Sustainable Cities Work for Climate Change

04/29/2015 04:08 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2015
Martin LaBar/Flickr

To survive on this planet at the numbers we have amassed, cities must more efficiently support their human habitants, especially with persistent constraints on water, land, and food. Organizing people into cities can be an important strategy for conserving land for farming, biodiversity, and more wilderness; but compact cities and strong towns also improve municipal-service delivery and encourage efficient use of infrastructure investments. Additionally, urban dwellers' lowered individual demands for space and energy make new technological innovations, such as renewables, more viable as meaningful alternatives to current systems.

On a global scale, the movement into cities can ironically offer substantial environmental advances. Sustainable cities work for climate change, and in the best cases, they are what's working for other efforts related to health, environmental conservation, and even municipal bottom lines. For example, in the U.S., the average per capita energy use associated with living in a compact-urban setting vs. a traditional suburb is about half for buildings and a third for transportation. The compact setting also encourages physical activity through active transportation and can save the city money on road expansion and maintenance.

In the U.S., there is increasing demand for quality urban places to live; however, to date, such places are undersupplied and increasingly accessible only to those of exceptional means. The growing desire for clean, healthy, and aesthetic places to live means smart urban policies can simultaneously improve people's lives and the environment.

Many city officials realize the demand for healthy places, and the ultimate goal of creating truly livable and flourishing habitats for humans. Yet the prevailing patterns of highway and automobile-centered mobility investments contribute to the growing trend both in sedentary lifestyles and associated growing waistlines across America and other industrializing nations.

In the developing world, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia, urbanization rates are the world's highest, and thus represent some of our greatest public-health opportunities from "Livable Cities" initiatives. For example, in transportation planning, designing for people rather than for cars has emerged as a golden opportunity to advance public health. In settings like Ethiopia, University of Wisconsin projects include urban planning that is both fitness promoting (via biking or walking) and changing norms so that equitable alternative transportation become the new index for modernization, rather than outdated (and misguided) measures such as number of cars per family. Where highways and roads have yet to be built, there is the greatest chance to pre-empt inefficient and unhealthy investments and to make livable, healthy urban design the norm for emerging economies.

Back in the USA, universities can provide struggling towns and cities with an injection of energy and experimentation. Engaging with cities through coursework is a model for service learning that has immediate and obvious benefits for both the University and the partner city. At the same time, "univer-city" partnerships push students with experiences that prepare them for life outside campus. Programs modeled after the Sustainable City Year from the University of Oregon are being adopted around the country, and are putting the "public" back in public institutions by pairing city projects with existing coursework.

To generate new knowledge, educate tomorrow's leaders, and serve larger communities it would behoove nearly every subject being studied at universities today to reframe questions by considering the role that cities play in answering them. The potential solutions emerging from campuses should be tested in real-world settings. Cities provide such a setting with the complexity that universities require for multidisciplinary problem-based research. Strengthened relationships between cities and universities can be fundamental to rolling out new technologies -- and evaluating existing ones -- that can help establish Livable Cities across the globe. The renewed coordination of university rigor, student enthusiasm, and city pragmatism provides great examples of what's working for local and global problems, and it's the kind of thing we're working to encourage.

This post is part of a Huffington Post What's Working series on the environment. The series is putting a spotlight on initiatives and solutions that are actually making a difference -- whether in the battle against climate change, or tackling pollution or other environmental challenges. To see all the posts in the series, read here.