Challenges to Urban Sustainability

You're a city planner who has gotten all the support and funding for your sustainability projects. Nothing can go wrong! Right? Wrong! Sustainable urban development has its own challenges ranging from urban growth to environmental problems caused by climate change. Can a city planner prepare for everything that might go wrong, but still manage to plan cities sustainably? Let's take a look at how the challenges of sustainable urban development may not be challenges at all—it all depends on perspective!

Challenges to Urban Sustainability Challenges to Urban Sustainability

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Table of contents

    Challenges of Sustainable Urban Development

    Urban sustainability is the goal of using resources to plan and develop cities to improve the social, economic, and environmental conditions of a city to ensure the quality of life of current and future residents. It's a monumental task for cities to undertake, with many influences and forces at work.

    The challenges to urban sustainability are often the very same challenges that motivate cities to be more sustainable in the first place. In other words, the challenges are also the reasons for cities to invest in sustainable urban development. This is because without addressing these challenges, urban sustainability is not as effective. For the long-term success and resilience of cities, these challenges should serve as a current guide for current and future development.

    See our explanation on Urban Sustainability to learn more!

    Main Challenges to Urban Sustainability

    There are six main challenges to urban sustainability. There is the matter of urban growth that, if unregulated, can come in the form of suburban sprawl. Suburban sprawl is unrestricted growth outside of major urban areas with separate designations for residential, commercial, entertainment, and other services, usually only accessible by car. This is a challenge because it promotes deregulated unsustainable urban development, conversion of rural and farmland, and car dependency.

    Waste disposal and sanitation are growing problems as urban areas continue to grow. Improper waste disposal can lead to air, water, and soil pollution and contamination. This could inadvertently decrease the quality of life for residents in cities by creating unsanitary conditions which can lead to illness, harm, or death. Waste management systems have the task of managing current and projected waste processing.

    Challenges to Urban Sustainability Smog over Almaty, Kazakhstan StudySmarterFig. 1 - Smog over Almaty, Kazakhstan

    Maintaining good air and water quality in urban areas is a challenge as these resources are not only used more but are also vulnerable to pollutants and contaminants. With poor quality, the health and well-being of residents can be jeopardized, leading again to possible illness, harm, or death. However, air quality and water resources can be protected through proper quality management and government policy.

    Climate change overall threatens cities and their built infrastructure. Environmental disasters are more likely to occur with greater intensity; buildings, streets, and facilities are more likely to be damaged or destroyed. The clean-up for these can be costly to cities and unsustainable in the long term.

    Energy use is of particular concern for cities, as it can be both costly and wasteful. Fossil fuel energy (coal, oil, and natural gas) currently supplies most of the world's energy, emitting carbon and other pollutants into the atmosphere that exacerbate climate change and reduce air quality. Further, sprawling urban development and high car dependency are linked with greater energy use and waste. Energy conservation schemes are especially important to mitigate wasteful energy use.

    The overall ecological footprint of cities is high and getting higher. This is because as cities grow, more resources are needed for maintaining economic conditions in a city. Sustainable management of resources and limiting the impact on the environment are important goals for cities.

    For the APHG Exam, remember these six main challenges!

    Environmental Challenges of Water Sustainability

    Water resources in particular are at a greater risk of depletion due to increased droughts and floods. As climate change effects intensify extreme weather patterns, disturbances in water resources can occur. For instance, with warmer recorded temperatures, glaciers melt faster. Fresh-water rivers and lakes which are replenished by glaciers will have an altered timing of replenishment; there may be more water in the spring and less in the summer.

    Further, unpredictable timing and quantity of precipitation can both dry up growing crops or lead to flash floods. Water conservation schemes can then be one way to ensure both the quantity and quality of water for residents.

    Challenges to Urban Sustainability River in Amazon Rainforest StudySmarterFig. 2 - River in the Amazon Rainforest; environmental challenges to water sustainability depend on location and water management

    The majority of natural resources in the world are consumed in cities. Urban governments are tasked with the responsibility of managing not only water resources but also sanitation, waste, food, and air quality. Poor resource management can not only affect residents in cities but also people living in other parts of the world.

    Examples of Urban Sustainability Challenges

    Each of these urban sustainability challenges comes with its own host of issues. For instance, industrial pollution, which can threaten air and water quality, must be mitigated. Poor waste management likewise can harm the well-being of residents through improper waste disposal. Finally, the greater challenge of overpopulation from urban growth must be addressed and responded to through sustainable urban development.

    Industrial Pollution

    Power plants, chemical facilities, and manufacturing companies emit a lot of pollutants into the atmosphere. Cities with a high number of these facilities are linked with poorer air quality, water contamination, and poor soil health. Particularly for developing countries, manufacturing serves as a very important economic source, serving contracts or orders from companies in developed countries.

    Some of the most polluted cities in the world are located in areas of high manufacturing and industrialization. Lack of regulation and illegal dumping are causes for concern and can lead to a greater dispersion of pollutants without oversight.

