The Sustainable City
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The Sustainable City

Steven Cohen

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📖 eBook - ePub

The Sustainable City

Steven Cohen

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About This Book

Living sustainably is not just about preserving the wilderness or keeping nature pristine. The transition to a green economy depends on cities. For the first time in human history, the majority of the people on the planet live in urban areas. If we are to avert climate catastrophe, we will need our cities to coexist with nature without destroying it. Many places are already investing in the infrastructure of the future—including renewable energy, energy efficiency, mass and personal transit, and advanced sewage and waste management—but the modern city still has a long way to go.

In The Sustainable City, Steven Cohen provides a broad and engaging overview of the urban systems of the twenty-first century, surveying policies and projects already under way in cities around the world and pointing to more ways progress can be made. Cohen discusses the sustainable city from an organizational-management and public-policy perspective that emphasizes the local level, looking at case studies of existing legislation, programs, and public-private partnerships that strive to align modern urban life and sustainability. From waste management in Beijing to energy infrastructure in Africa to public space in Washington, D.C., there are concrete examples of what we can do right now. Cohen synthesizes the disparate strands of sustainable city planning in an approachable and applicable guide that highlights how these issues touch our lives on a daily basis, whether the transportation we take, where our energy comes from, or what becomes of our food waste. Providing recommendations and insights with immediacy and relevance, this book has invaluable lessons for anyone seeking to link public policy to promoting a sustainable lifestyle.

