sustainable city planning

4 Principles of Sustainable City Planning 

Rachel Lark - September 25, 2023

We are reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn affiliate commission.

Get mindful for a second and reflect on what influences your day the most. Many people mention their career or family, but the place you live also plays a vital role in your overall quality of life. Sustainable city planning goes beyond treating environmental concerns as a fad. Such locations put the human experience at the forefront, which in turn bolsters eco-friendliness — it turns out that what’s good for people is also healthy for the planet. 

While environmental activists clamor for sweeping national and international solutions, what’s going down on smaller, local scenes could play a larger role in meeting climate goals than more sweeping yet generalized initiatives. Mayors and other city leaders are crucial to making eco-friendly, human-centered communities the rule rather than the exception. Here are four principles of sustainable city planning they should keep in mind when making decisions. 

Sustainable City Planning Emphasizes Easy, Accessible Green Transportation 

The first principle in sustainable city planning is green transportation. Imagine a future where bike messengers don’t have to fear for their lives when getting goods from point A to point B in an eco-friendly fashion. 

While e-vehicles offer zero emissions, not everyone can afford one. The best sustainable city planning initiatives aim at providing alternatives to getting behind the wheel by doing the following. 

1. Encouraging Walking 

China has experienced some of the fastest urban growth and is a leader in sustainable city planning. One of their eight principles for design includes a dense network of streets and paths to provide alternatives to travel besides sitting in traffic. Residents can bike or walk along vehicle-restricted trails. Other roadways might contain a combination of walking/biking routes, high-speed rail and traditional car lanes. 

2. Building Better Bike Paths 

E-bikes are a blast. Nearly everyone who has ever ridden one marvels at how little effort they take, how cool they keep you in hot weather and how fun they make it to get from one place to the next. Why haven’t they exploded in popularity, given that they could combat rising obesity rates and protect the environment in one fell swoop? 

A huge factor is that sharing the road simply isn’t safe in many locations. Part of sustainable city planning includes adding dividers and rumble strips to protect bike lanes from encroaching vehicles. 

3. Improving Public Transportation

Taking public transit sounds great until you must walk a mile laden with groceries because the bus doesn’t go close enough to your door. Electric light rail and biodiesel buses with adequate routes to cover all neighborhoods encourage residents to kick back and ride instead of driving. 

4. Regulating Existing Road Use 

Building new isn’t the only method of improving city transportation. City planners can also regulate roadways, determining appropriate vehicle use and restricting some thoroughfares for alternative transportation. For example, they may repurpose one lane of an existing street for public transit or alternative-fuel vehicles. 

Self-Sufficiency Provides Security in a Rapidly-Changing World 

Inner cities have a dubious reputation among the prepper crowd because high populations and limited resources can make things ugly in a jiffy. However, they’re the first places to come back online after a power failure or cyberattack and may be the only spot to locate modern health care in a pandemic, two of the more likely SHTF scenarios you may encounter (the zombie apocalypse is either highly unlikely or already here, depending on who you ask). 

Cities can be the best places to take refuge from natural disasters and extreme weather events if leaders follow the sustainable city planning principle of self-sufficiency. City planners must meet several key factors to create a self-sufficient urban environment. 

1. Energy Creation 

Although there are roughly 2,000 power stations across the United States, the reality of fossil fuels means that electricity must travel from the facility across thousands of miles of wires, leaving lots of room for things to go wrong. Unfortunately, most modern humans have no idea how to live without juice. 

Fortunately, solar power is a boon for both self-sufficient urban design and the planet. Leaders should take advantage of all available incentives, passing them on to businesses and consumers to encourage power generation that’s both eco-friendly and localized in smaller, more frequent storage facilities to prevent large-scale outages. 

2. Water and Sanitation

Many cities do better with delivering water and sanitation. However, it’s vital to manage waste in an eco-friendly fashion. 

Currently, sustainable city planning involves expanding and improving recycling facilities, as single-stream operations result in too much landfill fodder. Additionally, city leaders can distribute compost bins, either for free or for a nominal fee, to dispose of organic matter in an eco-friendly way. 

3. Food

One of the major issues with urban centers, as the pandemic illustrated, is the difficulty of getting goods when supply chain disruptions hit. You can live without toilet paper, but food is a necessity. 

Community gardens aren’t only good for bringing neighbors together with a healthy activity. They also provide needed supplies in case of disaster, as does urban agriculture. City planners interested in sustainability can encourage such projects, building their resilience while going green. 

4. Resource Distribution 

People can bang the drum all day long about who deserves what, but in the end, inequality leads to civil unrest and dangerous conditions. Violence is inherently unsustainable as it destroys needed resources and may release toxic substances into the air and waterways. 

Part of sustainable city planning ensures that all residents have affordable housing, food and water. Prioritizing such projects isn’t about giving less prosperous community members something they don’t “deserve.” It’s about ensuring ongoing peace, stability and resources for everyone by providing no one is driven to desperate acts of violence in an attempt to survive. 

Green Buildings for Urban Jungles

A city is a sum of its individual built environments. Designing new construction around green building elements and updating existing structures is the third principle of sustainable city planning. What are some upgrades that city leaders, architects and patrons should consider? Here’s a short list of green building features: 

  • Alternative energy: Green buildings may incorporate solar, although some might utilize other sustainable technologies like wind. They also use passive solar design to work with, not against, the natural environment. 
  • Water efficiency: New builds and retrofits should contain low-flow devices to conserve this resource. 
  • Sustainable materials: Hemp, bamboo and cork are some examples of materials that regrow quickly, minimizing deforestation. Improved insulation materials reduce microplastics, and better quality glass and sealants stop energy leaks. 
  • Waste management: New builds and retrofits should account for sound waste management processes, contracting with outside processors and installing ample onsite recycling and composting bins for residents. 
  • Superior indoor environment: Green buildings pay as much attention to improving indoor air quality as keeping the planet cleaner. 

Here, too, there are models city planners can look to as examples. New York Mayor Eric Adams recently announced a major initiative to retrofit unused office buildings left vacant by pandemic WFH changes, creating more affordable housing while ceding to the changing times and the need for more rapid environmental action. 

Ample Green Spaces for All

Finally, sustainable city planning includes ample green spaces for all to enjoy. These areas serve multiple vital functions. For one, they counteract the urban heat island effect, keeping residents cooler when conducting outdoor business. Eventually, careful planning could complement sustainable transportation measures, as more people are likely to walk or bike in less extreme weather conditions. 

Furthermore, such spaces encourage healthy recreation that doesn’t create emissions. Multiple studies suggest that children who grow up amid nature are better environmental stewards as adults. Adults also benefit from such areas, as spending time outdoors eases many mental health symptoms and gets them more active, combating obesity. 

The need for green spaces coincides with sustainable transportation requirements. Designing urban pathways around natural areas preserves existing resources and encourages residents to use them. It’s far more pleasant to stroll to the market amid birdsong than the ceaseless cacophony of city traffic. 

Principles of Sustainable City Planning 

Many people focus on national and international green initiatives. However, localized, sustainable city planning may do more to combat the climate crisis than treaties and accords. 

Green living begins at home. By creating eco-friendly, human-centered urban environments, sustainable city planning can preserve the planet while improving the health and well-being of residents and leading the way toward a cleaner tomorrow. 

Share on

Like what you read? Join other readers!

Get the latest updates on our planet by subscribing to the newsletter!

About the author

Rachel Lark

Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.