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Sustainability in the City

Sustainability in the City

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With climate change looming over the planet, cities are doing what they can to become sustainable. A sustainable city simultaneously accomplishes social, economic, and environmental goals for existing populations and future generations.

Sustainable cities have many advantages:

  • Decrease pollution
  • Promote healthy citizens
  • Conserve water and other resources
  • Reduce unbearable heat
  • Increase in green spaces
  • Decreased CO2 emissions
  • Less traffic
  • Sanctuaries created for animals and insects

Here are things cities are doing to become for livable and sustainable:

Benefits of Going Green

Simply put, it is cheaper and more convenient to integrate eco-friendly features into a new building than it is to upgrade an older building. As the population increases, cities must expand to make more room. According to the United Nations, 68% of the world population will live in urban areas by the year 2050!

As cities evolve over time, city planners are trying to implement more environmentally friendly infrastructure. Although the initial construction costs may be higher, generations to come will benefit from such innovations.

Going green has long-term economic and metal health benefits, as well. Businesses are always looking for ways to become more efficient; by installing appliances that help conserve water and electricity, monthly bills go down as a result. Scientific studies have proven time and time again the correlation between time spent outside and happiness. Spending as little as 20 minutes a day outside can help decrease stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure, bolster the immune system, and improve focus.

Ultimately, cities hope to conserve natural resources, diminish fossil fuel dependency, decrease air and water pollution, and increase accessibility to nature.

Urban Heat Island Effects

An “Urban Heat Island” is a metro area that is warmer than its surrounding rural areas. There are several factors that cause this phenomenon. Skyscrapers block the wind, so the pollutants in the air become stagnant. Dark surfaces such as concrete and asphalt absorb and retain heat, and reflective surfaces such as skyscrapers accelerate the rate at which the city is heated. This can cause serious health issues for residents.

According to the National Weather Service, the leading cause of weather-related deaths for the past 30 years were heat related. You may think that turning on the AC is the simplest solution, but there are still consequences. Imagine every store, office, and apartment in the city running its AC unit on the highest setting. Electrical companies must burn more fossil fuels to meet this demand, which of course leads to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The spike in demand for electricity can also cause power outages.

Greening a City

Green Space in Cities

Luckily, cities around the world have taken steps to reduce urban heat island effects. Although space is limited in the city, residents have found ways to incorporate green spaces into their environment. “Green Space” refers to surfaces covered with grass, trees, and other vegetation. They provide much needed shade and moisture, a sanctuary for insects and birds, and help cities offset their carbon footprint. Parks, roadside greenery, trails along natural water sources, gardens, and urban meadows and woodlands are considered green spaces.

New York Restoration Project

The New York Restoration Project is a non-profit organization dedicated to making New York City public spaces green and beautiful. They bring resources to communities that need it by updating aging buildings, planting trees, and creating green spaces.

New York Green Spaces

New York dedicates 27% of its total land to green spaces, making it the highest ranking in the US. Moscow dedicated an astounding 54% of its total land to green spaces, making it the highest ranking in the world. Some apartments have implemented “green roofs,” or community rooftop gardens. Having soil on the roof insulates the building and cools it down, but it can be very heavy. If you are interested in implementing a green roof, reach out to an architect or engineer first. They can assess the desired location to make sure the roof will support the extra weight!

infographic showing what cities are doing to become sustainable. Los Angeles, New York City, Copenhagen, Bogota
These four cities are taking steps to become for sustainable. Share this infographic.

Greening Buildings

Vertical Gardening Systems

Vertical gardens have gained popularity in recent years as well.

As of 2020, Santalaia is the largest vertical garden in the world. 115,000 native plants cover this apartment building in Bogota, Colombia. According to their website, that is enough to provide oxygen to roughly 3000 people in a year. These plants help purify the atmosphere by capturing roughly half-ton of dust, filtering almost a ton of heavy metals and a little over 2000 tons of harmful gases. Despite the heavy rainfall in Bogota, the project was completed in just 16 months!

Heat Reflective Paint

Coating city structures with a light-colored paint will cause them to reflect instead of absorbing heat. This is not a new idea; civilizations have been painting their homes white for centuries. For example, most buildings in Santorini, Greece and Rhonda, Spain paint buildings white to provide some relief from the intense Mediterranean sun.

According to a 2018 article from Business Insider, Los Angeles spent $40,000 per mile to paint the streets with CoolSeal coating. This coating can reduce surface temperatures by as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit!