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Because a city is a human settlement that is designed for human rather than ecological well-being, it may seem inconsistent to be defining a sustainable city. With more than seven billion people on the planet and a likely maximal population of nine billion or 10 billion, it is not possible to design and build human settlements that are in perfect harmony with nature. According to ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability (2016), “sustainable cities work towards an environmentally, socially, and economically healthy and resilient habitat for existing populations, without compromising the ability of future generations to experience the same.” The goal of the sustainable city is to build human settlements that have the least possible impact on the environment. Although some may question the ethics of this, our definition of impact is to ensure that the natural systems central to human well-being are maintained and damaged as little as possible. The sustainable city minimizes its emissions of conventional air pollutants and greenhouse gases; uses as few nonrenewable resources as possible; discharges effluents into waterways after treatment that removes the most harmful pollutants; uses energy and water as efficiently as possible; and attempts to reduce and recycle waste and minimize the impact of whatever waste disposal is needed.
There is no clear, agreed-to definition of a sustainable city in the literature, though such definitions often include a range of environmental, economic, social, political, demographic, institutional, and cultural goals (Satterthwaite 1997). In 1991, the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS) Sustainable Cities Programme defined a sustainable city as one “where achievements in social, economic and physical development are made to last” (UN-Habitat 2002, 6). A 2013 report by the United Nations stated that sustainable cities can be achieved when integrating four pillars: social development, economic development, environmental management, and urban governance (United Nations 2013). The World Bank (2013b) defines sustainable cities as those that are “resilient cities that are able to adapt to, mitigate, and promote economic, social and environmental change.”
The United Nations Environment Programme (2012, 5) more specifically defines resource-efficient cities as those that “combine greater productivity and innovation with lower costs and reduced environmental impacts while providing increased opportunities for consumer choices and sustainable lifestyles.” According to Kent Portney, cities that take sustainability seriously engage in a wide variety of activities that try to improve and protect the environment, either directly or indirectly through actions such as reduction of energy consumption. He cites efforts such as reducing solid waste, redeveloping brownfield sites, protecting biodiversity, improving public transit policy, and enacting climate action goals as the types of actions that reflect a sustainable-oriented city (Portney 2013, 122).
It is possible to define sustainability so broadly that it loses meaning. In this work, I will do my best to provide a clear and bounded definition. In addition to preventing damage to vital ecosystems, the sustainable city is also a place that attracts people, culture, and commerce. It provides opportunities for human interaction and for activities that develop human potential. The forms of culture, commerce, entertainment, and social interaction can vary according to culture, taste, and tradition. And then the city’s function is to provide an opportunity and a facility for these actions to take place. When thinking about a sustainable city, it is probably worth understanding what an unsustainable city is. The unsustainable city is one that damages its natural surroundings and repulses rather than attracts people, culture, and commerce. Cities, like all human societies, evolve and change. The needs and expectations of the population change, and a place’s ability to accommodate those needs and expectations also change. And so a city is a set of economic, political, and social systems that interact with each other and exist in a specific physical setting.
One way to provide a more operational understanding of a city’s evolution and of the transition to a sustainable city is to relate my own experience of living in New York City for more than 50 of the past 63 years. When I was a boy, New York apartment buildings still had incinerators in which tenants’ garbage was burned in the middle of the night. The rest of the city’s garbage was brought to landfills in Brooklyn and Staten Island. Sewage from Manhattan was dumped untreated into the Hudson River. New York was a manufacturing and commercial center. Clothing, toys, bicycles, and even automobiles were made within the five boroughs. The now famous High Line Park was originally an elevated roadbed for freight trains that ran from the Hudson River docks to the factories located on the West Side of Manhattan (in Tribeca and Chelsea). After World War II, nearly half of New York’s economy was devoted to clothing manufacturing, distribution, and sales. We had a wonderful, fully functioning system of mass transit, an extensive park system, and a water storage and delivery system that remains an engineering marvel. The water system was needed because we destroyed most of the extensive network of groundwater that lies beneath the street grid in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Toxic waste was stored underground and in waterways such as the still poisoned Gowanus Canal.
Over the past decade, New York City has been gaining population, and it is likely that within the next decade we will be a city of nine million people. That will be a more congested and less pleasant place unless we are able to improve mass transit and build new and more creative public spaces. In the competition for global business and population, a city needs to be safe and orderly, but dynamic and exciting as well. Today, the former factories of SoHo and the West Side either are multimillion-dollar homes and commercial establishments or have been demolished to make way for the shiny new glass and steel creations of the world’s “Starchitects.” New York City has made the transition from a center of manufacturing, commerce, and finance to a center of education, health care, media, finance, public relations, and tourism. The city now exports all of its garbage to out-of-state incinerators and landfills. Its subway, sewage treatment, water, and park systems provide a tremendous head start in the transition to a sustainable city.
The city’s PlaNYC 2030 and OneNYC sustainability plans are efforts to begin the transition to urban sustainability. They set goals and priorities for the public-private partnership that will bring about the transition. The marriage of economic development and environmental protection initiated by former Mayor Bloomberg was both important and innovative. The idea that community-based environmental justice groups and powerful real estate interests could sit together and find common ground was a remarkable accomplishment for the Bloomberg administration and for New York City. In the transition from an industrial and commercial city to a postindustrial global capital, New York City nearly went bankrupt and nearly collapsed in crime and social disorder. But enlightened leadership, resiliency, and luck saved my hometown.
As manufacturing becomes more mechanized, the economies of cities focus on those types of organizations most dependent on people’s brainpower and creativity. People are needed less for their muscle than for their brains. These less mechanized and more labor-intensive operations tend to be service providers such as hospitals, educational institutions, hotels, or recreational facilities. Or they can be entities that focus on planning, strategy, creativity, and design—public relations firms, financial advisors, media companies, consulting firms, and cultural institutions.
Globally, more people live in urban areas than in rural areas, with 54 percent of the world’s population residing in urban areas as of 2014 (United Nations 2014, 1). The world’s population is becoming more urbanized because of an economic change related to the decline of manual labor and the growth of the brain-based economy. While electronic media and communication technology make it possible to contribute creative input from anywhere, the informal network that fuels the creative economy requires that we be physically present to fully participate—something we don’t yet fully understand about human communication. The person who “Skypes into” a live meeting is never a full member of the discussion. We are social creatures craving interaction and live contact. This is why we focus on the need to make cities more sustainable: their growth seems related to a long-term change in our economic life and the nature of work itself.
The concentration of population creates some problems for material and energy flows into and out of a human settlement, but it also creates opportunities for economies of scale and creative problem solving. These ideas of closed systems of production and consumption are central to the concept of the sustainable city. As the mechanization of agriculture reduces rural employment and as the Internet communicates the appeal and seductiveness of urban lifestyles, more and more of the world’s population is moving to cities. This is especially true of young educated adults: two-thirds of young adults in the United States (ages 25 to 34) with a bachelor’s degree live in the nation’s 51 largest metropolitan areas (Cortright 2014). This creates opportunities for more efficient production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. It also creates efficiencies that come from a “sharing” economy. Cars, bicycles, and indoor and outdoor spaces can be more easily shared in a dense settlement. Instead of 200 families each having their own half-acre backyard, a 10-acre park can be shared by many more people and holds the possibility of many uses that require more space than a half-acre.
