Imagining a truly ‘sustainable city’ — and how long it will take to get there

Gary Gardner is director of publications at the Worldwatch Institute.

What does a truly “sustainable” city look like?

Gary Gardner has some ideas about that. Gardner is director of publications at the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D. C.-based research shop. He also co-authored the organization’s 2016 State of the World Report, an annual publication that this year took cities as its central focus.

In the book’s opening chapter, Gardner paints a futuristic picture of what an ideal sustainable city might look like 20 years from now. In this city, fossil fuel use has been nearly eradicated due to annual price increases and a local push to get 100 percent of energy from renewable sources. One can go a month without having to travel more than 3 miles (5 kilometers) because all of life’s needs are close by. And the city has sold all of its garbage trucks because there’s no more waste to collect.

I spoke with Gardner recently about what it will take to get to this vision and some of the challenges in getting there. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Gabriela Rico: Why did Worldwatch choose to focus on cities? Why are they a good lens through which to view sustainability?

Gary Gardner: There’s a couple of reasons. One is that in around 2008 or 2009, for the first time in human history more than half of all humans lived in cities. And that trend is expected to continue so that by 2050, over two-thirds of the world’s people will be living in cities. So cities are increasingly a place where people are wanting to live.

The second reason has to do with consumption levels in cities. People tend to consume more things in cities, more energy and more materials. While 55 percent of the world’s people live in cities, cities account for 60 to 80 percent of energy consumption, including 75 percent of carbon emissions. Cities are also places where a great amount of waste is generated.

So if we can learn to become more sustainable in cities, we will be a long way down the road to becoming more sustainable overall.

Q: In the beginning of the report you envision what life might look like 20 years in the future in a city that has become “sustainable.” Are we only 20 years away from this ideal, or will it take even longer? Is it possible at all?

A: Well those are great questions. For most cities it will take longer because what I described in the fictitious account was really a full-court press towards sustainability. On every dimension of economic and social life, there was a sustainability component and a new initiative put in place. It was a total commitment to building a sustainable city.

Twenty years is possible if folks are really, really, really committed. But there is no city that committed to sustainability. Although many are doing great things.

[Read: Kampala aims to lead African cities in fight against climate change]

But I think there are some ways that we can make great advances in offering urban opportunities to people without a huge environmental footprint. For example, eating less meat has wonderful health impacts for people and also impacts on the health of the planet — there’s much less in terms of carbon emissions and water consumption.  

Another example is wasting less food. A third of the food that we produce in the world today goes to waste. So if we are wasting less, that means correspondingly less in carbon emissions and water use and all of the inputs that go into producing that food in the first place. So there’s a number of ways that we could really be more conscious about our consumption.

We could also think about consumption in a different way so that we’re perhaps consuming less as individuals — say by buying a personal car — and doing more shared consumption. So we’re taking more public transportation, bicycling, that kind of thing, where our consumption changes in ways that make us healthier and make the city healthier as well.

So it’s not impossible for a city to become sustainable. But we have a lot of work to do in terms of curtailing or shifting our consumption levels.

“ If we can learn to become more sustainable in cities, we will be a long way down the road to becoming more sustainable overall. ”

Q: Which parts of the vision do you expect to happen sooner and which might take longer?

A: Well some things are personal habits that need to change and that’s often a question of education and options for people. But then there’s others that are really infrastructure that needs to change. If you live in suburban Los Angeles, it’s pretty difficult for you to use public transportation if it’s just not available or if it’s very inconvenient. So that would be a case where even if you wanted to change your personal habits, the options for doing so are not as robust as they should be.

Some things can happen more easily. Again, I’ll go to the case of Los Angeles, where they have installed LED lighting on a lot of their city streets and have reduced carbon emissions from their public lighting dramatically. And in the areas where they’ve installed these LEDs, crime is down 10 percent. The program will pay for itself in energy savings within seven years. There are opportunities for very quick change because all of the incentives are going in the right direction to help cities change their ways.

Q: The report argues that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to sustainability, but is there a first step that all cities need to take?

A: The first step is to assess one’s actual footprint in terms of energy use, waste generation, all the dimensions of sustainability. You have to measure first what your city is doing — where you are in terms of consumption of resources and where the opportunities are for the quickest payoffs.

