Sustainable Cities

If you could pick one sustainable city, where would you like to travel to? Would you pick the chilly and volcanic city of Reykjavík, Iceland, or perhaps you want to be a Super Trouper in ABBA land (Stockholm, Sweden)? Whichever city you may choose, it's important to note that many of the features in these cities will be similar. They all aim to increase sustainability, reduce their ecological footprint, and bring about benefits for their people and the environment. But what exactly is the definition of a sustainable city? What makes sustainable cities? Why are they so beneficial? Read on to find out!

Sustainable Cities Sustainable Cities

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Table of contents

    Sustainable cities definition

    Cities and urban centres are home to the majority of the world's population. Cities are also growing, as the population increases, and more people migrate to urban centres for better opportunities. However, sadly, cities have incredibly high ecological footprints. Cities use vast amounts of resources, produce equally large amounts of waste, and emit lots of carbon emissions.

    Ecological footprints describe the impact that humans have on the environment from the usage and demand for natural resources.

    So, how do we go about solving this rather big problem? Well, moving towards making cities more sustainable is absolutely vital. But how do we define sustainability? How can we project this onto cities?

    Sustainability is the idea of preserving resources for current and future generations and reducing the impact on the environment. Sustainable cities are those which carry these characteristics; they are designed in a way that limits environmental impact and improves people's lives in cities, without limiting this for the future.

    Differences between sustainable and smart cities

    In geography, both sustainable cities and smart cities may come up a lot! It's important not to confuse the two; they are different.

    Sustainable cities are all about operating more sustainably for the future, focussing on the environment. Smart cities, however, try to improve the function of the city with technology, focusing on things like infrastructure management and services.

    Features of a sustainable city

    All sustainable cities have the same goal; to be more sustainable! This means that many cities actually have similar characteristics and features. Let's example a few.

    Green green green!

    Green is good! Being more environmentally friendly, (and using the colour green!), is a vital feature of sustainable cities. Let's take a look at green spaces, green infrastructures, and urban agriculture.

    Green spaces

    Sustainable cities are characterised by their plentiful green spaces. Green spaces are areas in the urban environment that are covered in grass or trees or other kinds of natural vegetation. Places like parks or conservation areas are great examples of this. Green spaces are fantastic for increasing biodiversity in the city, and also reducing dangerous levels of pollution, by absorbing those nasty air pollutants!

    Green infrastructure

    Green infrastructure includes building design that is environmentally friendly, such as using solar panels or proper insulation systems. Green infrastructure can actually also mean turning buildings green! This can be exampled by green roofs or green walls, which are roofs or walls covered with vegetation.

    Cities tend to be much warmer than other areas. This is because of the dense infrastructures like buildings and roads, which absorb the sun's heat. This consequently turns cities into heat islands. Green roofs and walls can actually help to reduce this heat island effect, by making the surrounding air cooler, and therefore reducing the heat on buildings.

    Sustainable Cities Green plants on a wall StudySmarterFig. 1 - green walls show vegetation covering a building

    Urban agriculture

    Urban agriculture, or urban farming, is also a really innovative way to create green infrastructure, too. With the increasing population, it will be vital that there is enough food to feed everyone, ensure food security, as well as minimise the negative impacts that food production has on the environment.

    When people have good access to affordable and nutritious food, they will have food security.

    Food miles are the distance that food has travelled, from where it was produced, to where it is consumed. High food miles result in high carbon emissions.

    Urban agriculture means that food is produced locally, reducing food miles and environmental impact. It can involve things like rooftop farming (growing crops on top of buildings), or vertical gardens. Vertical farming involves producing food in a vertical greenhouse, where crops and plants grow on top of each other on shelves. They use LED lights instead of the sun!

    Sustainable Cities Vertical Farming with pink LED lights StudySmarterFig. 2 - vertical farming in Singapore

    Alternative transport

    Cities are culprits of large carbon emissions and are therefore big contributors to climate change. One important way to reduce carbon emissions is to lower the use of cars and find alternative forms of travel within the city. Encouraging cycling and walking is important; this can be achieved by implementing spaces for bikes and pedestrians, such as specific bike lanes all around the city. Improving public transport is essential too, such as providing alternative transport systems (trams, underground metro systems, buses). Encouraging the use of electric cars is another example, where specific lanes are prioritised for electric cars, and charging points are easily located throughout the city.

    Renewable energy

    Non-renewable Energy Sources are super unsustainable; they are damaging to the environment, produce great amounts of carbon emissions, and are also not going to last forever. Therefore, moving towards renewable energy is a much more sustainable method. This means moving towards becoming carbon-neutral and using entirely renewable energy, for example, wind and solar farms to produce energy!

    Reducing carbon emissions to zero can be understood as carbon neutrality.

    Make sure you read our explanations on Renewable Energy Sources and Non-renewable Energy Sources for more detail on these topics!

