How To: Sustainable Cities

Hi, all!

Today I wanted to talk a little bit about how to make a city more sustainable and resilient to catastrophe, like flooding, drought, and overheating. These events are increasing, and especially impacting dense areas like cities. As an example, to help make my point, I would like to focus on Chicago because I have lived in the Chicago suburbs my entire like. It’s “close to home” for me.

In brief, to better help increase the resiliency of a city like Chicago, the built environment should contain green spaces and green buildings that are self-sufficient and compact, as well as a transportation system that encourages the use of bicycles and pedestrians walking.

Currently, Chicago has limited green areas and parks, but an abundance of skyscrapers and brownfields. The Environmental Protection Agency reports on Chicago’s brownfields in an article, “There are more than 1,000 brownfield sites in Chicago, many of which are located in or near communities with high rates of unemployment, poverty, and crime,” (Brownsfields, 2006). The use of of these brownfields (formerly used, barren sites) is essential for society and the economy. Green spaces are areas of vegetation and plants that serve a variety of purposes. The roots and soil of plants collect excess rainwater that can help reduce flooding, as well as serve as a water filtration system. Plants also filter air through photosynthesis, decreasing the amount of harmful carbon dioxide lingering in the atmosphere. (Air pollution, anyone?) Additionally, local vegetation that is used as food can allow for decreased greenhouse gas emissions because less transportation will be required to transport food. Filtration is essential to a resilient community because having a variety of systems in place to clean the environment will allow for time to focus on other aspects.

Finally, green spaces allow for a greater sense of unique space and community. People will care for their surroundings more due to local aesthetics, therefore building social capital and the ability to withstand hardship. Wouldn’t you love to live in a gorgeous, cool, lush environment with all of the conveniences of city life? I sure would!

Compact, mixed use green buildings will be a change to the built environment that will also increase the resiliency of Chicago. Self-sufficient buildings, such as buildings with solar roofs reduce the reliance on foreign petroleum and other infrastructure to provide energy. By creating a system that relies on readily available local resources, such as biowaste, hydropower or solar power, the city of Chicago will not be subordinate to other countries. This means that when Chicago undergoes stress of any kind, the city will be able to handle the situation on their own. Thus, the windy city will be more resilient.

Additionally, compact and mixed-use land space will allow for less congestion due to the automobile and increased transit for all community members. People will not have to rely on vehicles to get them around, therefore more people will be able to contribute to society. More citizens involved equates to greater social capability and economic mobility. This ultimately allows the city to thrive and become resilient due to the human power available.

Currently, pedestrian and bike transportation are secondary to the automobile in Chicago. There are many types of paths for bikes in the inner city. However, the surrounding communities have considerably less paths to utilize. This limits the ability for people who live in the outer city to commute via bike. If these paths were expanding using smart streets, people would have a greater opportunity to travel by bike or on foot. Additionally, smart streets would be an incentive for potential bikers because of the upgraded safety aspect. To further expand on the use of bikes, public transit could adapt systems to become biker friendly by allotting more space for the physical bikes.

Another way to promote the use of traveling via bike is to limit the availability of car resources such as parking spaces, gas stations and wide car lanes. Condensing current four lane roads into two would allot room for bus lanes, bike paths and make space for safer sidewalks with planter zones. Currently, parking in Chicago is extremely expensive. This is a deterrent, but instead of using a punitive tactic to avoid driving, incentivizing public transit or bike use through tax breaks or some other means would be more beneficial. Humans tend to respond better to positive reinforcement compared to negative.

Chicago has plenty of potential for expanding bike use compared to relying on the automobile. This renewal will be possible by developing a connection route of paths, declining automobile options and incentivizing the use of bikes.

Chicago has been burned to the ground once before years ago. The city has the potential to be one of the most sustainable cities in America. As the paradigm shifts within the hearts and minds of the community members, Chicago’s landscapes will be renewed in line with what is best for the economy, people and planet.

I realize these are big changes, and it will take a lot for the citizens of Chicago, and cities around the world, to integrate and embrace these new city design concepts.

What do you think about these sustainable city solutions? What would you incorporate into your own sustainable city?

As always,

In Soil We Trust


Works Cited

“Brownfields 2006 Assessment Grant Fact Sheet .” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 2006,



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