How to navigate the challenges of sustainable urbanization and build green infrastructure

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Emily Newton

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3293 Last modified by the author on 27/06/2023 - 17:27
How to navigate the challenges of sustainable urbanization and build green infrastructure

Most of the world now lives in urban areas, which means cities are responsible for building more sustainable infrastructure. It also means that when cities switch to greener practices, it profoundly impacts most of the human population. Here’s how sustainable urbanization can overcome challenges to create a healthier world.

Establishing better transportation systems

Diesel- and gas-powered vehicles emit significant quantities of air pollution and strongly contribute to climate change. In the United States, transportation accounts for 29% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, making it the country's biggest source of GHG emissions. Traffic congestion also wastes money cities could put to better use.

Electric and battery-powered trains, subways and buses can reduce transportation emissions and help move people around the city more efficiently. Other green transportation network initiatives include electric vehicle charging stations, bike lanes and more pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. These changes reduce air pollution, traffic and reliance on fossil fuels. 

Building energy-efficient structures

One challenge of green urbanization is that outdated buildings are often energy inefficient. Still, although retrofitting them can be expensive, LEED- and Energy-Star-certified buildings enjoy higher occupancy rates and sell for 13% more than non-green buildings. They’re also vital for building a sustainable city because they lower greenhouse gas emissions, reduce energy usage and improve indoor air quality.

Contractors should emphasize energy efficiency in new construction and retrofitted buildings. They can use sustainable materials, improve insulation and install renewable energy sources like solar panels. Many green cities also use smart technology — like thermostats that automatically regulate temperature — to reduce energy consumption further.

Cultivating green spaces

Undeveloped areas and landscaped green spaces are an essential part of sustainable infrastructure in green cities. They absorb carbon dioxide from the air, reduce the heat island effect and increase biodiversity, which are significant challenges in urban areas. These green spaces include:

1. Urban farms

Although “urban farm” may sound like an oxymoron, it’s possible — and increasingly necessary — for agriculture to coexist with city development. Cities rely heavily on surrounding rural areas for food, but the farther apart they are from each other, the more air pollution the shipping industry emits. Urban farming — such as community gardening, hydroponics and even rooftop gardening — improves food security and reduces emissions.

2. Green roofs and walls

In contrast to a building overrun with damaging vines, green roofs and walls are intentional gardens that scale the sides of buildings or grow on top. The plants are usually either rooted in the ground or climb on a hydroponic lattice so they don’t create cracks as they grow.

Aside from looking beautiful, the main purpose of green walls and roofs is to lower buildings’ temperature. This process leads to significant energy savings for building owners and managers, and it reduces the overall temperature in the city.

3. Parks and gardens

In addition to providing a place for recreation and relaxation, urban parks improve the air quality and increase biodiversity within the city. Planting trees in gardens and along streets provides shade, enhances the city’s appearance and sequesters carbon dioxide.

4. Undeveloped lots

A green space doesn’t have to be professionally landscaped to be useful. Empty, undeveloped lots soak up rain and reduce stormwater runoff which could otherwise cause flooding. Runoff can also pick up pollutants in city streets before it makes its way back into the ground, so undeveloped areas can soak it up before that happens.

Mitigating flooding

Climate change is increasing the risk of flooding in some areas, and cities are particularly vulnerable due to their large area of paved surfaces. Now, in a bid to create more sustainable infrastructure, some towns are installing permeable pavement. Porous sidewalks, roads and parking lots soak up rainwater, reducing stormwater runoff and refilling underground water sources.

Another sustainable urbanization technique for mitigating floods is to harvest rainwater. Rainwater collection systems reduce the volume and intensity of runoff, alleviating pressure on drainage systems. Plus, cities can divert the harvested rainwater to green spaces and restrooms, reducing water costs.

Embracing renewable energy

Wind, solar and geothermal energy can help cities become more sustainable. They overcome the challenge of having to import oil and gas — creating a more reliable, domestic energy supply — and lead to better air quality when compared to using fossil fuels.

They also mesh well with the built environment. For example, contractors can install solar panels on rooftops, taking advantage of space that would otherwise be unused. Geothermal heat pumps tap into underground heat to passively warm buildings.

Green cities should invest in renewable energy for public facilities, street lighting and municipal buildings. They can also incentivize residents to install renewable power sources on their properties.

Improving waste management

Recycling is a crucial component of sustainable urbanization. Experts predict that city waste generation will likely increase by roughly 70% by 2050, but people recycle less than 20% of their garbage.

Green cities can implement waste management systems that encourage composting, recycling and trash reduction. Providing recycling bins and facilities will be key to overcoming this sustainable building challenge, as will educating the public on proper waste disposal.

Technology can also lend a helping hand when it comes to waste management. Smart sorting machines can separate garbage from recyclable materials, helping divert recyclables where they need to go. Garbage bins with fill-level sensors and garbage trucks with AI-powered route optimization could also reduce trash levels in future cities.

Educating the public on sustainable urbanization 

Maintaining green infrastructure depends on having green residents. Cities should conduct campaigns to educate the public about the benefits of sustainable urbanization. They can provide educational programs in schools, offer resources to support sustainable living and post public signs about adopting green behaviors. 

For example, a 2017 study found that when people read signs about water conservation in their neighborhood, they spent 61% less time watering their lawns than did people in communities without the signs. Most people want to be sustainable — they just need to learn how best to do it.

Sustainable infrastructure is essential

As cities become the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions and the most common place to live, they must embrace sustainable infrastructure. Improving air and water quality, cultivating green spaces and reducing dependence on fossil fuels does more than just help the environment — it also betters the lives of the people who live there.

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