    Waste management

    Cities typically have huge populations. Lots of people result in lots of waste. Sustainable cities are often characterised by recycling programmes or things like recycling and compost laws.

    In 2003, San Francisco stated its aim to become a Zero Waste city, which meant that, through certain policies, landfill would become non-existent. By 2030, the city aims to cut landfill and incineration by 50%!

    Sustainable Cities three different Recycling Bins StudySmarterFig. 3 - separate recycling bins in Singapore

    Another method of waste management can include water conservation. This can involve monitoring infrastructure to reduce wastage from leaks, or implementing rainwater harvesting systems, which help to collect rainwater for future use! Making people more aware of saving water, as well as investing in technologies that help to save water, is also a feature.


    The environment isn't the only thing that encompasses the idea of sustainability. People matter too! Here, we can introduce the concept of liveability.

    The concept of liveability, quite simply, is how liveable somewhere is. It includes how sustainable places are, and what life is like for the people living there, including things like safety, affordability, and support within the community.

    In sustainable cities, homes are easily affordable, and generally, these cities support the people. They provide funding and access to cultural and community resources, things like public health support or education systems, safety and good quality air and water, for example.

    Benefits of sustainable cities

    We have just discussed many of the features that make a sustainable city. What exactly are the benefits of these features?

    • Sustainable cities are great for the environment; they work towards conserving resources, minimising waste, and reducing carbon emissions.
    • Sustainable cities are inclusive for their communities and people; services are accessible, there are good relationships in the community, and safety is high.
    • Cities are often home to high levels of poverty and inequality, resource use, pollution, carbon emissions and are worryingly vulnerable to climate disasters; sustainable cities help to tackle these issues.
    • The existence of sustainable cities means that the United Nations Sustainable Development goal number 11, can be met; 'Sustainable Cities and Communities' presents the goal to:

    Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable1

    Sustainable cities are vital for the future of tackling climate change. Sustainable city design will need to show resilience in the face of increasing natural disasters as a result of our changing climate. Cities themselves are particularly vulnerable to climate change, with high numbers of people, and dense infrastructure.

    Sustainable city examples

    There are quite a few sustainable cities around the world, such as Berlin in Germany, Helsinki in Finland, San Francisco in California, and Amsterdam in the Netherlands (just to example a few!).

    We're only going to focus on one city, though. Let's take a trip to Copenhagen, in Denmark.

    Sustainable Cities Copenhagen StudySmarterFig. 4 - Velkommen to Copenhagen!

    Copenhagen is top of the list of environmentally friendly cities globally. By 2025, the city aims to be entirely carbon-neutral. Bikes dominate the city, buses are moving to electrical power, and you can even travel by solar-powered boats! Copenhagen is characterised by its green spaces, clean waterways, green infrastructure, recycling systems, and super happy people. Energy is also renewable; Copenhill is a power plant in the city that recycles waste to produce energy to power the city. It also has a ski slope on top of the building! Cool right? Maybe it's time for a visit!

    Sustainable Cities - Key takeaways

    • Sustainable cities are cities that value sustainability; they reduce the impact on the environment and preserve resources for current and future generations.
    • Some of the features of sustainable cities include; green infrastructure (green space, green infrastructure, urban agriculture), alternative transport, renewable energy, waste management, and prioritising people.
    • Some benefits of sustainable cities include environmental protection, inclusivity and accessibility, as well as meeting one of the major UN sustainable development goals.
    • A great example of a sustainable city is Copenhagen, in Denmark.


    1. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Sustainable Development,
    2. Figure. 1: green walls with vegetation (, by Huib Sneep (, licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (
    3. Figure. 2: vertical farming in Singapore (, by Lianoland Wimons ( Licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
    4. Figure. 3: different recycling bins (,_Orchard_Road.JPG), by Terence Ong ( Licensed by CC BY 2.5 (
    5. Figure. 4: a view of Copenhagen (, by Mik Hartwell ( Licensed by CC BY 2.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Sustainable Cities

    What are 3 features of a sustainable city?

    There are many features of a sustainable city, for example, the use of green infrastructures and spaces, using alternative transport, and moving to renewable energy sources.

    What are 3 examples of a sustainable city?

    Some examples of sustainable cities are San Francisco in California, Helsinki in Finland, and Copenhagen, in Denmark. 

    What makes a good sustainable city?

    A good sustainable city follows the path of sustainability; it reduces damage to the environment and improves and betters the lives of people without sacrificing current and future generations. 

    What are some obstacles that a sustainable city faces?

    The main obstacles that sustainable cities face are reducing damage to the environment and making sure the needs of people are being met without affecting the current and future generations. 

    Why are sustainable cities important?

    Sustainable cities are important as they help to solve the problems of resource use, ecological footprints, and waste, which occur plentifully in cities due to high populations.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is the ecological footprint?

    True or false: smart cities and sustainable cities are the same.

    What are green spaces?

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