Sustainable Urban Development

Sustainability is a buzzword these days. That's because there's concern that future generations may not have access to the same resources we do now. The motivation for sustainable living is motivating many governments and businesses to change their practices. But what does that mean exactly? And how does sustainability work in a city? Let's dive into what sustainable urban development is, its characteristics and successful examples and projects. 

Sustainable Urban Development Sustainable Urban Development

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Table of contents

    Definition of Sustainable Urban Development

    First, let’s begin with some definitions. Sustainability has many definitions but it is understood as maintaining the demands of the current population without compromising on the demands of future populations.

    Sustainable living is meeting our needs now in a way that people in the future can also meet their needs. This huge goal requires attention at the environmental, societal, and economic levels.

    Sustainable Urban Development Sustainable components diagram with economy society and environment StudySmarterFig. 1 - Components of sustainability; the essential components of sustainability are economy, society, and environment

    Sustainable urban development is then a city’s use of resources and space in a way that meets the needs of its residents in the present without negatively impacting residents' needs in the future. This method of urban development aims to minimise damage to the environment while preserving as much of our resources as possible and transitioning to renewable resources where possible.

    Sustainable Urban Development Characteristics

    The main components of sustainable urban development are environmental, social, and economic. The characteristics of each of these components are made of a city's unique challenges and solutions. However, by focusing on these components, a city can achieve sustainable conditions.

    But why is sustainable urban development important? Cities and towns consume many resources, especially if they experience rapid Urbanisation and urban growth. As a result, the ecological footprint of cities is very high. A higher ecological footprint means the use of more resources and greater emissions. This has the possibility of impacting future generations by using up valuable and finite resources that could lower their quality of life. There are also many Urban issues and challenges associated with development, including issues with access to affordable housing, urban pollution, and urban inequality. Sustainable urban development can address some of these challenges, particularly with regard to urban pollution.

    Urbanisation is the process of a greater proportion of the population living in urban areas. This can occur as a result of migration and natural increase.

    Urban growth is the rate of the population increasing in urban areas.

    Ecological footprint is the impact a country has on the environment. This is usually through the consumption of resources such as land, water, and food from nature. A high ecological footprint is usually not sustainable.

    See the explanation on Urbanisation and Urban issues and challenges to learn more in-depth information.

    Sustainable Urban Development strategies

    There are some urban planning strategies and dimensions that define a sustainable city. As mentioned previously, the focus on environmental, social, and economic dimensions is essential. But what does that mean in practice? In these next sections, we'll discuss and provide examples.

    Environmental Development

    There are many environmental development projects that cities can invest in. Conservation schemes provide the opportunity to use natural resources like water and energy in a more sustainable way. The expansion of green spaces within the city can improve the air quality (by reducing the effects of air pollution) and quality of life. Planning for more sustainable transportation such as public transport, walking, and/or cycling and accessible services can also improve air quality as fewer emissions enter the atmosphere.

    Conservation schemes or projects are ways to use natural resources efficiently and minimising waste.

    Natural resources are renewable (e.g. sun, water) and non-renewable (e.g. coal, minerals) resources created from the earth. Humans need them to survive.

    Sustainable Urban Development a solar panel in a field StudySmarterFig. 2 - Solar panels can harness solar energy, a renewable natural resource

    Water Conservation

    Water conservation schemes serve to reduce water usage and loss. This is done by using only as much water as can be naturally replenished in the environment. Water conservation is needed because only 1% of the world's water is drinkable for humans. There is pressure to conserve this natural resource especially as the global population grows and more people rely on water sources. Conserving water includes reducing wastewater (e.g. fixing old pipes to prevent leakages), encouraging less water use (e.g. installing water meters), and recycling grey water (e.g. harvesting rainwater).

    Energy Conservation

    Energy consumption is also a growing global problem. The 3 main sources of energy in the world come from coal, oil, and natural gas. These are all non-renewable resources, meaning they will run out in the future. In addition to that, the CO₂ emissions from using non-renewable resources like coal, oil, and natural gas are harmful to the air and are accelerating the effects of climate change.

    However, there are other sources of energy such as hydropower (from water), solar, and wind which are renewable resources and will not run out. These forms of energy are preferable because they pollute the environment less and can be used by the population without negatively affecting future generations.

    With a growing global population, we must therefore take care to conserve energy. Energy conservation is then defined as reducing energy use (e.g. switching off the TV when not in use), using more efficient technology (e.g. low-energy appliances), and using more renewable energy (e.g. solar panels and wind turbines).

    Many UK power companies are investing in renewable energy. The UK benefits from a lot of wind, especially offshore wind around the coasts. The UK has built some of the biggest offshore wind farms in the world, making it a leader in offshore wind farms. Some major farms include the Thanet wind farm and the Hornsea 1.

    Sustainable Urban Development a wind farm off the coast StudySmarterFig. 3 - Off-shore Wind Farm in Norfolk, UK

    Green Spaces

    Green spaces in urban areas are areas covered in grass, trees or other kinds of vegetation, e.g. parks and gardens. The benefits of creating and expanding green spaces are that they improve the local air quality, lower urban temperatures, and provide opportunities for recreation. The vegetation, especially trees, store and convert CO₂ into oxygen. Vegetation lowers urban temperatures by also absorbing heat from the sun while concrete reflects it back, increasing temperatures.

    Some examples of green spaces include greenbelts, parks, or gardens where building construction is restricted. There are also new kinds such as green roofs which are allowing plants and vegetation to grow on the rooftop of buildings. This can also lower temperatures within buildings, allowing for better energy conservation.

