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How to Build Sustainable Cities: Reimagining Urban Planning



Imagine a world where everything you need in your city—work, school, cafes, restaurants, community spaces, and more—are just a short walk, bike, or bus ride away. A city covered in green spaces and urban farms, where smog and traffic congestion are a thing of the past. Though it may seem like something out of a distant utopian future, this vision is exactly what sustainable urban planners around the world are striving to achieve.


Currently, 56% of the world’s population, or 4.4 billion people, currently live in cities, a number that is only expected to grow in the future. Yet, despite only occupying 3% of Earth’s land, cities are responsible for over 70% of global CO2 emissions, according to the World Bank. Cities are also extremely vulnerable to natural disasters due to high population density. As such, it becomes evident that building sustainable, carbon neutral cities is essential to a greener future.  


Sustainable urban planning is a field of urban planning that strives to do just that: create livable, sustainable cities. Sustainable cities envision a future of cities that not only protect our planet, but our people, simultaneously addressing social, environmental, and economic impacts through urban planning and addressing key issues like affordable housing.


What makes a sustainable city?

At the core of sustainable cities is the idea of walkable communities that, contrary to the current mode of cities and suburbs, do not necessitate a car. Seeing as transportation is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, sustainable cities intend to curb emissions not only by providing alternate forms of transportation, but by eliminating the need for transportation all together. The “15-minute city” is an urban planning concept that envisions just that, advocating for a city where all residents’ basic needs, including grocery stores, schools, parks, restaurants, healthcare, and community spaces are within a 15 minute walk or bike ride away. 


By building high-density areas, cities can bring the 15-minute city to fruition and reduce the need for long-distance transportation all together. Additionally, cities can further incentivize alternate forms of transportation, like buses, trains, biking, and walking by building adequate transportation networks. In Copenhagen, where bikes outnumber cars five to one and 42% of residents bike to work, the city is covered with cycling superhighways, creating a series of paths and bridges designed specifically for bikers. By building infrastructure such as wider sidewalks or safer bike lanes, cities can provide avenues for people to walk and bike while simultaneously de-incentivizing driving.


However, simply building high-density areas or investing into transportation infrastructure is not a silver bullet to sustainable cities. “Density is not just the key. It’s density that’s desirable. But it has to be a livable place that people want to go,” Urban Planner Edward McFarlan said. Livability is based on the idea that the needs of a community are completely met, meaning that in addition to housing and employment, people have access to green spaces, community centers and third places, educational opportunities, social spaces, and that these spaces are accessible to everyone, regardless of income. In the Bay Area, where the affordability of housing is an issue for a large portion of its population, livable cities means cities where everyone can afford to live. Policies that encourage density and building housing, such as those that allow homeowners to build Accessory Dwelling Units on their properties, allow for housing to become more affordable. 


Sustainable Urban Planning in the Bay Area

The Bay Area has always been at the forefront of technological change, and continues to do so in terms of sustainability. San Francisco is the second most sustainable city in the US, behind Seattle, according to Compare the Market. However, compared to the rest of the world, San Francisco still has a long way to go, only ranking at #15 globally.


There are currently numerous sustainable urban projects across the Bay that revise a walkable, sustainable future. One such project is the ‘Mandela Station Transit District’ in Oakland, which aims to uplift the community of color that has historically been ignored by urban planners. The project incorporates a variety of land use, including almost 700 rental apartments, many of which will be specifically designated as affordable units. At the forefront of the project is the idea that the District will be a social center for Oakland, incorporating ample space for community retail that will eventually incorporate cafes, restaurants, and maker spaces, all places for people to live, work, play, and learn.


The project is a model for the future of sustainable cities in the Bay Area, representing a city that preserves the existing history, diversity, and character of the area while maneuvering the city into a modern, sustainable future, all whilst ensuring the needs of the community are at the forefront of every decision made. With the support from its community and policymakers, the Bay Area has the power to embrace the trailblazing, futuristic community it has always been and make the decision to transition to a sustainable city, saving the planet and the community in the process. 


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