People move to cities for a range of reasons, from favorable labor market conditions, to attractive public infrastructure, to the benefits of being near centers of finance, corporate headquarters, and information and technology (Buch et al. 2013; Champion 2001; Dittrich-Wesbuer, Föbker, and Osterhage 2008). Cities that have experienced resurgence are usually competitive, attract new and growing activities, and are therefore more interesting places to live; they develop a distinct and comparative advantage (Cheshire 2006; Storper and Manville 2006). Diverse amenities, cultural institutions, educational institutions, and other facilities as well as differentiated neighborhoods are also possible in cities. A neighborhood that attracts families might be distinguished from one that is attractive to single professionals, young couples, and students. The economic and social attractiveness of cities coupled with the diverse character of neighborhoods helps explain the growing importance of urban areas.
On the other side of the equation, the resources required to clothe, feed, house, and stimulate urbanites can strain the resources of the planet if they do not largely depend on renewable rather than finite resources. Population plus the rate and style of consumption drives resource utilization, but so too does the use of particular materials and sources of energy in production processes. The residents of cities will have some ability as consumers to insist on sustainable production processes, but these are not processes that they will control.
While urban dwellers may not directly observe the environmental impact of their consumption, governments, nongovernmental organizations, and researchers must observe, analyze, project, and communicate those effects. Public awareness of effects will hopefully lead to changes in public policy, regulation, and ultimately private corporate and individual behaviors. Key will be the development and implementation of technologies that permit consumption while mitigating its environmental impact. In the United States, Japan, and Europe, we have already seen that this is possible. Gross domestic product (GDP) has grown over the past half-century, but air pollution and water pollution have been reduced. Control technologies have been put in place to reduce these effects.
Pollution control technologies and green infrastructure cost money but, if designed correctly, can increase quality of life and economic efficiency for people living in cities. When cities are clogged in gridlock, or closed down due to flooding, or waste energy and water, then the cost structure of businesses operating in those cities is impaired because of lower productivity. When air pollution sends children or their parents to the hospital, the costs of health care and child care must be counted as costs of air pollution that can be reduced with investment in pollution control technologies.
In sum, the focus on cities is required because if we are to achieve a sustainable economy and planet, it needs to happen in our cities. The behavior of people and their institutions needs to be changed, and as people will be in cities, we need to focus our attention on these forms of human settlement. The pressure on the countryside and on our ecosystems is coming from the actions of people in cities. As my colleague Ester Fuchs has observed, leadership from government will be required to ensure the focus on cities results in sustainability. According to Fuchs (2012, 53): “Leadership from city government, and especially mayors, is critical to the long-term planning that is required for sustained investment in infrastructure, economic growth and environmental sustainability that will ensure any city’s viability in the future.”
We will discuss in later chapters the social, political, managerial, and economic elements of the sustainable city. The social elements include a set of values and perceptions that lead to consumption and behavioral choices that minimize human impact on the environment. This is facilitated by a legal and regulatory structure that reinforces this behavior. The laws and rules are the outcomes of stakeholder interaction in a political process that is supportive of sustainability. A city’s government and private sector must possess the organizational capacity to collect and recycle waste, facilitate distributed generation of renewable energy, build energy efficiency, and ensure the cleanliness of all material flows into and out of the city. And the sustainable city must be capable of obtaining or generating the financial resources needed to develop and maintain sustainability infrastructure (Wang, Hawkins, and Berman 2014).
These elements of infrastructure and rules are essential to the sustainable city and help provide an operational definition of sustainability. The regulatory framework includes the right to be paid for energy contributed to the electrical grid, rules governing waste management from the smallest household to the largest business, building codes, energy efficiency codes, congestion pricing, and other elements of the tax code that reinforce resource efficiency and reuse. The infrastructure includes green solutions to combined sewer overflow, sewage treatment, recycling and effective use of waste materials, water filtration, air pollution control, toxic waste regulation and treatment, mass transit, and electric personal transit.
The most difficult element to build in the sustainable city will be the required infrastructure. This will include microgrids and smart grids that will require a huge investment of capital in rebuilding the electrical system. This will take decades, leadership, and persistence to complete. The same is true of new waste management and recycling facilities and mass transit systems. In the United States, underinvestment in virtually all forms of infrastructure has become normal and accepted practice. Bridges often need to be near collapse before we consider replacing them. In addition to underfunding of capital expenditures, many operating facilities are poorly maintained because of inadequate operations and management budgets. No effort to increase energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gases can succeed without enhanced mass transit. Because a national solution is not on the political agenda, places like Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco are on their own.
New York City’s third water tunnel is an example of the nature of these projects. When this water tunnel is completed in 2021, it will have taken nearly half a century and more than $5 billion to complete. The goal of this project is to ensure that the city’s upstate water supply can be effectively and efficiently delivered to the city (Flegenheimer 2013). The infrastructure being replaced is close to a century old and badly in need of repair. New York City has a magnificent system of water supply. It is an example of farsighted long-term leadership and investment without which the modern city of New York could never have been built. It takes advantage of ecosystems, gravity, and best-management practices to deliver high-quality and relatively low-cost water to New York. However, like the city’s subway system and electrical grid, it is old infrastructure that is decaying, and its maintenance is essential to the transition to a renewable resource–based economy. As a political matter, mayors and other elected leaders prefer capital projects that can be completed within their term in office and are visible and symbolic of progress. A waste management facility, a smart grid, a water tunnel, or a renovated subway line are expensive, sometimes invisible, and difficult for the media to report on.
The job of building a sustainable city atop the current unsustainable city will involve a decades-long transition period and a paradigm shift in the way we manage and pay for cities. The field of management itself will need to change as we integrate the physical dimensions of sustainability into management education and then into organizational management. Just as current CEOs must understand accounting, finance, regulation, international business, strategy, marketing, and human resource and information management, the CEOs of the sustainable city must learn how to integrate energy, water, and material efficiency into routine organizational management along with a concern for environmental effects all the way through the supply chain and the process of production and consumption.
This process has begun in some organizations with the start of sustainab...

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APA 6 Citation
Cohen, S. (2017). The Sustainable City ([edition unavailable]). Columbia University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2017)
Chicago Citation
Cohen, Steven. (2017) 2017. The Sustainable City. [Edition unavailable]. Columbia University Press.
Harvard Citation
Cohen, S. (2017) The Sustainable City. [edition unavailable]. Columbia University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Cohen, Steven. The Sustainable City. [edition unavailable]. Columbia University Press, 2017. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.