Green Urban Planning for More Sustainable Cities

How Sustainable are Our Cities?


In 2015 the United Nations created 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030. Goal 11 on the list reads: “Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” As more people move away from rural living and into urban centers, our cities must be ready to receive them. That means investing in infrastructure, housing, and public services to assure urban quality of life.


City growth should also be sustainable, meaning it meets our present needs without compromising our future needs. A sustainable city leaves the smallest possible environmental footprint. It gives economic progress and nature preservation equal importance by protecting water sources and air quality, reducing CO2 emissions, and providing biodiverse green spaces.


Urban Planning and Fighting City Sprawl


Urban planning (also called town or city planning) is the process of mapping out detailed plans for an urban area before developing the land. It gives cities structure, making them easier to navigate and more enjoyable to live in.


Urban planning includes designing roads, pedestrian walkways, public transport routes, stormwater drainage, outdoor lighting, firewater outlets, sewage systems, electricity grids, and public parks. It also includes zoning, which means deciding how different sections of the city should be used, for example, residential versus commercial areas.


When there is no urban planning, cities grow organically and begin to sprawl. Instead of following a well-thought-out blueprint, they develop randomly, often creating slums where existing infrastructure cannot handle the growth. These underserved areas are hotspots for water wastage, soil and air pollution, and litter.


Another reason a sprawling city is unsustainable is because it increases our reliance on cars and our subsequent carbon footprint. Therefore, the first step towards building more sustainable cities always lies at the planning level.


Three Sustainable Urban Planning Strategies


  1. Public Transport and Pedestrian-Friendly Streets


In South Africa, 38% of people killed in traffic accidents are pedestrians.[1] Most of our busiest streets are hostile for walkers and runners, with narrow to no pavements. We are a car-loving nation where many people actively avoid walking due to the perceived threat of crime.


Unfortunately, when everyone travels by car or taxi, air pollution levels rise, and cities become unhealthy for their inhabitants. To combat this problem, urban planners must prioritize pedestrians by making it easier, safer, and more comfortable to walk than to drive.


That means designing wide, shaded pavements, accessible pedestrian bridges, and traffic-calming interventions. It may also mean building “express” bus, taxi, and carpool lanes to encourage ride-sharing. Centralized parking garages encourage car owners to walk more, and pavement dustbins mitigate litter, further enhancing the pedestrian experience.


  1. Mixed-Use Zoning


One of the biggest reasons for unsustainable city sprawl is an increased need for housing. People who work or study in city centers need to live nearby, so residential developments start popping up on the outskirts of business districts. However, these homes are often too far away to warrant walking or cycling–the average South African commuter travels 22km one-way every day.[2]


The solution to this problem lies in mixed-use architecture. That means buildings that house offices, apartments, and shops under one roof. Buildings like these allow people to live, work, and play in the same area, encouraging walking and reducing congestion and vehicle emissions.


Designing cities this way can also help to reduce crime. Mixed-use precincts are always alive with activity, unlike quiet residential suburbs during the workday or empty CBDs at night.


  1. Greenery in Urban Spaces


Green lungs are pockets of nature within built-up areas that help to clean the air. The plants in these spaces absorb CO2 and release oxygen while providing habitats for insects, birds, and small animals. They also have an impact on human well-being – spending time in nature has been linked to reduced stress levels and better mental health.  


Parks and playgrounds are not the only green spaces to consider. Urban planners should also design community gardens that promote urban farming. Growing food in cities and towns not only improves air quality, it also fosters food security. Furthermore, the more we grow at home, the less food we have to transport long distances, reducing our reliance on diesel-hungry refrigerated trucks.


Sustainable City Infrastructure: Water, Waste, and Energy


If buildings, parks, roads, and walkways are the fruits of urban planning, infrastructure is the tree. Before we build eco-friendly mixed-use precincts bursting with greenery, we must lay cables and pipes to feed the system and remove its waste sustainably.


Renovating city infrastructure like water, sewage, electricity, and waste may have an even greater impact on the environment than cosmetic upgrades. For example, investing in smart leak detection systems could help us save thousands of litres of potable water.


Other infrastructure interventions for more sustainable cities include running robots, cameras, and streetlights on solar power or installing waste-to-energy technologies in landfills. Implementing recycling programs on a municipal level can help us divert waste away from landfills and bring informal recyclers into the formal economy.


Making South African Cities More Sustainable


Despite its challenges, South Africa has great potential to go green. In 2022, Cape Town was rated the most sustainable city in Africa, setting a good example for our other major metros. The City of Cape Town prioritizes water conservation, recycling, renewable energy, and green tourism. However, there is still much work to be done in the city and across the nation.


Developing land with green urban planning principles in mind can help municipalities build safer, cleaner, more sustainable cities. Infrastructure improvements are the first priority, followed closely by public transport upgrades and affordable, accessible housing in mixed-use developments.


Public-private partnerships will be crucial. The technology, construction, and waste sectors have an important role in urban greening, which could, in turn, create lucrative business opportunities for entrepreneurs.


Want to get involved? Contact us for more information on waste management, resource preservation, and community development initiatives in your city.


[1] SAJS_13225.pdf


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