Additionally, New York City painted over 9 million square feet of rooftop white between 2010 and 2018.

Ways to Conserve Water

According to the EPA, "a leaky faucet that drops at the rate of one drip per second can waste more than 3,000 gallons a year." How do cities avoid this senseless waste?

WaterSense Label

Some buildings install shower heads, faucets, and toilets that have the WaterSense label. This label signifies the appliance is EPA verified and meets strict water efficiency criteria. The appliances typically use 20% less water than the federal standards.

Dual Flush Toilets

Did you know that older toilets can use as much as 5 to 8 gallons per flush? To combat this problem, some buildings have also installed dual flush toilets. These toilets have two buttons to control the amount of water used to flush, depending on whether it is solid or liquid waste. Some buildings have installed a Greywater System to safely reuse water for toilet flushing and watering the green roofs. Not only does this prolong the life of the septic tank, but it also lowers water bills! Instead of directing water into the sewage system, this system collects and filters wastewater your showers, baths, and washing machines. Unlike blackwater, greywater is not contaminated with toxic chemicals and feces (think toilet water).

To learn about fixing toilet problems that cause water waste, read our blog "Common Toilet Problems | How to Fix a Toilet"

infographic showing how you can reduce your carbon footprint. biking to work, working from home, buying a dual flush toilet, and heat reflective paint
Here are some options for helping your city become sustainable. Share this infographic.

Sustainability of Transportation

According to the EPA, transportation accounts for about 28 percent of total CO2 emissions in the US. Environmental concerns and limited parking space have forced cities to rethink their transportation infrastructure.

Driving Restrictions

Some cities, such as Mexico City, have implemented road space rationing to reduce vehicle emissions and manage traffic congestion. Depending upon the last digits of your license plate, only certain vehicles are allowed on the roads on certain days. This method of traffic control has received backlash because individuals with higher incomes can afford a second car to avoid complying to this mandate.

Bike Paths

Some cities have built bike paths that cut through the busiest parts of the city to encourage residents to commute in a healthier, more eco-friendly way. By providing an alternative route that avoids car traffic and busy intersections, commuters are incentivized to bike to work.

There are services, such as a Nextbike and Citibike, that provide convenient bike rentals all throughout the city. Some even have special offers such as free access to students or a free ride if it is under 30 minutes.

Biking in Denmark

Did you know that Copenhagen’s “Cycle Superhighway” is roughly 240 miles long, and that 35% of people who work in Copenhagen commute to work by bike? Paris, London, and New York City are following suit, city officials are planning the construction of protected bike lanes.

Benefits of Home Working

Working from home has become more commonplace this year due to COVID-19 restrictions.

In the first half of 2020, when travel restrictions were at their strictest, CO2 emissions decreased by 8.8%! This goes to show how large of an impact commuting has on our environment.

Employers have recognized the benefits of having their employees work from home, such as lower electricity bills, work-life balance, lower turnover, access to more diversified talent pools, and a 20% increase in worker productivity.

Google employees are not going back to work in person until the end of summer 2021, and Amazon and Apple employees will not return to work until January 2021. Moving forward, working from home will definitely be an option, even if it’s only once a week.

Final Thoughts

A Call to (Immediate) Action

The CDP is a non-profit organization that helps cities worldwide measure and monitor their environmental impact. Disclosing information is completely optional, however, more than 800 cities are actively participating in this program. By analyzing the data with the help of these dedicated professionals, city officials can tell which areas they are strong in and which areas they need to focus on. As a result, cities have implemented programs that improve air and water quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and provide more eco-friendly modes of transportation and sources of renewable energy.

Some cities have been forced to act out of necessity, because their citizens are already experiencing the effects of climate change. Coastal cities, such as New York City and Melbourne, are at risk of being submerged due to rising sea levels. According to the Climate Institute, scientist currently predict the sea level will increase by 6.6 feet by the year 2100. Long term climate change will lead to extreme weather patterns, which in turn cause flooding, droughts, and food insecurity. This June, the artic town of Verkhoyansk experienced a record high of 100.4 °F.

Unfortunately, there are still countless mayors and city planners that do not have the capability or the will to instill change. These environmental issues will not disappear if we continue to ignore them.

We can hope that individuals and organizations will do everything in their power to combat climate change, but they can only do so much. Because cities are responsible for 75% of global CO2 emissions, I believe city leaders and planners should step up to the challenge of making their cities eco-friendlier. They have access to tools and resources that can help them make a profound impact on not only their local community, but the world.

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