What is sustainable urban development?

When a city embarks on the path of sustainable development, the aim is to combine social, economic and ecological aspects in such a way that everyone can live comfortably.
There are many questions to be addressed before a city can be declared to be sustainable. How can cities be supplied with energy, drinking water and food in the future? How will future transportation systems look like? Will cities be safe in the future? How are natural resources or generated waste managed? Are enough climate protection measures being implemented? How will the world of work look like and how will we provide affordable housing for everyone?

While cities occupy only 2% of the total global surface area, they account for 75% of global energy consumption. This shows how important it is to ensure sustainable urban development.

Visual representation of the UNECE-ITU Smart Sustainable Cities Framework.
Visual representation of the UNECE-ITU Smart Sustainable Cities Framework.

Complexity of sustainable urban development

Not only metropolitan cities, but also small and medium-sized conurbations are emerging as dynamic growth centres and therefore confronted with the complex interactions of sustainable development.

If any one component is changed, this always has an impact on other areas. The complexity and interdependence is illustrated by two examples:

In Hamburg's HafenCity in Germany, a residential space accommodating 12,000 people has been created in the former port area. While some people see this as additional space for living and working in the city centre, others find that these predominantly luxurious apartments have intensified the social inequalities in the city.

In Berlin, the capital of Germany, the closure of the city airport Tempelhof created a huge vacant plot in the middle of the city.  In a referendum in 2014, a clear majority voted against developing this space - including peripheral development - even though the housing shortage in the city is acute. Rents continue to rise because demand is growing. Thus a gain in greenery and quality of life here means compromising on living space.

Challenges of sustainable urban development

The challenges facing the cities of tomorrow are immense:

1) Cities must provide housing to more and more people, maintain a functioning infrastructure for transport, food supply and waste disposal, and do so in a climate- and environmentally friendly manner. The ideal case is a sustainable and CO2-neutral city. However, in many rapidly growing cities, there are hardly any planning structures that take into account all relevant aspects and their interactions.

2) In order to achieve social justice in sustainable urban development in the short, medium and long term, standards need to be set that protect above all economically disadvantaged and low-income households from additional burdens. This can best be ensured if all population groups are provided with equal access to water, energy, education, employment as well as user-oriented knowledge for sustainable urban development.
Successful municipalities have shown that citizen participation in every stage of sustainable urban development leads to more dialogue, commitment and transparency. Mannheim, a south-western German city can be cited as example. In the city, the 17 sustainable development goals have been implemented by involving the citizens and creating an active dialogue with them through interactive summits, workshops and public events.

15 smartest cities around the world.
15 smartest cities around the world. 

Examples of sustainable urban development

• In Germany, the following cities and municipalities were awarded the German Sustainability Award 2020: Osnabrück (category large city) Aschaffenburg (category medium-sized city) | Bad Berleburg (category small city)

• In the United States, the US Cities Sustainable Development Report 2019 identified the top 3 sustainable cities: San Francisco| San Jose | Washington DC

• Worldwide: The Sustainable Cities Index of 2018 identified the 5 most sustainable cities in the world as: Zurich | Singapore | Stockholm | Vienna |     London