Urban Sustainability Trends For Healthy Cities

The awareness and expectations about environmental and social issues are “mature” topics among citizens in advanced economies, such as the United States and the European Union. Also in emerging economies the interest about these issues is rising (or will rise) as result of the increase in average income levels.

Why Are People Demanding Sustainable Practices?

Economic principles define that the demand for environmental goods is income elastic. In other words, when the average income reaches a certain level, society in general will want to spend a larger income’s share on these goods, improving efforts to reduce the pollution. Therefore, based on the law of supply and demand, it’s logical to assume that the demand for urban sustainability will lead to the development of greater environmental solutions in our cities.

Urban Sustainability Areas

Currently many cities are leveraging, or plan to use, the available technologies to improve the efficiency of their services, and to solve social and environmental problems.

The World Economic Forum identifies these three interconnected areas of urban sustainability:

  • Smart Energy

  • Sustainable Buildings

  • Urban Mobility

These areas are part of the wider concept of the model for “smart cities”, which can be easily identified as the master urban trend. In order to discover the sustainability trends within these areas, this article will analyze the WEF “SlimCities Knowledge Cards”.


Solar panels installed on a rooftop of a home. Image via Giotech.com.au

Smart Energy Trends

Energy is what fuels our cities therefore, there are many important issues, such as GHG emissions, and energy costs and availability, that city planners must consider. To address these issues both the public and the private sectors developed these solutions:

  1. Decentralized Energy and Micro Grids: decentralizing energy generation, thus reducing the transmission distances, makes it possible to reduce energy losses. Micro grids are small-scale, decentralized network.
  2. Smart Grids: a concept that combines ICT with the electrical power networks to manage it in a “smarter” way.
  3. Electric Vehicles: the mass adoption of electric cars can have a huge impact in cutting carbon emissions and fuel demand.
  4. Smart Metering and Info Displays: making energy usage visible is an incentive to reduce the energy consumption.
  5. Real Time Pricing and Demand Response: the New York trial shows how to give a flexible (supply based) price to residents using electricity depending on the time of day energy is being consumed.
  6. Combined Heat & Power and District Heating: both systems offer a substantial efficiency improvement.
  7. Renewable and Feed-in Tariffs: renewable sources can be used to sustainably produce clean energy. Feed-in Tariffs obligate utility companies to buy electricity from renewables and so, that is a useful incentive for the private sector to invest in renewable energy production.
  8. High Efficiency Lamps and Smart Lighting: these systems improve performances and reduce electricity consumption.

Wuhan University research center in China is one of the world’s most sustainable building. Image via Inhabitat.com

Sustainable Buildings Trends

The World Economic Forum estimates that buildings account for more than 70% of urban greenhouse gas emissions. Buildings also have significant impacts on energy consumption, water management, and urban planning. Therefore, in order to have tangible benefits for the communities and the environment, it’s important to encourage the development of sustainable buildings.

Some sustainable building solutions are listed below:

  1. Certifications, Carbon Policies, and Incentives: are three elements that challenge and encourage the market to deliver “environment oriented” buildings.
  2. Incorporate Plants Into Buildings and Integrated Design: plants provide many benefits such as improvements on biodiversity, air quality and ecology, urban heat reduction, storm water run-off and, psychological benefits. An integrated design approach improves a building’s sustainability.
  3. Green Procurement Policies: public sector spending can have a significant impact in driving the market towards “green solutions”.
  4. Supply Chain Management and Recycling: supply chains can reduce waste using Plug and Play solutions and recycled materials.
  5. Renewable Energy: buildings can be equipped, for example, with rooftop photovoltaic to produce clean energy from a renewable source.
  6. Smart Buildings: a smart building leverages available technologies, like motion sensors, in order to improve its efficiency.
  7. Refurbishment: refurbishment, both in the commercial and in the residential sectors, if done properly, can improve a building’s sustainability. For instance, water saving toilets can reduce water consumption.
  8. Smart Occupants: occupant behavior is key to efficient resource utilization within a building.

Amsterdam is “Bike City”. Image via Wikimedia.

Urban Mobility Trends

Urban mobility affects the livelihoods and lifestyles of many urban dwellers and impacts environmental and economic costs. Hence, the necessity for sustainable urban mobility solutions, some of which are listed below.

  1. Bus Rapid Transit: reduces travel times, rates of incidents and, cuts carbon emission levels.
  2. Rail and Metro: both guarantee fast trips and can carry a high number of people. More than 80% of Tokyo workers use the Metro to get to work.
  3. Road and Parking Prices: either are an extra cost for the car owner and so, are incentivized to use the car only when necessary.
  4. Car Sharing: a more efficient use of resources and provides cost saving benefits from environmental and economic points of view.
  5. Energy Efficient and Electric Vehicles: (see point 3. of Smart Energy Trends)
  6. Smart Transport and Info Provisioning: smart transport systems can reduce delays and traffic, and cut air pollution and fuel consumption. Info provisioning can give people certain information about travel times and costs and encourage them to take public transit.
  7. Cycling and Walking: each guarantee an improvement in physical wellness and generate zero emissions.
  8. Legislation: can stimulate foreign car-makers to produce cars with higher environmental standards.

About The Author

Adriano Pilloni
Adriano, 25 years old, is a Master Graduate in Environmental Economics and Development from Rome Three University (Italy). During his education he developed a deep knowledge on Economics and a keen interest on Economic Theory with particular regard to energy markets, sustainability, environmental and agricultural issues. He has been proactive during his university time doing many projects and being elected by the students as Advisor of the Economics Dept. of his University. With two other students he developed a project on Food Sustainability which has been selected in the top 30 of the international Barilla contest "BCFN YES! 2013". He did the 2014 European edition of Extreme Blue, IBM's premier internship program for both graduate and undergraduate students. Now he is working as Junior Power and Gas Analyst at GDF SUEZ Italy.