    Challenges to Urban Sustainability Industrial Site in Russia StudySmarterFig. 3 - Industrial Pollution in Russia

    Waste Management

    There are different kinds of waste emitted in urban areas. For instance, domestic waste is household trash, usually generate from packaged goods. Cities in developed countries may create more waste due to consuming and discarding a greater amount of packaging. Proper disposal, recycling, and waste management are critical for cities.

    Commercial waste is generated by businesses, usually also in the form of an overabundance of packaged goods. This can include waste made by offices, schools, and shops. Another kind of waste produced by businesses is industrial waste, which can include anything from gravel and scrap metal to toxic chemicals. This kind of waste is produced by factories or power plants.

    All different types of waste must be properly managed in cities. Poor waste management can lead to direct or indirect pollution of water, air, and other resources. More regulation and penalties can assist with waste management, but many countries, both developed and developing, struggle with this.


    Overpopulation occurs when people exceed the resources provided by a location. Thankfully, the world has many resources and the capacity to properly distribute them. When cities begin to grow quickly, planning and allocation of resources are critical. If a city experiences overpopulation, it can lead to a high depletion of resources, lowering the quality of life for all.

    The ecological footprint of cities is measured by the number of people in a city and how much they're consuming. Cities that want to manage the amount of resources they're consuming must also manage population increases.

    Responses to Urban Sustainability Challenges

    There are several responses to urban sustainability challenges that are also part of urban sustainable development strategies. For instance, greater regional planning efforts are necessary as cities grow and change over time. Regional cooperation is especially important to combat suburban sprawl; as cities grow, people will look for cheaper housing in surrounding rural and suburban towns outside of cities.

    Without regional planning, rural and suburban towns will grow but will have a massive amount of commuters demanding greater highway access. This will continue the cycle of suburban sprawl and car dependency. Proper land-use designation and infrastructure planning can remedy the effects of urban growth.

    See the explanations on Suburbanization, Sprawl, and Decentralization to learn more!

    Regional planning can also help create urban growth boundaries, a limit that determines how far an urban area will develop spatially. This can assist governments in preserving natural areas or agricultural fields. Farmland protection policies are policies that prevent the conversion of agricultural land to anything non-agricultural-related. These policies can assist with a range of sustainability policies, from providing food for cities to maintaining air quality and providing flood control.

    Sustainable development can be implemented in ways that can both mitigate the challenges of urban sustainability and address the goals. When cities build and expand, they can create greenbelts, areas of wild, undeveloped land in surrounding urban areas. These areas can both improve air quality, preserve natural habitats for animals, and allow for new recreational opportunities for residents.

    Challenges to Urban Sustainability Greenbelt in Tehran, Iran StudySmarterFig. 4, Example of a greenbelt in Tehran, Iran

    Finally, the redevelopment of brownfields, former industrial areas that have been abandoned, can be an efficient way of re-purposing infrastructure. These can be sites where previous factories, landfills, or other facilities used to operate. However, many of these areas may be contaminated and polluted with former toxins and the costs of clean-up and redevelopment may be high.

    Challenges to Urban Sustainability - Key takeaways

    • The challenges to urban sustainability are also what motivate cities to be more sustainable.
    • The six main challenges to urban sustainability include: suburban sprawl, sanitation, air and water quality, climate change, energy use, and the ecological footprint of cities.
    • Other urban sustainability challenges include industrial pollution, waste management, and overpopulation.
    • The main five responses to urban sustainability challenges are regional planning efforts, urban growth boundaries, farmland protection policies, and greenbelts.


    1. Fig. 1, Smog over Almaty, Kazakhstan (, by Igors Jefimovs (, licensed by CC-BY-3.0 (
    2. Fig. 2, River in Amazon Rainforest (, by Jlwad (, licensed by CC-BY-SA-4.0 (
    3. Fig. 3, Industrial Pollution in Russia (, by Alt-n-Anela (, licensed by CC-BY-2.0 (
    4. Fig. 4, Example of a greenbelt in Tehran, Iran (, by Kaymar Adl (, licensed by CC-BY-2.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Challenges to Urban Sustainability

    What are six challenges to urban sustainability?

    The six main challenges to urban sustainability include: suburban sprawl, sanitation, air and water quality, climate change, energy use, and the ecological footprint of cities. 

    What are two environmental challenges to urban sustainability?

    Two environmental challenges to urban sustainability are water quality and air quality. 

    What are some obstacles that a sustainable city faces?

    Some obstacles a sustainable city can face can range from urban growth to climate change effects. 

    What are five responses to urban sustainability challenges?

    The main five responses to urban sustainability challenges are regional planning efforts, urban growth boundaries, farmland protection policies, greenbelts, and redevelopment of brownfields. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    How can suburban sprawl be a challenge to urban sustainability?

    How can sanitation be a challenge to urban sustainability?

    How can air and water quality be a challenge to urban sustainability?

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