Urban Planning for Sustainability

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There are many negative effects of urban sprawl, as cities expand to the suburbs. It eats up valuable and irreplaceable agricultural land. Residents are dependent on cars for jobs, school, shopping and recreation. A sense of community is lost. Single-family homes use more energy than apartment buildings, and they are larger, using more resources to build new. Suburbs tend to be economically and culturally homogenous.

To prevent these things from happening, planners need to keep their cities compact. High-density cities are more efficient in terms of energy, infrastructure, providing local services, creating community, nurturing diversity and leaving green space open. How can they do that?

Sustainable urban planning: use what we’ve got

Instead of building new, urban areas can be rejuvenated by developing brownfields and abandoned lots and buildings. Utility and road infrastructure is already in place, which saves money that can be invested elsewhere. Buildings should be multi-use commercial and residential within walking or short transit distance to jobs, schools and recreation. The close proximity creates community, which in turn offers a sense of identity and a feeling of safety.

Urban infill allows agricultural land outside the city to be preserved. Green space can be created and conserved for recreation, community and residents’ well-being.

Public transit strategy and urban planning

Effective public transportation is crucial for a high-density city to work well. Most residents of Manhattan don’t own cars, but they have easy access to culture, employment, recreation, shopping and education by getting on a bus, subway or train.

Public transportation hubs need to be developed so people can get off a train or bus, take care of their needs right there and head home. Planners need to make it easy for people to get around and take care of their day-to-day business, be it shopping, playing or working.


Walkable and bike-able neighborhoods help create community

Besides public transportation, biking and walking paths make services more accessible to residents. They get more exercise, too, which improves their health. Walkability helps create a neighborhood, too. Many years ago, I sat at an outdoor pub in New York City on a summer afternoon. I noticed that the same people walked by over and over again, going here or there. It was a neighborhood! It was not a disjointed place of strangers running around. This needs to be encouraged in urban planning.

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Walkability also saves infrastructure. The fewer cars going over roads and what lies beneath them means they will last longer. Money saved by any city is welcomed. Reinvesting it in public transportation or more walking and biking paths furthers the ROI of infrastructure.

Urban planning and the sustainable apartment building

Apartment buildings are more energy efficient than single-family homes. Sharing walls with other units cuts down on heat loss and heat infiltration, keeping heating and cooling bills low. Apartments are also generally smaller than a suburban home, again using less energy. High-density housing is an integral part of a compact city.

All public services work more efficiently when more people are using them. There are equations for the appropriate number of people per acre for, say, a sewage system to work well, but I won’t get into that here. The costs of building, running, maintaining and expanding services can be spread out over more people, making it more economically efficient.

Compact cities are win/win

The city is becoming the most eco-friendly place to live. Some folks think ‘high-density’ means crowding, filth and crime, but it’s a revitalization of urban centers to bring people together. It is also a way to cut back on new building and new infrastructure, saving resources and municipal monies.

Compact cities seem like a win/win to me!

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.