Sustainable Design

Have you seen pictures of futuristic cities with flying cars, clean streets, and cool high-rises? Well, we're a long way off from that vision! Many cities are experiencing high street congestion, increasing air pollution, and issues with affordable housing. But there is a way for cities to become the cool futuristic places we used to dream about. Using sustainable design, cities can ensure they are improving the quality of life of current and future residents. It may not include flying cars (yet) but it does mean cities can be planned for generations to come. Let's take a look at how that's possible, principles , and more. 

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Table of contents

    Sustainable Design Definition

    Urban sustainability is a way of planning cities that improves the social, economic, and environmental conditions to ensure the quality of life and well-being of current and future residents. Sustainable designs are the concepts, plans, and methods for implementing urban sustainability.

    The need for sustainable design arises from the pressure cities are experiencing through both urban growth and climate change effects. Cities experience population growth from rural to urban migration and natural increase. Rural to urban migration is the movement of people from rural areas to urban centers with greater access to jobs and services while natural increase is a higher proportion of births than deaths.

    See our explanations on Urban Sustainability Challenges and Urban Change Challenges to learn more!

    Climate change is threatening infrastructure in cities through increased environmental disasters such as hurricanes, flooding, and extreme weather patterns. Costly damages and cleanups are becoming more prevalent, leading to discussions on resilient cities. A resilient city is one that can prepare, absorb, and recover from economic, environmental, and social shocks.

    For example, if a city often experiences flooding, it can prepare by designing infrastructure following sustainable design models. In the case that it's a bad event, the city and its residents are able to withstand the effects due to better preparedness, active response teams, and assistance at all levels. Afterward, the recovery is smoother, less expensive, and takes less time. Many disaster preparedness programs contain facets of sustainable design concepts to guide them and vice versa.

    Sustainable Design, Flooding during Hurricane Harvey in Houston in 2017, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Flooding during Hurricane Harvey (2017) in Houston, TX; Houston is experiencing more severe hurricanes and flooding due to climate change

    Sustainable Design Principles

    Sustainable design is guided by three major principles: social, economic, and environmental sustainability. This means for a design to be considered sustainable, it must take into account all principles and plan to address all components. For example, a new park design can benefit a neighborhood by providing a place for people to meet and relax (social). The park can also be open to a farmers' market (economic), selling products from nearby farms. The park can be designed with local trees and bushes to create or restore local animal habitats (environmental). In this case, all principles are directly and indirectly addressed through the design.

    Sustainable design strategies arise from a response to unregulated suburban growth or suburbanization outside of cities. Suburban designs are characterized by low density, with single-family housing as the main residential building option. Services, shops, and businesses are also planned separately, with little mixing of residential and commercial spaces. Combined with low street connectivity through cul-de-sacs and long residential roads, car dependency is requisite over walking and cycling. As a response to rapid urban growth, suburban growth is a cheaper, less-regulated method of building homes and businesses.

    See our explanation on Suburbanization, Sprawl, and Decentralization to learn more!

    Despite cheaper land costs for residential and commercial development, high car dependency and expansive use of land are harmful to the environment and are contributing to climate change. High commuting times from suburbs to urban areas, or even from areas within suburban places, are linked to greater air pollution, as carbon dioxide (CO2) and other particulate matter are emitted from vehicles. With a lack of public transport, walking, or cycling options, uncontrolled suburbanization is not a sustainable design model.

    Sustainable Design, Suburban development in Colorado Springs, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Suburban development in Colorado Springs, CO; sprawl promotes car dependency and greater emissions

    Sustainable Design and Construction

    There are several sustainable design models that promote higher density, mixed-land use, greener urban spaces, and more access to public transportation. These components serve several purposes that meet sustainable design principles. By promoting these aspects, there's the potential for social cohesion as all people have access to and share a healthier environment. Higher density and mixed-land use allow for more economic opportunities, as businesses can be in closer proximity to customers. Finally, fewer emissions from decreased car dependency and more parks and green areas are environmental benefits. Let's explore some of these sustainable design models.

    Mixed Land Use and Walkability

    Land use refers to the way that governments or agencies have zoned different places for specific purposes (residential, commercial, industrial, etc.). Due to suburban growth policies, many towns and cities have designated these purposes far apart, with connections usually only possible via car. Historically, this was to protect residents in residential areas from harmful industrial pollutants by building them far from each other. However, this type of zoning now prevents mixed land use.

    Mixed land use means removing single-zone areas for mixed residential, commercial, entertainment, and other services together on the same block, street, or neighborhood. This can be done by building residential apartments with retail and shop space on the first floor; building offices with residential or commercial space; or allowing commercial services to open in strictly residential areas.

    Sustainable Design, Mixed land use in Bitola, Macedonia, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Mixed land use in Bitola, Macedonia; mixed land use promotes walkability

    Mixed land use has the benefit of bringing people closer to not only the goods and services they need, but also cultural, social, and institutional locations they want to access. With closer proximity to these things, walking can be the preferred and logical mobility option. Successful mixed land use designs also adopt a grid-like street design with narrow streets, with enough intersections for greater connectivity.