    Greenbelts are vegetated, open green areas around cities. In the UK, they are protected by law and so building on them is illegal.

    Sustainable Transportation and Accessible Services

    Traffic congestion pollutes the local air environment, clogs up streets, and creates a lot of noise. A solution to reducing traffic congestion is making sure to plan cities in a way that using public transportation, walking, or cycling is possible. This means creating areas in cities that are connected to a bus or metro system and where services like stores and restaurants are close and easy to reach. Some popular examples in the UK include the park and rides, driving to a station that connects you to other public transportation options and carpooling, sharing a car trip with others to save on fuel.

    See the explanation on Sustainable urban transport to learn more!

    Social Development

    The social component of urban sustainability deals with society's access and availability of all benefits from the city. Thankfully, much of the environmental development benefits society through improving air quality, access to green spaces, and transport links.

    However, in addition to having access to positive environmental changes, affordable housing, education, and health services are also important. This ensures an active and healthy society that feels supported and equal in decision-making. Government engagement with the community is also an important aspect of this. These are necessary for a city to be sustainable not just environmentally but economically and socially.

    Economic Development

    The economic sector of the city should be based on the good of the city which can be resilient and self-reliant. This means a city doesn't have to rely on help from other countries or major corporations. Addressing economic inequality is a component of this, by building a sustainable economic city, residents have access to better-paying jobs not just in the present but also in the future.

    Production of businesses and jobs which take responsibility for their impact on the environment provides more benefits than just an income for residents. Businesses with renewable energy and research and development have proven to fit within this dimension. Investment in the green industry can generate both jobs (economic benefit) and more positive effects on the environment (environmental benefit).

    The green industry is products and services made for preserving or minimising the impact on the environment. A company that produces solar panels falls within the green industry.

    Sustainable Urban Development examples

    There are many examples of sustainable urban development which lead to the creation of Sustainable cities. Cities like Freiburg, Germany and Curitiba, Brazil are special for the many sustainable projects they have implemented in different parts of society. By focusing on different projects around the city, they are able to be more sustainable.

    A sustainable city is a city that has a high quality of life for most residents without compromising future generations. They are usually very green and have a lower ecological footprint.

    Freiburg, Germany

    The city of Freiburg has made it its goal to build and develop sustainably since the 1970s. They have succeeded to become one of the most sustainable cities in Germany. Much of their success is attributed to several programs within the city which focus on social, economic, and environmental sustainability. Some highlights of Freiburg's sustainability programs include:

    • Rainwater collected from green roofs and recycled
    • High use of solar panels
    • Around 40% of the city is forested
    • Many co-operative shops run by locals
    • Local engagement from politicians in the form of workshops and town hall meetings
    • Many residents employed within the green industry
    • High investment in environmental projects
    Table 1

    See the explanation Freiburg Case Study to learn more!

    Sustainable Urban Development a decorate street in freiburg germany StudySmarterFig. 4 - A street in Freiburg, Germany

    Curitiba, Brazil

    Curitiba is a city in Southeastern Brazil and the capital of the State of Parana. In 2010, it was awarded the Global Sustainable City Award! This is because it has made huge sustainable developments without a major budget like some developed cities have. Some highlights of Curitiba's sustainability programs include:

    • Expanded and connected parks
    • Major expansion of bus network
    • Government assists residents of slums to build and buy homes
    • Diversity in jobs and businesses
    • Businesses built to limit impact on green spaces
    Table 2

    Sustainable Urban Development city of Curitiba in Brazil StudySmarterFig. 5 - Curitiba, Brazil

    Sustainable Urban Development - Key takeaways

    • Sustainable living is meeting our needs now in a way that people in the future can also meet their needs
    • Sustainable urban development is a city’s use of resources and space in a way that minimises damage to the environment
    • Sustainable urban development is made of 3 main parts: environmental, social, and economic developments
    • Environmental developments include water and energy conservation, green spaces, and sustainable transport
    • Social developments allow citizens to feel active and equal in their cities
    • Economic developments include investment in businesses in the green industry


    1. Fig. 1: Components of sustainability, by KTucker (, licensed by CC-BY-SA-3.0 (
    2. Fig. 2: solar panels (, by atimedia, licensed by Pixabay License (
    3. Fig. 3: Off-shore Wind Farm in Norfolk, UK (,_offshore_wind_farm_UK_2015.jpg), by johnkell (, licensed by CC-BY-2.0 (
    4. Fig. 4: A street in Freiburg, Germany (, by Paul_Henri, licensed by Pixabay License (
    5. Fig. 5: Curitiba, Brazil (, by marcoseduardo, licensed by Pixabay License (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Sustainable Urban Development

    Why is sustainable urban development important?

    Sustainable urban development is important to ensure that residents in urban areas experience a high quality of life now and guarantee it for future generations. 

    What are the components of sustainable urban development?

    The components of sustainable urban development include environmental, societal or social, and economic developments. All must be addressed by a city to be considered a sustainable city. 

    What are the 3 parts of urban sustainability?

    The three parts of urban sustainability include environmental, social, and economic developments.

    What is an example of urban sustainability?

    An example of urban sustainability is water and energy conservation which falls under the environmental dimension.

    How can urban areas be sustainable?

    Urban areas may never be fully sustainable but they can minimise their ecological footprint by investing in sustainable urban development projects. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is the definition of sustainability?

    The ecological footprint of cities is relatively high

    Examples of conservation schemes include...

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