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by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Zalina Shari

[Department of Architecture, Faculty of Design and Architecture,

Universiti Putra Malaysia]


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Why Should You Care About Urbanisation?

Today, half of us live in cities, and by 2040, that number will grow to 75%. Since about 1950, urban areas have increased dramaticallyas part of a broader process called urbanisation – the creation and growth of urban areas, measured as the percentage of the people in a country or in the world living in urban areas.

One reason why you should care about urbanisation is that chances are you live, or will someday live, in an urban area, and the environmental quality of that area will have a major effect on the quality of your life.

Another reason to care is that the world’s urban areas are large contributors to the global environmental problems we face, including air and water pollution, projected climate disruption, and depletion of resources such as topsoil, minerals, freshwater supplies, and wetlands. In fact, many environmental analysts argue that the great majority of the world’s urban areas are currently not environmentally sustainable for the long term.

Even if you don’t live in an urban area, you have reasons to care about the environmental quality of these areas. Many of the air pollutants, water pollutants, and solid wastes coming from cities end up in the rural areas around them. In addition, rural areas are exploited through industrialised agriculture, the clear-cutting of forests, and mining operations in order to provide resources for urban dwellers. Such operations often disturb soils, pollute air and water, degrade or destroy forests, and eliminate wildlife habitats.

Urban areas occupy only about 2% of the earth’s land area. But a populous urban area depends on a flow of resources from other areas to meet most of its residents’ needs and wants, while a portion of its pollution and wastes flows into the air and water needed to provide any set of urban dwellers with their food, water, and other vital resources, and to absorb their wastes and pollutants is typically much larger than the area of the city in which they live (Figure 1). In other words, an urban area can have an ecological footprint that extends far beyond its physical boundaries.





Raw materials

Manufactured goods




Solid wastes

Waste heat

Air pollution

Water pollutants

Greenhouse gases


Figure 1: Most urban areas depend on rural areas to meet their resource needs and receive their pollution and waste outputs

On the other hand, urbanisation or the growth of cities can also have beneficial effects on the environment. For example, with higher concentrations of people and material goods, cities can more easily support recycling programs that can small towns and rural areas. They can also support mass-transit systems such as buses and light-rail systems. This helps reduce energy use and the pollution that results from high concentrations of motor vehicles used daily. In addition, where urban growth is managed in such a way that the human population is more concentrated in the city and not spread out across a vast area around the city, we can preserve larger areas of land for the benefit of wildlife, ecosystems, ecosystem services, and people.

Furthermore, city living can provide a variety of social and economic benefits. Cities are the sites of businesses and industries that provide jobs for millions of people. Most colleges and universities are located in urban areas. Cities are also centres of commerce, technological advances, arts and entertainment, and economic and political power.

On average, urban dwellers live longer than do rural residents, and their children are more likely to be able to go to school. Urban area residents also tend to have better access to health care, family planning, and social services than do people in rural areas. Many people living in rural areas, especially young people, migrate to cities in hopes of gaining these social and economic benefits.

How to Make Urban Areas More Sustainable and Liveable?

In a number of cities around the world, officials, planners, and residents are working hard to make their urban areas more sustainable and livable, using well-tested policies, tools, and technologies. Many of these people envision what can be called an ecocity or a green city. This city puts its highest priority on minimising its ecological footprint and improving the quality of life for its inhabitants.

Some cities have made great strides toward these goals. Examples of sustainability features commonly found in these cities are; networks of bicycle paths (Figure 2a); user-friendly systems for recycling and composting (Figure 2b); and energy systems based on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power (Figure 2c).

Cities that are pursuing the ecocity model distinguish themselves from conventional cities in several ways. New neighbourhoods in these cities are designed to be more pedestrian-friendly. Instead of having wide, multilane streets and highways, they have mostly narrow streets and wide sidewalks and paths for walking and biking (Figure 2d). These cities also rely more on affordable, energy-efficient mass transit, neighbourhoods with a mixture of housing and businesses, and compact development.

Ecocity developers try to preserve surrounding croplands and protect and restore nearby natural wildlife habitats and wetlands. Trees and plants adapted to the local climate and soils are planted throughout ecocities to provide shade, beauty, and wildlife habitat, and to reduce air pollution, noise, and soil erosion.

Green cities work toward sharply reducing pollution and the waste of energy and matter resources. In addition to encouraging their residents to reduce the use of these resources, ecocities also have strong programs to promote reuse, recycling (Figure 2b), and composting. Garden trimmings, waste food and even waste sewage can be converted to plant nutrients, as in natural systems, or converted to biogas fuel. Some green cities recycle or compost 60% or more of all municipal solid waste.


Energy resources are carefully chosen and promoted in ecocities. To produce electricity, many use wind turbines, solar cells (Figure 2c) and other locally available, renewable energy resources. As a result, homes and other buildings using these systems can often serve as miniature power plants by selling their excess electricity back to power companies.

In addition to striving for self-sufficiency in terms of energy resources, ecocity residents also try to be more self-sufficient in their food supplies. Some cities have community urban gardens and farmers markets (Figure 3a and 3b). Instead of maintaining grass lawns, some people fill their lots with organic gardens and various plants adapted to local climate conditions. People also use nearby organic farms and small gardens on rooftops, in yards, and even in window boxes.

Figure 2: These are some of the features of sustainable ecocities

Figure 3: Ecocity residents' self-sufficient food supplies

Some examples of cities that are working toward becoming more environmentally sustainable and livable are Curitiba, Brazil; Bogota, Colombia; Leicester, England; Stockholm, Sweden; Helsinki, Finland; Waitakere City, New Zealand; and the U.S. cities of Portland, Oregon; Olympia, Washington; Davis, California; and Chattanooga, Tennessee.

New York City also has plans to become one of the world’s more sustainable large cities. New York is a compact city with a large population and widespread use of public transit.

Therefore, New Yorkers’ per capita carbon footprint is already 71% smaller than that of the U.S. as a whole. The city’s plan includes planting more than a million trees, establishing more bike lanes and pedestrian plazas, expanding its parks, improving the energy efficiency of its buildings, converting all of its taxis to hybrids or other energy-efficient vehicles, and modernising its mass-transit system.

What Can You Do to Help Dealing with Urbanisation Issues?

The big question is, how can we control the environmentally harmful impacts of urbanisation in other to make urban areas more environmentally sustainable and more desirable places to live? As with most environmental issues, it boils down to what each of us does as an individual, i.e., how each of us can have a more sustainable and rewarding lifestyle in an increasingly urbanised world.

This involves thinking about where to live, how to get from place to place, how to get enough food, water, and other resources, how to use those resources more sustainably, and how to reduce our production of wastes. All of these things together help to determine how big each of our ecological footprints is.

For citation purposes: Shari, Zalina. (2021). Making Urban Areas More Sustainable and Liveable for the People. D-Zine Trend, Volume 1  (Issue 1).

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