[Read: Three lessons for cities in Denmark’s clean-energy revolution]

It may be in one city that you know geothermal heat is very close by and very available, as in Reykjavik, Iceland, where you can use the geothermal energy under the ground to help heat homes there. So that’s an option that you might pursue, but that option obviously would not be available in all cities.

So it’s really a question of assessing first where your city is and what the opportunities are for reducing its footprint.

Q: We’re talking a lot about the environmental aspect of sustainability, but the report also focuses on social justice and inclusion. Why are those two things important to sustainability as well?

A: You know, when we at Worldwatch talk about sustainability, we follow the lead of many others who talk about not just environmental issues, but also social and economic issues — that all three are part of the sustainability package. And that is important. Because it doesn’t matter so much if you can build a green economy that is environmentally sustainable but the economy really can’t generate jobs or profits for businesses. That obviously is not viable and really, literally, not sustainable — it couldn’t last very long at all.

But the same is true on the social side. You could have very green technologies and green practices in your city, but if people are so poor that they’re unable to take advantage of some of those green practices, that’s not sustainable either. So in a developing country, you may not be able to afford a solar water heater or solar panels, and instead you may find yourself burning firewood that you go out and collect from the surrounding land, and that can have pretty clear environmental impacts. So the three pieces — the economic, the environmental, and the social — all go together, and it’s important that we pay attention to all three.

It’s also important because we tend to want to look to technological fixes for many of our problems. And of course we should, but a lot of times those technological fixes may leave out a certain portion of society. That’s not an adequate solution. It may be part of the solution to adopt new technologies, but they need to be inclusive so that everybody gets a chance to be sustainable, and everybody gets a chance at the same kinds of opportunity.

“ There are opportunities for very quick change because all of the incentives are going in the right direction to help cities change their ways. ”

Q: The book features several case studies of cities around the world that are moving towards sustainability on different fronts. What are some of themes running through those examples?

A: Popular participation seems to be a common thread. That is, sustainability initiatives are often undertaken with the participation of civil society. So NGOs and citizens have some voice in the various initiatives that are being pursued by cities. That’s an important common element.

Another is that cities will often try to tackle high payoff areas. For example, energy efficiency in buildings is a really high payoff area because buildings use something like 40 percent of all of the energy that we use in the world. So if you can make buildings more efficient, you’re really going a long way toward energy efficiency in your city.

[Read: What Melbourne learned cutting emissions from 1,200 buildings]

Transportation is another area where there’s a lot of activity, where people in cities that are trying to become sustainable are moving away from a car-centered transportation system. So it’s very common in a lot of these cities to be moving toward public transportation, shared cars, bicycles, and pedestrian access.

Q: While you were working on this report, did anything surprise you?

A: Yes, a number of things. Because the urban issue is new to us, I was not aware of how much cities use in terms of resources — how disproportionate materials and energy use is in cities. So that was a bit of a surprise.

Another was we had a chapter on the history of cities from a materials perspective, going back 10,000 years. They looked at three periods, from hunter-gatherers, to early urbanites and then finally industrial urbanites. Starting in 1750, there’s a huge jump in the materials and energy footprint — the industrial urbanites really use a lot of materials and energy. The surprise for me was in realizing that there are a lot of people today in poor rural areas that are essentially like the pre-industrial urban folks. We can guess at what the increase will be in their materials and energy consumption as they move from rural to urban areas.

And then another surprise was that there are many different innovations to address these difficulties. I’ve mentioned a few already. We can become much more technologically efficient, as in the case of the LED lighting in Los Angeles. We can talk about public instead of private consumption — I mentioned car sharing, you know Zipcar and that kind of thing, instead of a private car in every garage.

But we can also talk about consumption in terms of how we think about how we’re going to spend our time. So you can imagine in some European cities where on a Sunday afternoon a family might take a stroll down to the plaza, buy some gelato and spend time with friends there just shooting the breeze or listening to music. The consumption involved in that activity is very different from a family that goes to the mall on Sunday afternoon, eats at the foodcourt, and spends a lot of money at stores. They’re both families spending a Sunday afternoon together, but the consumption levels are quite different in each place.

Cities are very exciting. We often have thought of them in the past as areas of great blight and challenge — there’s poverty and pollution and crowdedness. But that doesn’t have to be our image of cities. Pursuing sustainability could really make cities centers of innovation, even as we become better about consuming more lightly.

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