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Why Sustainable Cities and Urban Planning Are Important

Updated on September 19, 2012

Urban Planning 101: Walkability

The way forward in urban planning is to develop sustainable, compact cities that mitigate the negative effects of urban sprawl.

The world is increasingly becoming a crowded place. In fact, 70 percent of world population is expected to be urban by 2050. Cities and in-migration occur for a few reasons. People move from rural areas for better jobs, education, and healthcare. There are more services and opportunities. An overlooked reason is mobility itself, which is easier accomplished than in the past.

The Problem of Urban Sprawl

So cities develop but how they develop largely determines their public utility and environmental impact. This is a matter of urban design. Sprawl is a problem for a few reasons. As a low density, spread-out public space land is quickly urbanized by buildings and roads. Consequently, this produces a car-dependent society where people generally live far from their places of employment and must commute. This means more traffic, accidents and fatalities, pollution, and personal transportation costs.

Subdivisions often span for miles and malls (strip and shopping) use enormous tracts of land. Further, when public space is spread out it creates the repetition of facilities like hospitals, police and fire stations, and schools. Compact, denser cities require fewer of these places and larger, mixed-use facilities can be used that defer costs in several ways. Overall, fewer infrastructures and utilities need to be built or used. A compact city, like New York, has inherent space, energy, and cost advantages over other spread out cities, like Los Angeles.

Also, there is greater risk for social inequity when people live spread apart. The underprivileged are often unable to access opportunities that may be offered. Sometimes this means less access to basic services, like grocery facilities and recreational spaces. This has been studied and shown to contribute to the general decline of neighborhoods in urban areas. Not only would the less privileged have better access in high-density communities, everyone culturally benefits when neighborhoods are more concentrated and cooperative.

Low Density City
High Density City
San Francisco
Mexico City

The Smart Growth Network's 10 Basic Principles

  1. Mix land uses
  2. Take advantage of compact building design
  3. Create a range of housing opportunities and choices
  4. Create walkable neighborhoods
  5. Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place
  6. Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas
  7. Strengthen and direct development towards existing communities
  8. Provide a variety of transportation choices
  9. Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost effective
  10. Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions

The Future of Cities Today

Check out the Crystal, the new London landmark and fully sustainable building that is the world's first center on urban sustainability.

The Benefits of Smart Growth

Smart growth is an urban planning idea that societies can be compact and sustainable as opposed to sprawling. Cities can be pedestrian, full of open spaces, and limited in outward growth; given to mixed-use building, varied in transportation options, and preservative of forestry and farmland. An American example of this is the city of Portland.

The key is to revitalize urban cores rather than to rely on building outward. In many places, especially areas where the land is a dominant factor in growth, planning must rely on smart growth principles. In Japan, a mountainous land, many shopping malls are developed in mid-rise buildings, something uncommon in the U.S. where mall complexes consume multiple acres of land.

The costs of building smart as opposed to doing otherwise are drastic: potentially up to 50 percent less in housing and transportation costs. For instance, one-third of Copenhagen’s 1.2 million inhabitants use 217 miles of bikeway each day. A city like Hong Kong that is built into the air rather than over the land has a sustainability advantage over most cities and is able to spend less money because of it. A whopping 80 percent of Tokyo’s 35 million citizens use the subway system. Compact cities are able to reduce carbon emissions easier with fewer cars polluting the air.

Green spaces and other recreational open spaces provide areas for people to enjoy. Some cities are enacting green space ordinances

Dense cities are viewed as the way forward in urban planning. Growth projections over the next 20 years show that 95 percent of growth will be in the developing world. India and China, particularly, is where much of this growth is occurring. The growth rate in Mumbai is 40 people per hour. Smart urban planning is the only way to manage such influx—there and anywhere—and helps avoid slum communities that burden the socio-economic system rather than to help it. There are more advantages to building sustainable cities than sprawling ones.


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