sustainability in cities

Currently, the world population is well over six billion people and is set to only continue to grow with time. While modern day miracles including vaccinations, clean water, and accessible clean living conditions have contributed to higher life expectancy rates and less mortality overall, the sheer number of people on our planet is beginning to take a toll on our resources.

As Alex Steffen discusses in his TED Talk, “Alex Steffen Sees a Sustainable Future,” the ecological footprint for western countries is entirely too large for our planet to sustain. Steffen uses the example of “multiple worlds” to explain: “Every society has an ecological footprint. It has an amount of impact on the planet that’s measurable: how much stuff goes through your life, how much waste is left behind you…We at the moment…are using up about five planets.” As Steffen demonstrates, there are simply too many people on our one Earth, consuming far too many resources (five Earth’s worth), in order for our ONE planet to sustain us into the future.

Cities pose a unique set of issues for sustainable living. Not only is land already extremely limited in most, if not all, city environments, it’s also a struggle to harness this available land for agricultural use. Land is simply not used properly. Businesses, people, and resources are therefore scattered, inaccessible, and unmanageable. Since city-dwellers cannot produce their own food within the confines of their cities, they therefore must procure virtually all of their food from elsewhere.

Currently, we are in a “global food market” where one can actually use “food miles” as a measurement—that is, it is possible to measure the distance food is transported from its time of production until its in the hand of consumers. For example, orange juice consumed in Europe may have been first produced from oranges in Brazil, meaning that for a European to enjoy a single glass of OJ at breakfast, 1,200km must have been logged (Sustainable Cities). About 15% of the greenhouse gas emissions from today’s food system come just from the product’s transportation. Of course, this percentage is much lower when food is grown locally and does not have to travel across oceans and borders to make it to our tables; however, in today’s city landscape this type of local production is next to impossible.

Access to locally grown food is an imperative component of sustainable living that most– if not all– cities lack. City-dwellers consume more food than those living in the suburbs or out in the country, and their food also requires more production and processing. While those in more rural areas can pick up fresh produce, eggs, and meats locally and use them at least within the week they’ve purchased them, city-dwellers do not have this luxury.

Food going to cities has to be made to last much longer, therefore requiring more intensive packaging like plastic containers, along with more chemical intervention to preserve the freshness of the food, including the use of harmful pesticides in production and the addition of preservatives in food packaging. Although in many cases living in a city can be more convenient in terms of proximity to schools, jobs, etc. when it comes to food, those in more country/suburban areas with more access to locally grown sources are winning the sustainability game.

It is clear that cities face a truly an uphill battle when it comes to achieving sustainability. Issues like population growth and food transportation are accelerated at an extremely unsustainable rate in most cities throughout the world. However, if a complete restructuring and redesign of cities is seriously considered– by city planners, government officials, and the city population in general– cities could be transformed. If cities can realign with the needs of the planet and redesign to offer compact community-based living options then a more sustainable future will be definitely be possible for cities and the world alike.


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