The University of Southampton
Research

How to build a sustainable city

Facing five challenges to create a resilient way of life

Published: 13 July 2017

With our planet facing countless modern challenges, including urbanisation, globalisation and climate change, we need to start making changes now. We need to create sustainable cities that nurture a resilient way of life.

But how do we create a sustainable city? Whilst there is no completely agreed-upon paradigm for what components should be included, experts agree that it should consider both the needs of the present and the needs of future generations simultaneously.

This presents many challenges, but five in particular that need to be addressed, especially if we are to create an enduring way of life across the four domains of ecology, economics, politics and culture.

Professor Ian Williams from the Centre for Environmental Science, University of Southampton, examines these five key challenges to delivering sustainability in the world’s growing cities.

Creating sustainable cities won’t be easy – but with a positive attitude, the right vision and approach, it can be done.

Professor Ian Williams - Centre for Environmental Science, University of Southampton

1. We must build resilient and sustainable infrastructure

Infrastructure lies at the heart of all of our communities. Within our cities, we must design, build and maintain modern systems that meet our most basic of needs.

Firstly, our infrastructure must help us to supply clean, fresh water for drinking and washing. We must invest in circular economy solutions to turn grey and brown water safely back to drinkable water

Secondly, we must design and build a modern transport infrastructure. We need a significant modal shift towards sustainable transport.

Thirdly, we must ensure that good quality, safe, sustainable and affordable housing is provided for our urban populations, with good access to services such as education and healthcare. Good housing conditions are vital to making cities attractive and liveable and for the maintenance of social cohesion.

Fourthly, we must design and build resilient cities that adapt to and cope with increasingly frequent flood events and simultaneously cope with inclement weather events, including extreme temperatures.

Finally, we must design and build a modern, resource-efficient infrastructure based on renewable energy sources and a circular economy for materials. Renewable energy must be produced for cities without serious impact on ecosystem functions or biodiversity. The world’s nations must meet their tough emissions reduction goals, significantly reducing their carbon footprints.

2. We must reinvent urban environments to enhance liveability and enable sustainable lifestyles

As more people flock to cities in search of social and economic opportunities, cities face challenges around how best to absorb these new populations whilst maintaining quality of life and biodiversity.

Sustainable urban development should start by promoting citizens’ wellbeing. A truly sustainable and inclusive city would involve a dense, integrated and green environment with attractive housing, working and living conditions for all sectors of society.

In addition, we need to address issues arising from our increasingly sedentary and isolated lifestyles. Physical inactivity is damaging the physical health of many in our communities and is directly costing the NHS close to £1 billion a year. A recent study showed that loneliness was twice as unhealthy as obesity for older people.

We must invest in ecosystem services to improve air quality, aquatic ecosystems, farming and forestry, pollination, green corridors and migration routes, and microhabitats (for example, edge zones and wetlands). We must protect highly vulnerable species and encourage sustainable stewardship of the planet’s biodiversity.

Making good decisions about land use must be at the forefront of our thinking as land is a vital natural resource. Good decisions about land use will make provision for everyone’s needs, including the young and old and those with disabilities. This will help to stop urban sprawl resulting from the spread of low-density settlements, and will help to prevent social polarisation and facilitate inclusivity.

Cities account for around 75 per cent of the world’s energy use and over 7 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. The transition to an economy that is free of fossil fuels is essential to a substantial reduction of cities’ ecological footprints.

Professor Ian Williams - Centre for Environmental Science, University of Southampton

3. We must find effective and efficient ways to feed and fuel cities

Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. By 2050 this is expected to reach 66 per cent, according to the United Nations. Studies are showing that climate change may decrease the nutrition of common crops, so we will need to increase the amount of food we produce using fewer resources.

To achieve this, we need both high-tech and low-tech solutions. We will need to grow food in urban and rural areas to meet food demands, employing more water-efficient and carbon-intensive farming techniques in order to grow more food in less space.

Cities account for around 75 per cent of the world’s energy use and over 7 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. The transition to an economy that is free of fossil fuels is essential to a substantial reduction of cities’ ecological footprints.

4. We must find ways to meet the economic challenge associated with this transition

Cities should place demands on the financial market to bring about sustainable change.

Today, only 7-10 per cent of the world’s financial assets are managed with strict sustainability criteria. We need to connect solutions and markets by investing for sustainable development. Cities need to work with investors to establish long-term plans and offer tailored financing models.

5. We must encourage leadership, cooperation and lifelong learning

For any of these challenges to be addressed – and potentially overcome – it is vital that cities take a leadership role to ensure that the needs of their stakeholders are fulfilled. New and engaged partnerships must be formed, including direct interaction with industry, and communication in the digital age should provide a platform for increased levels of co-operation and education on a much wider scale.

Along with leadership must come accountability, especially if civic leaders are to engage with their communities to find and enact mutually-beneficial solutions to their growing challenges and problems. Leaders will need to address a myriad of sensitive social issues – social cohesion, poverty, aging populations, the obesity and mental health crises, immigration, multi-culturalism, discrimination, and growing racism and xenophobia – alongside the provision of infrastructure and services. Accountability can take many forms and these are all vital if we are to successfully deliver sustainability in our cities.

Creating sustainable cities won’t be easy – but with a positive attitude, the right vision and approach, it can be done.

Find out more about how scientists at Southampton are ensuring a sustainable future for cities.

More information on Ian's research

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