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Sustainable Urban Design Explained

Unfortunately, most cities in the world have not been built keeping sustainable urban design in mind.

Sustainable urban design is focusing on planning, building, and redesigning towns and cities with sustainability as a priority. Redefining the relationship between the environment, economic activities, and social livelihood in the urban setting.

This means planning the urban layout and infrastructure to reduce negative environmental effects, like waste, while improving people’s quality of life, health, and wellbeing. Improving the resilience and longevity of our cities.

Key Takeaways

  • Integrates green spaces, reducing pollution and improving air quality.
  • Encourages reduction of private car use, promoting public transport and walkable areas.
  • Focuses on efficient use of resources, minimizing energy consumption in urban settings.

This is one of the most interesting examples of sustainable development, it aims at balancing the 3 pillars of sustainability for improved social conditions, attention to the environment, with more efficient use of natural resources while still maintaining a thriving economy.

Sustainable urban Planning and design

More than 4 billion people around the world, over half of the world population, now live in urban areas, and that number continues to rise. Never before in history have so many people lived in such dense, high population areas as we have now, and unfortunately.

This means there are many things we have yet to learn about planning and building cities in ways that are healthy for both the people who live in them and the environment.

Sustainable urban design needs to tackle many serious problems in our modern cities. Immense amounts of the pollution originate from cities, which has serious consequences for the environment and leads to countless health issues and deaths for humans.

According to a recent study published by MDPI, the building sector accounts for one-third of energy consumption, 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, and around 40% of natural resources.

Cities produce the majority of the world’s waste, use most of the world’s electricity, and emit a majority of global greenhouse gas emissions. This can be dramatically reduced thanks to smart buildings and the latest digital tech.

Many cities also suffer from poverty, poor infrastructure and badly designed buildings, and roughly a third of the global urban population lives in slums, though this is improving with time, for most countries.

So, what are some of the important areas to focus on to design sustainable urban areas and remedy the problems we face with cities today?

Towards the Design of Greener Cities

Sustainable urban design - Green cities

Many cities around the world are mostly colored grey, with very little green ever in sight. A lack of trees and other greenery may be seen as unavoidable when you live in a city, but this doesn’t have to be the case, as it is very possible to allow nature to flow into cities instead of forcing it out, and there are innumerable benefits to be had from doing so.

Air quality is a serious concern in cities, as air pollution has severe and deadly effects on people and the environment, and a majority of the world’s population has to live with poor-quality air.

There are many different things that need to be done in order to reduce air pollution, but just planting trees in the right places could lead to significant improvements. Trees and grass can not only produce oxygen but also capture and remove small particles and other pollutants from the air, as well as absorb carbon dioxide.

Spending time in or near natural areas is associated with numerous health benefits, both mental and physical. Living near an open, green area like a park encourages people to be more physically active and reduces stress by giving residents a space to relax, breathe clean air and connect with nature. Even simply walking through woodland and being exposed to wildlife and nature is associated with better mental health.

A park also makes a fantastic place for people to meet up and socialise, helping visitors to connect with other people in their community and improving social sustainability.

Trees also provide shade and reduce the temperature of the surrounding area, which is of increasing importance to help reduce electricity consumption used for air conditioning during the warmer months of the year.

Making cities greener doesn’t necessarily just mean turning large areas of land into parks. Even small areas of trees, placed wherever there is enough space will be very impactful. If the city streets themselves are filled with trees, people will be able to experience all of the benefits, like shade, cleaner air and improved mood, throughout all of their daily life.

For those reasons, carefully and creatively planning the distribution of green areas across our cities represents an important aspect of sustainable urban design.

Here are some exambles of sustainable urban design!

Reducing the use of private cars

Urban planning - reduce cars

All around the world, road transport is a major contributor to both air pollution and carbon emissions. Private car usage does not look likely to reduce in the future either, as more and more cars are produced every year, making their impact even more severe. 

An important aspect of conscious urban design is to reduce the polluting impact of private cars. This may be achieved thanks to the transition to hybrid and electric cars. In fact, almost all of the urban environmental impact of road vehicles comes from burning fuel. While, on the other hand, electric vehicles create much less pollution and greenhouse gas emissions during their use.

Moreover, when the technology will evolve, we may even get some electric cars that can charge themselves with solar or other renewable energy. This would make them even more sustainable.

However, the industrial production of electric cars is in itself a very polluting process as well, so reducing the use of cars as a whole is still very important both now and in the future.

For many people, using a car is a matter of necessity, as other forms of transport are not practical for them. So if you can’t live without a car, you can at least make sure to use methods to save gas and maybe consider some additional economic incentives that may be available on your auto insurance. Those can help reduce your fuel consumption and environmental impact.

Making public transport accessible and easy to use for as many people as possible is important to provide these people with a better alternative.

Unfortunately, many people choose to use a car even when they can easily walk, cycle or use a bus or train instead. For this reason, education and increasing environmental and sustainability awareness in the general population are also very important.

