What Makes Up A “Sustainable” City? — Thoughts On The Key Components of Future Sustainable Cities 

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Masdar Engage Blogging ContestEditor’s Note: This article is one submission in a live Masdar blogging contest (find out the entry requirements here). Very simply, the focus of the contest submissions is to: “Describe your city in 2030: what will occur due to changes in energy, transportation and water technologies, and how will they transform how you live?” We are sharing this submission here on CleanTechnica because we think it’s awesome and because Masdar is sponsoring CleanTechnica in order to raise awareness about this great competition. I have personally engaged in the contest in previous years, and I hope one of our readers wins this year since it would be great to meet you in Abu Dhabi!

What makes up a “sustainable” city exactly? How can a city provide for itself and its citizens in a sustainable matter? That is to say, in a way that doesn’t rapidly invalidate itself, through the exhaustion of the resources that it’s dependant upon.

That’s the question that was posed recently by the Masdar 2015 Engage Blogging Contest — and it’s one worth considering. Despite the outward language used by many in the renewable energy and “green” industries, the question of true “sustainability” is not one that’s often truly broached in any meaningful way (to my mind) by representatives and proponents of said industries.

As an example, while photovoltaics are certainly of great utility and no doubt have a place in the energy infrastructure of many regions/cities throughout the world, there’s no doubt that their manufacture and use depends heavily upon complex supply/trade chains, cheap international shipping, and relatively rare/expensive resources, amongst other things. Wouldn’t true sustainability be based around simpler, easier-to-implement approaches/technologies — good passive solar building design for example — with more complex technologies perhaps as more of a complement than a foundation?

Is a city dependant upon complex trade arrangements, the extraction of finite resources, and skilled precision manufacturing, truly sustainable? Regardless of the great advantages (with regard to some parameters) of some complex technologies, would not means of energy generation centered around the local environment and resources be closer to true sustainability?

It seems to my mind that the question of true sustainability is largely one of how complex the arrangements that a city/country/individual are dependant upon are, and how much control one has over said arrangements — or, to put it another way, how stable those arrangements are.

Thinking thusly, a truly sustainable city would seem to be one that can largely provide for itself with regard to what it is dependant upon — food production, electricity production, clean water, transportation, etc.

With these thoughts in mind, I will below go over some of the key qualities of what I think would make up a truly sustainable city, and would/will ideally be realized in at least some of the world’s cities by 2030.

Key Components Of A Sustainable City Of The Future

1. Localized Food Production — A substantial proportion of the food being consumed in the city should be produced within the city itself or in the immediate surroundings. With an emphasis based on the growing of highly productive crops (staples), and the use of soil-quality preserving practices/erosion-reducing, and ideally some form of waste-compost/non-human-waste recycling.

While the use of such practices can drive up the costs of producing food, as compared to industrial farming, the consumption of the food within the region that it is grown in can help to reduce these increased costs somewhat, owing to reduced transportation costs.

Also, the issue of replacing imported fertilizers is an important one, and one that there’s not really a great cost-effective solution to. Soils lose their fertility when the products of agricultural-production are discarded and end up elsewhere (human waste fits this bill). This lost-fertility is normally replaced (to a degree) via imported fertilizers. 

Many key industrial fertilizers (phosphorus, in particular) are expected to run scarce within only a couple of decades. So it seems that a replacement needs to be used, rather than simply continuing with the importation of large amounts of mined, industrially-produced fertilizers.

As far as I know, the only good solution with regard to this issue is the use of fertilizers produced in concert with the functioning of other industries and activities (animal husbandry, fishing, forestry, etc). If said industries are also based locally, then the “waste” products can be mutually reused — for example, by-catch from the fishing industry and animal waste can be used in the creation of fertilizers, grain husks can be used as animal feed, etc. And, potentially, recycled processed-urine and bone-ash can be used as a phosphorus fertilizer substitute.

Human waste likely can’t be used on a large scale because of issues with disease — cultures that have used human waste as fertilizers in the past have, tellingly, almost all had taboos against the eating of raw vegetables.

2. Passive Building Design — An approach to building and home design (and city/town for that matter) that has been greatly under-utilized in recent years but can be extremely effective and has a long history of use is “passive design“. Which is, to put it simply, taking the wider environment (and other buildings) into great consideration during the creation of new buildings and homes.

Through the use of intelligent design, potential heating and cooling costs can be greatly reduced. Simple things such as the use of dark colours to absorb heat during the winter, light white-washed roofs to reflect light and heat during the summer, narrow streets in hot climates, etc, can go a long ways towards reducing the net energy use of a city.

Many of the cities of the current world simply weren’t designed with energy conservation in mind at all, and are mostly more just a product of industrial growth and the need for relatively cheap places to house workers and facilities. So, selective resign of heavily populated key areas (city centers, etc) could probably go a long way.

3. Localized Energy Production — Something key to any cities (sustainable or otherwise) of the future will be reliable energy production — something that can probably most easily be accomplished through the (relative) localization of electricity/energy production.

To my mind, distributed solar has a lot going for it, but the wider solar industry that it is dependant upon is itself fragile in many ways. True sustainability, then, would/will likely require the localization of solar energy technology production — something that is already happening to some degree or other in some parts of the world.

Other options for reliable energy production for sustainable cities are: hydroelectric (an excellent choice in the regions where it’s viable, imo); wind energy (I’m less bullish on this); biogas; and/or marine energy technologies (a bit of a wildcard).

With regard to “distributed” solar, large buildings and skyscrapers that can produce enough energy (through the use of solar windows perhaps) to power themselves completely seem like a real possibility in many ways. Perhaps a city where much of the electricity is provided for thusly is a possibility?

4. Good Public Transportation, Livable City Centers — Something that I’d very much like to see in a city of the future is a well-designed and reliable public transportation system, along with a well-designed and very “livable” city center — one where walking is an enjoyable thing to do and not just an exercise in avoiding being run over. In particular, it seems that a truly sustainable city should find a way to cut down on the unnecessary use of personal automobiles — not only is such ubiquitous use incredibly energy intensive, but it also produces significant amounts of harmful air pollution.

A general moving away from automobile-centered city design — towards walkability and good public transportation — would likely go a long ways in decreasing per-capita energy use and increasing the resiliency of the city in the face of volatile gasoline prices.

5. Localized Resource Extraction & Reliance — It seems that with the reality of resource scarcity likely to become more important over the coming decades, that a relocalization of resource use is an inevitability for many — and certainly a requirement for a sustainable city.

By “relocalization,” what I’m referring to is a withdrawal from reliance on resources that have a long, complex supply chain, and/or are set to become increasingly expensive to extract or produce, and a reappraisal of locally available resources that may be “less ideal” for whatever various purposes, but far cheaper, simpler, easier to extract and produce. Thereby decreasing reliance on an increasingly volatile globalized market, and increasing self-sufficiency — aspirations that would benefit a city looking to embrace true sustainability.


Now the above-mentioned components certainly aren’t the only ones necessary for the long-term sustainability of a city (nor the only things that would be nice to see), but they are (to my eyes) important ones. They represent a good portion of what I’d like to see addressed and put into practice over the next 15 years, somewhere in the world — and are as far as I can tell a workable path towards sustainability.


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