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A Beginner’s Guide To Sustainable Urbanism



Urbanism has been a growing study in higher education institutions, especially as the world continues to globalize and cities grow exponentially. In a nutshell, urbanism is defined as the study of cities and towns, particularly looking at how individuals interact with the built environments around them.

As the changing environment becomes a larger concern in our everyday lives, the way in which cities are planned and redeveloped is being impacted. The methods in which we build cities in themselves are not sustainable, as they fundamentally require large amounts of energy usage and display a noticeable absence of greenery amongst several other issues.

So what exactly is sustainable urbanism then? What makes up this abstract concept? Here’s a basic breakdown of what goes into developing a sustainable urban plan.

As cities began to expand in the western world, architects looked to the traditional masters of the Renaissance, such as Andrea Palladio, and the Roman Republic, like Vitruvius. Often, there were three components of what contributed towards the best design of an urban center: aesthetics, ecology, and economy. While, in a theoretically perfect world, all three of those components would be equally balanced, they are not. There may be more emphasis placed on the aesthetics or economic values, ignoring how a city may be designed to use electricity in a highly inefficient manner.

An important reference when discussing sustainable urbanism in the contemporary era is the Freiburg Charter, which outlines an example of a city in Germany, Freiburg, that exemplifies an efficient and ecologically friendly city. In the Freiburg Charter, there are a total of twelve essential elements to a sustainable city, but here are some of the key concepts: diversity and safety; being a city full of distinguished neighborhoods that are equally empowered; being a city where everything is a short distance away, and is walkable; high usage of public transportation over cars; opportunities for access to quality education; an equal balance of new and existing job opportunities; implementing nature into the actual design of the city; and design of public spaces.

Something that is often failed to be considered in the benefits of sustainable urban planning, as outlined in the Freiburg Charter, is that it, in theory, can simultaneously meet the needs demanded by regular urban planning. From an economic standpoint, if individuals can walk or utilize public transport, it generates revenue for a greater range of businesses, as people are more capable of travelling extensively within the urban space. Individuals are subsequently paying less towards the cost of using cars, and consumers then have more disposable income to stimulate the economy of the city.

This also promotes a healthier lifestyle for residents; in terms of air quality, cars are a massive contributor to carbon emissions in an urban center, and many injuries and deaths can be attributed to vehicle accidents. In the case of New York City, during the pandemic, entire streets were closed to traffic and converted into outdoor spaces for dining and recreation. Walking versus living a mainly sedentary lifestyle of sitting encourages a considerably better framework for those living in these areas.

While those are the more obvious benefits to planning an entire city around the concept of sustainability, thoroughly planning the layout of the buildings and design of infrastructure, can also do less damage to the environment surrounding the city, as well as positively impacting energy usage. Buildings that receive a lot of natural light, for example, then mitigate the need for high electricity usage and costs. The need for several large parking lots and spaces is eliminated, so space can be utilized for something more beneficial to society as a whole, such as a school, outdoor gardening spaces or a community center.

The intentionality of this design also eliminates the need to constantly tear down, reconstruct and construct new buildings, which takes its toll on the environment in terms of resources, noise pollution, and labor. The city in itself becomes an ecosystem of its own, in which the flow of resources comes naturally and is capable of providing for its people sufficiently.

We can’t completely turn to transitioning cities into sustainable centers instantaneously, but with strategic planning, intentional and innovative design and increased support, they should become a goal we strive for in the near future.

Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is a writer and artist based in Baltimore and New York City. Her work often deals with intergenerational trauma, utilizing cinema from a cultural, sociological, and socioeconomic lens, and the impacts of urbanism and loneliness. An undergraduate at the Fashion Institute of Technology studying International Trade, she hopes to advocate for sustainable and ethical practices in the global marketplace.


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