In order to reduce car use, it needs to be easy and safe for people to move around their communities by walking, cycling or using other forms of transport, and the use of cars can be discouraged so that people only use them when they need to. For those reasons, the sustainable urban design includes also:

  • Creating more car-free streets and other safe places to walk and cycle around the city, such as bike lanes that are separated from roads.
  • Designing neighbourhoods so that the everyday amenities and services residents need are close to their homes and can be easily accessed without a car.
  • Create disincentives to using cars, such as congestion charges in a city centre, limiting who can travel in certain areas, introducing higher parking charges and fewer spaces to park. The money gained from these can then be used to finance sustainable types of transport. However, it is very important that all of these measures are fair, and do not punish people who have no other practical options for their daily transport.

Sustainable urban planning: city density And Proximity

High density

The density, or compactness, of a city, can play an important role:

  • A low-density area of development, often referred to as urban sprawl, has people spread over a very large area, for example in single-family buildings that are spaced far apart from each other. This overly-large area of development damages and destroys natural areas in the countryside, and increases the resident’s dependence on inefficient automobiles for transport, as amenities are often outside of walking distance and public transport is less practical and efficient. 
  • In contrast to this, in a dense area, less space is needed for each person, public transport is more efficient and practical, and people will have to travel much shorter distances between their daily destinations such as their workplace and the shops.

Sustainable Food and urban design

Sustainable food

Cities are full of people, and people need to eat, so it’s no surprise many issues of sustainability arise from our diets.

Sticking to a healthy diet can be difficult in the modern world, and life in a city can be especially hectic, meaning that many people in urban areas do not have the free time to cook their own meals. As a result, it’s natural that many people choose to eat fast food on a regular basis. 

However, much of the food that is affordable and readily available in cities are highly-processed, calorie-dense food with limited nutritional value, which leads to widespread health issues like obesity and poor nutrition.

The production of those types of food also takes a heavy toll on the environment.

In order to encourage better diets, restaurants and supermarkets in cities should be encouraged to have a diverse and affordable selection of healthier, nutrient-dense meals.

The amount of food waste produced in cities is another urgent issue. A large portion of all the food produced for human consumption will end up not being eaten, which is a waste of the time, energy and resources used in its production.

The reasons why people waste so much food are varied, but some are that people in high-income countries can easily buy more food than they need, that food portions have increased in size, and that we now have overly high standards for the appearance of our food.

Some ways to reduce food waste are:

  • Adequate portion sizes so people are less likely to buy more than they will eat
  • Making food recycling easier and more accessible so that less food waste goes to landfills, where it will produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas
  • Retrieving discarded food that is still safe to eat and distributing it to people in need
  • Leverage the benefits of green technologies, like food storage monitoring and plant based protective layers on fruit and vegetables.

The sustainable design of our cities is also aimed at facilitating food recycling by carefully distributing the necessary infrastructures in our cities.

Sustainable Energy Use in the urban setting

green energy

Out of all the issues described in this article, energy consumption is probably the most universal. Every city in the world consumes an immense amount of energy, and much of it comes from unsustainable sources, which are continually consuming valuable resources and worsening climate change. 

Transitioning to sustainable forms of energy is a vital part of solving this problem, but to improve the environmental sustainability it is also imperative that our cities consume less energy in general, even if it all came from clean sources. 

One of the most significant uses of energy in a city is its buildings. A huge amount of energy is needed to construct any kind of building, which will then need to consume more energy throughout its lifetime, mostly for lighting, heating and cooling, and running appliances inside.

It is very important then that we build long-lasting and highly efficient buildings (possibly using sustainable concrete), as a building’s energy needs will reduce dramatically when it uses energy-efficient lighting and appliances and is well insulated to reduce the need for heating in the colder months.

Sustainable urban design is therefore promoting any action that reduces the need for lighting, heating or cooling helping to reduce energy consumption, even planting trees for example, which significantly helps cool the surrounding air temperature and shield nearby buildings from the sun.


In conclusion, sustainable urban design aims at improving the sustainability of our cities by looking at every aspect of the urban planning that can:

  • Blend green natural elements in the city in a harmonic way, improving the overall quality of life of the inhabitants, reducing pollution and the need for cooling in the warmer months of the year.
  • Careful urban planning makes sure that all the daily necessities of the citizens are available within walking distance and that public transport is convenient and efficient.
  • Prefer areas with a high density of population when possible. If designed correctly, those areas can minimise the need for transport for most of the population, saving energy and reducing pollution.
  • Design the infrastructures necessary to reduce food waste and promote recycling.
  • Minimise the energy consumption of cities, including lighting, heating and cooling. This can be facilitated thanks to mindful urban planning.

There is much work to be done to make our cities, and the way we live in them, more sustainable, and although every city in the world will have different problems and needs to be taken into account, every day we are learning more about the best ways to move the urban world towards a sustainable future thanks to the increasing attention towards sustainable design of urban areas.

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