PlanYourPlace intends to create a tool that helps communities work together towards sustainability. Many academics have defined sustainable development, but it is evident that it is a concept that is difficult to tie down as we all seem to want to define if from the perspective of “my” world view, whether that be enviro-centric, human-centric, or economic-centric, and all tend to vary the intensity of their approaches to sustainability. While many talk about sustainable cities these days, there is relatively little talk about what exactly “sustainable cities” means. In this post, I’ll go over what sustainability should look and feel like to residents, and how a city can be built to be sustainable.

In general, being sustainable means being able to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (UN, 1996; Forum of the Future, 2002). Essentially, any “sustainable” activity should be able to continue indefinitely (it doesn’t have to, just should be able to). Put another way, a sustainable city would live in balance with the resources it takes from the surrounding environment (which, for many cities these days, can be the whole world), returning as much value as it takes. It can be thought of as an ecosystem, taking in materials and energy, and cycling these through the way food cycles through a biological system.

These ideas are often broken down into different spheres of influence, normally some combination of economy, society, and environment. This is sometimes diagrammed as in the image below.

Sustainability Diagramii

But these are definitions, and are still very general. They don’t suggest any specific actions that could be taken to achieve sustainability, and they leave a lot of room open for interpretation. Another way to look at sustainability is to ask how a city’s residents experience the place, and what physical elements are needed.

A sustainable city is one that people want to live in. In it, there are enough jobs to keep unemployment relatively low. People of all income levels can find homes they can afford to own or rent. Taxes are not so high as to be an unreasonable burden. People who need help can get it (at shelters, food banks, hospitals, etc.). People can choose to walk, bike, take public transportation, or drive to work, depending on their needs, means, or preferences. All age ranges can live alongside each other, and each has a place in the community. Children have tot lots, teens have skate parks, recreation facilities, and malls, families can have fun together, and older residents can get around and find fun and interesting things to do. People are able to find and engage in meaningful social circles. Similarly, all income ranges can exist together. Governance is reliable and open. Citizens can engage in their community and their input is respected. Public spaces are vibrant, engaging and fun to be in. History and culture are preserved through events/festivals or preservation of historic buildings and landmarks.

walkable street corner

Physically, a sustainable city may have a lot of elements that residents aren’t always aware of. Buildings, from office towers, to schools, to homes, are built to conserve energy using good insulation, thermal mass, low-energy use appliances, and low-flow water fixtures. These buildings take advantage of natural features like shading from trees, elevation to avoid flooding, or are set into hillsides to shelter them from winter winds. Buildings should be built with materials that are sourced locally and last a long time, and have good indoor air quality by avoiding harmful chemicals. Renewable energy sources can be used to decrease buildings’ reliance on fossil fuels. Solar thermal panels can help heat water and indoor air, and solar electric panels can help generate electricity. Geothermal energy can help heat water or the home. Wind turbines can generate electricity.

City services can be sustainable, too. Storm water and runoff can be processed in ponds and reed beds to allow the area to clean and re-absorb it in place, rather than collecting dirty water and releasing it downstream. Waste water can be treated, and the products can be used to fertilize farm fields in the surrounding region. Transportation networks, including roads, bike paths, sidewalks, busses, and trains, make room for all modes of transportation, and ensure that people are safe no matter which they choose.

Land uses are planned in conjunction with transportation systems, so that people can get to work/school/wherever not just by using good paths, but by being closer and well-positioned in the first place. This also involved having more houses, businesses, and community buildings nearer to train stations, so that more people have access. This kind of denser development supports walkability, which can also be supported by having inviting and fun public spaces that people really want to walk through.

Sidewalk cafe

Higher-density places are less costly to provide services such as streets, sidewalks, electricity, water, and sewage to. Pipes and streets can reach more people with shorter sections, reducing both construction and maintenance costs. Policing and fire protection can also be cheaper. Both of these can serve more people by covering less ground, saving the city money. Individuals can save money because they need less energy to heat and power their homes, and need to use the car less.

Sustainability in cities reduces energy use so energy supplies last longer, in the case of non-renewables. In the case of renewables, fewer hydro dams/wind farms/solar farms need to be built. A sustainable city reduces greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the amount of fuel that needs to be burned for heating, cooling, electricity, or driving. Cities can reduce waste by providing recycling and composting services to residents. The same things reduce air, water, and soil pollution. Less driving means less toxic gases released into the air, and less oil leaked and swept away in storm systems, to return to the river downstream. Recycling and composting avoid sending materials to a landfill, where they contaminate land and groundwater.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of what makes a city sustainable. We haven’t even touched on urban agriculture, public libraries, cooling in warm climates, and social conditions in slums. For every problem in a city, there is a sustainable solution either available or waiting to be thought up. The combination of these provides a way to make human societies sustainable. In the end, it all has to do with how people now and in the future experience their city. Many new ideas for making sustainable cities emerge every day. Feel free to leave some of your own in the comments, or follow #planyourplace on twitter to see some of the new ideas we find interesting.

ii Adams, E.; Connor, J.; Ochsendorf, J. (2006). “The Concept of Sustainable Development”. MIT OpenCourseWare, Course 1.964 Design for Sustainability. Web:

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