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City Development and Urban Sustainability

Updated: May 22, 2023

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).

Couple crossing street

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.

City buildings with graffiti

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.

Bridging the Gap

Recognizing the interconnectedness of society, the economy, and the environment is the first step in creating a sustainable future. While the economy depends on the environment for natural capital, the environment also depends on the choices of businesses to operate sustainably. The environment cannot succeed without city planners prioritizing the preservation of resources and the community. Consequently, society cannot progress without the insurance of having viable resources like drinking water that are vital for survival.

Efforts for change will not succeed if they come solely from the top-down or bottom-up. Citizens have an active role in developing efforts to uplift impoverished areas and putting food on the table. All too often sustainable efforts are made from the topdown and lack the local knowledge needed to reach the target community. People who have lived in the community know what works and what does not, and they should be involved to create more successful goals. On the other hand, grassroots efforts, like food pantries and community gardens, work from the bottom-up but lack the support of larger companies and resources to succeed at providing what is needed.

There is a definite need for the community and the government to work together to develop individualized solutions. Ayenna Madden, of Americorps Public Allies program, stated, “My job is to process funding applications for various grassroots efforts, regarding food in Indianapolis, generally the communities that need the most help and had the most promising in-person interviews lacked the hard skills necessary to create a proper, written application. There is an obvious disconnect between communities that need help and those who have the resources to create change," (Robert, Paula). Situations like these call for more government support to communities that are hard-hit by urbanization.

It Starts With One

Continuing to run the country with a “business as usual” mindset will lead to increased carbon emissions, displaced communities, public health disasters among other unprecedented events. Leaders must take action to make fundamental changes in the way urban developers and planners handle challenges with urban growth. They must adopt the mindset that a little extra planning (and money) now will pay off in the long run. It is also the responsibility of the community to encourage and ask more of their community leaders to make these long-term improvements, preserve natural resources directly and indirectly, as well as reward sustainable efforts to individuals and organizations through incentivized programs.

Historic buildings

As an individual, I challenge you to assess your relationship with convenience. It is my philosophy that the human relationship with convenience is the reason for our current lack of sustainability. Sustainability itself is not, by human terms, convenient. It is convenience that brought us plastic packaging, same-day shipping, continued profits from coal and natural gas industries, and a lack of change in flawed infrastructure… because it is more convenient to pull the wool over our eyes and simply, carry on. It is less convenient in human terms to buy your produce and meat from a local farm or farmers' market. It is less convenient to offer your time to volunteer. It is less convenient to quit buying plastic and everything disposable rather than to start using reusable items. I am not asking you to change your lifestyle completely, but let’s start by considering why we make the choices we make and the long-term consequences of those decisions.

Yes, change is going to take action by both the people and their leaders, but it is also going to take a mindset that convenience and ease are not always better. We must see sustainability as an opportunity to grow and make positive changes for ourselves, our community, and future generations. The ultimate convenience in life is the ability to walk outside and breathe fresh air without fear. It’s not only turning on your tap to have fresh, clean drinking water, but it’s when everyone has access to a home and clean drinking water. Cities are the center of creativity, imagination, and the collaborative power of humanity. If everyone takes responsibility for their actions and considers the effects of their actions a sustainable future can be our future.


Photography by Demetrius Green of DeGrees: Architectural and Portrait Photography by Demetrius Green. Written by Paula Robert.

Wu, J. Urban sustainability: an inevitable goal of landscape research. Landscape Ecol 25, 1-4 (2010).

Johnson, Ayana Elizabeth, Katharine Keeble Wilkinson, and Alexandria Villasenor. “A Letter to Adults.” Essay. In All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, 323-27. New York: One World, 2020.

CAUSES Mini Lecture: Urban Sustainability. YouTube. UDC-TV, 2017.

Munda, Giuseppe. “Environmental Values 6.” Essay. In Environmental Economics, Ecological Economics, and the Concept of Sustainable Development, 213–33. The White Horse Press, 1997.

Johnson, Ayana Elizabeth, Katharine Keeble Wilkinson, and Mary Ann Hitt. “Beyond Coal.” Essay. In All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, 61–72. New York: One World, 2020.

Indiana Advisory Committee, Environmental Injustice: Lead Poisoning in Indiana § (2020).

Santucci Jr, Raymond J., and John R. Scully. “The Pervasive Threat of Lead (Pb) in Drinking Water: Unmasking and Pursuing Scientific Factors That Govern Lead Release.” Edited by Michael A. Celia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, September 8, 2020.

Robert, Paula, and Ayenna Madden. Sustainable Development Insight. Personal, February 8, 2021.

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