Sustainable Cities

Sustainable Cities

by Terence Jeyaretnam

A sustainable city can feed itself with minimal reliance on the surrounding countryside, and power itself with renewable sources of energy.  There are no examples of such ecopolises today, but certainly almost all early civilizations had such cities at the centre of them.

It is a different story today.  It is estimated that more than 50% of today’s world population lives in cities and urban areas and this figure is at a formidable 80% in Australia. Cities are responsible for over 75% of the world’s greenhouse gases.  None of them are remotely sustainable.  Perhaps as exception is Calgary, ranked as the top eco-city in the planet for it’s "excellent level of service on waste removal, sewage systems, and water drinkability and availability, coupled with relatively low air pollution”, according to the reputable Mercer Quality of Living Survey 2010.

In 2003, Engineers Australia made a submission to the Inquiry into Sustainable Cities 2025, which outlined key recommendations around sustainable transport, building development, urban water management and urban development.  The submission highlighted the Melbourne 2030 Strategy as a good example of strategic urban planning. Ironically, the Victorian State Government has since changed its strategy on the policy, abandoning the urban growth boundary in the north and west of Melbourne and compromising green wedges.  Additionally, no significant progress has been made on the sustainable cities agenda.  However, the COAG Reform Council (the council), established by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), has more recently recommended nine criteria for strategic planning of capital cities, which are centred around the principles of sustainability.

Civilization’s gradual move away from sustainable cities to unsustainable forms of living highlights a natural tension between living a low-impact lifestyle and the various economic influences on a city’s people.  In many ways, the bigger cities are, the better. City dwellers have, on average, a smaller environmental footprint than those who live in smaller towns or rural areas.  On the other hand, as cities grow, the increasing buzz that leads to greater productivity also quickens the pace of life. Crime, disease, even the average walking speed, also increase by 15 per cent per doubling of city size, which has unintended negative social consequences. A retrofitted environmentally and socially net positive contributory city is therefore one of the leading challenges for today’s engineers, within the political, commercial, planning, technological, ecological and community constraints of modern day.

Source: Wikipedia, New Scientist Starting over: Rebuilding civilisation from scratch Bob Holmes, 28th March 2011 and Transforming Australian Cities for a More Financially Viable and Sustainable Future, City of Melbourne.

Terence Jeyaretnam is a Director of Net Balance (, 
one of the world’s leading sustainability advisory firms.
Terence is based in Melbourne.