumers and make a profit. Often, companies focus efforts on short-term, profit maximization rather than configuring current systems to maximize the longevity of profits, mainly because such advancements require more cash upfront. For example, the fossil fuel industry is incredibly profitable, however, while fossil fuels are a “renewable resource,” we are depleting reserves that took millions of years to develop—the industry will not be able to sustain itself. Luckily, the future of clean, renewable energy is promising and profitable! Mining for coal and gas requires billions of dollars to locate, extract, and process, Moreover, it is unsafe for workers and the environment.

Enter solar and wind energy. Sunlight and wind are free, as well as much safer for humans and the environment alike. Mary Ann Hitt from the Beyond Coal Campaign specifies, “Already more than three million Americans work in the clean energy industry, outnumbering fossil fuel workers three to one.” While options for change exist, change is met with much resistance by these companies who have been able to maximize profits and essentially pollute the planet for free before the Clean Air Act was put into place.


It’s a start, such legislation is not enough. Fossil fuel companies should be held responsible for their role in human-induced climate change, displacement of workers, and racial inequalities they have imposed on minority communities through pollution (Johnson, Ayana Elizabeth). A sustainable economy depends on companies like these to act now and create business models with prioritized sustainability and ethical practices. It also calls for a government holding companies accountable.


Implementing sustainability practices also benefits the economy by reducing spending on water, electricity, gas, and other resources. This generates savings that become available to support additional investments into the community and economy. Communities can also save tremendous amounts of money by reducing carbon emissions and reducing the need for climate change mitigation tactics and the treatment of pollutants. Incentive programs can be implemented by rewarding reductions in carbon footprint for households, schools, businesses, or for participating in sustainable activities. Money required can come from grants and loans funded through capital improvement funds and are also available for resource efficiency and conservation practices. This money then feeds back into the economy through the stimulation of local businesses, agencies, and households.


Growth-Focused without the Infrastructure and Forethought

Similar challenges are met in the realm of societal sustainability. The establishment of a sustainably designed landscape has a major influence on the success and well-being of society (Wu, J.). As the global population grows there is an inherent need for more land and resources to be allocated to agriculture, educational institutions, industrial development, improved infrastructure, housing, shopping centers, and more. Effective city planning has a critical role in sustainable development. Cases of ineffective urban development have resulted in increased homelessness, displaced communities and businesses, habitat destruction, food deserts, contaminated drinking water, and other public health crises. Gentrification has become the downfall for many urban communities. While cities plan for rapid population growth and develop high-rise housing, they often leave out the families, businesses, and communities that thrived for generations. The people that made the community what it was are more often than not, quickly bought out and no longer to afford the areas they once called home. Low-income communities, the homeless, those affected by food deserts, and a lack of education should be the communities at the forefront of development plans when cities are looking for ways to grow. To accommodate growing populations, many of today’s cities are requiring upscaling of plumbing and waste management systems. Updates are necessary because the population has outgrown the capacity that these systems (sometimes built over 100 years ago) were intended for.


The Flint, Michigan water crisis, beginning in 2014, is a classic example of improper infrastructure with a metaphorical band-aid placed over it. Lead piping was commonly used to distribute drinking water to communities and due to some unfortunate chemistry leads to corrosion of lead pipes and lead-contaminated drinking water which causes problems with brain development, especially in children, and is also associated with increased crime rates (Indiana Advisory Committee). Costly efforts by the local and national government, citizen scientists, and the EPA have been made to resolve this issue and while progress has been, Flint continues the fight for lead-free water (Santucci Jr, Raymond J.). One reason for the perpetuated, unclean water is the magnitude and cost to fully replace lead piping. Pipes would not only have to be replaced in the city, and across highways but also in neighborhoods, homes, and schools. While costly and time-consuming, this kind of infrastructure “editing” may be necessary to provide a rightful community with clean and safe drinking water. The crisis in Flint may not have been preventable but there is much to learn about from Flint about city planning, creating proper infrastructure, and how to handle a crisis that involves the people your city said it would care for.


For example, in the city of Indianapolis, there is major construction to the combined sewage system in place which includes additional holding space for excess sewage that otherwise overflowed into the White River. This resulted in high levels of E. coli making the waters unsafe for wildlife, and recreation. Without the functional planning of infrastructure, the city’s environment and, soon, the economy will struggle due to the high cost of construction and restoration projects. It is imperative to first find solutions to these inherited problems before further perpetuating these issues by attempting to grow without the forethought of what happens without proper infrastructure in place.