    Transport-Oriented Development

    Transport-oriented development is a planning design that connects mixed-use development with public transportation options. It maximizes both land use development and public transportation by specifically building dense, walkable areas around the bus, tram, or metro stop stations. Transit-oriented development promotes public transport use, reducing car dependency and encouraging sustainable growth.

    Smart-Growth Policies

    Policies drive sustainable design development and construction. Smart-growth policies are a range of policies to develop and grow cities while conserving the environment and resources. For instance, directing new building development close to existing transit options instead of outside cities. In other words, smart-growth is acknowledging urban growth while directing development to denser, walkable areas.

    Can you think of examples in your city that have some of these policies in place?

    New Urbanism, an urban design movement promoting walkable and environmentally friendly neighborhoods, publishes several policy ideas for cities to implement smart-growth policies. These policies include having most needs met within a 10-minute walking distance by increasing density, mixed-use land, and transport-oriented development.

    Sustainable Design Benefits

    The benefits of sustainable design include lowering carbon emissions, building cities that are resilient to shocks in the environment, economy, or society, and creating new opportunities for cities to grow. Some cities that have transitioned to sustainable design models have experienced reductions in air pollution, an increase in land value (particularly around public transport stops), and an increase in opportunities for social engagement.

    However, every city faces different challenges in implementing sustainable design. This can be due to a range of factors from political, economic, and social interests that oppose changes; the geographic location of a city; or a lack of funding and expertise to achieve it. Public engagement and participation are critical first steps in the process of designing a city. Sustainable design especially must take into account the interests of the residents in a city to successfully target and realize its goals.

    Sustainable Design Examples

    There are examples of sustainable design models around the world. Some cities have the benefit of having older infrastructure, with compact streets and a walkable environment. Other cities have only been built within the last 100 years and are growing more quickly than they can manage. Let's take a look at some examples.

    Superblocks in Barcelona, Spain

    Barcelona is an older city, first built over 2,000 years ago. It has experienced changes in population and rule from the Romans, the Visigoths, and the Moors over the centuries. Barcelona benefits from mixed-use development and high public transport use. However, Barcelona faces congested streets, poor air quality, and little space for growth.

    Taking advantage of the long boulevards, block-like street design, and high density, the city of Barcelona implemented the superblocks project. Superblocks are a combination of connected streets around the city where pedestrians and cyclists are given priority over cars and other transit options. Essentially, the street is taken away from cars and given back to residents to build parks, add benches, and create safe places for children to play.

    Although this is a simple street change, car emissions dropped and local air pollution improved. More people are outside and residents enjoy the changes in their neighborhoods.

    Sustainable Design, A superblock street in Barcelona, StudySmarterFig. 4 - A superblock street in Barcelona; no cars are allowed through with space only for pedestrians and cyclists

    Metro Area Developments in Washington, D.C.

    One of the most widely-used and successful rapid transit systems in the US was developed in Washington, DC. The success of the transit lines can be at least partially attributed to successful development around metro station stops. New development of offices, residential spaces, and commercial spaces have been major positive effects since the opening of the first rail line in the 1970s.

    Sustainable Design - Key takeaways

    • Sustainable designs are the concepts, plans, and methods for implementing urban sustainability, a way of planning a city that improves the social, economic, and environmental conditions to ensure quality of life and well-being for current and future residents.
    • A resilient city is one that can prepare, absorb, and recover from economic, environmental, and social shocks. Resilient city plans include sustainable design concepts.
    • Sustainable design is guided by three major principles: social, economic, and environmental sustainability.
    • Some major sustainable designs include mixed land use, transport-oriented development, and smart growth policies.


    1. Fig. 1, Flooding during Hurricane Harvey (2017) in Houston, TX (, by Chabad Lubavitch (, Licensed by CC-BY-2.0 (
    2. Fig. 2, Suburban development in Colorado Springs, CO ( by David Shankbone (, Licensed by CC-BY-SA-3.0 (
    3. Fig. 3, Mixed land use in Bitola, Macedonia (, by Revizionist (, licensed by CC-BY-SA-3.0 (
    4. Fig. 4, A superblock street in Barcelona (, by Toniher (, licensed by CC-BY-SA-3.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Sustainable Design

    What does sustainable design mean?

    Sustainable design means creating concepts and plans for a city that improve social, economic, and environmental conditions for current and future residents. 

    What are examples of sustainable design?

    Some examples of sustainable design include the superblocks project in Barcelona and transit-oriented development around Washington, DC's metro stations. 

    What are the three principles of sustainable design?

    The three principles of sustainable design include social, economic, and environmental sustainability. 

    What are the main features of sustainable design and construction?

    The main features of sustainable design and construction include higher density, mixed-land use, greener urban areas, and more access to public transit. 

    What are three benefits of sustainable design?

    Three benefits of sustainable design include lowering carbon emissions, reducing air pollution, and increasing land value.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Why is sustainable design necessary? 

    What are three major principles of sustainable design? 

    What is the opposite of sustainable design?


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