State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Cities Are Key to a Sustainable Future

sustainable city book cover
The Sustainable City is available now.

On Monday, November 13, Earth Institute executive director Steve Cohen spoke about his newest book, The Sustainable City, at Book Culture in Morningside Heights. Cohen was joined in conversation by Ester Fuchs, an urban policy scholar and professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. The two discussed Cohen’s new book, giving the audience a short preview.

The purpose of this book is to explicitly draw the connection between sustainable processes and sustainable places. Many cities are already investing in different parts of the infrastructure of the future, but the modern city still has a long way to go. The key to a sustainable, renewable resource-based global economy is the sustainable city, which is one that is both an attractive place to live and able to achieve economies of scale in all urban systems.

Here are the big takeaways from the conversation.

Sustainability and environmental protection will be solved in cities. With most people living in cities and greater numbers of people moving to urban areas, we have to ensure that cities are as interesting and livable as possible without destroying the planet.

The changes in cities in the past half century are remarkable. New York City used to be a small manufacturing city, but we are now living in a post-industrial, brain-based economy. Healthcare, media, communications and other service sectors are now the economic base of the city. New York City is far more sustainable than it used to be, and these changes can and are happening in other cities as well. Cities have responsibility for a remarkable amount of policymaking that affects sustainability. The sustainable city, according to Cohen, facilitates economic production and consumption processes while reducing our impact on the natural world.

Cohen and Fuchs speaking about The Sustainable City, at Book Culture. (Photo: DeFrancia)
Cohen and Fuchs speaking about The Sustainable City, at Book Culture. (Photo: Kelsie DeFrancia)

Energy is central to sustainability. Energy is our central resource and defines everything that we do. The book contains case studies that highlight the use of microgrids and renewable energy, showing how we may actually get from the current system to the future one.

The infrastructure in the sustainable city also includes waste, water, sewage, food, mass and personal transit, and parks and public spaces. Energy is a central component of most of our urban infrastructure, and these systems need to be based on renewable energy sources to ensure that we are not polluting our environment. In the book, Cohen includes several case studies and real-world examples that show what these infrastructure systems look like in the sustainable city.

Culture and values are powerful political forces. Fuchs, noting that sustainability is often viewed from a technical and operational view, asked about the political system needed to make environmental sustainability a priority. Cohen noted the importance of the environment as a public health issue. People worry about wellness, fitness, health and the health of their children, and this mindset is central to how people think today. This culture and value system can lead to a political shift and to the infrastructure changes we need. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan is a case in point, and one of the many examples discussed in the book. Most people assume that their government is protecting them, and if the government is not doing its job, the political backlash can be overwhelming.

Steve Cohen signing books
Cohen signing books after the talk. (Photo: Kelsie DeFrancia)

Cohen devotes an entire chapter of his book to the sustainable lifestyle, where he describes the basis of this value shift. He looks at the changing nature of consumption, fitness and wellness, lifelong learning, the role and importance of place, the changing nature of work, and the connected world culture. The growth of the sharing economy (i.e. Airbnb, Uber) reflects a profound value shift, as more people accept sharing and reject owning. Regulation is needed everywhere, but culture and values are far more powerful.

The biggest takeaway of the night? That we can achieve sustainability in cities. We have a long way to go, and we know cities are going to cause some damage, but humans are ingenious and can figure out how to reduce that damage. And even though we are part of a global economy, cities have an ability to impact sustainability on a scale beyond their boundaries. People are more concerned about the planet today than ever before. This value system, coupled with intelligent technology, good public policy, and private companies aligned with the right incentives, can help create the sustainable cities needed for the future.

Interested in learning more? The Sustainable City is now available for purchase from Columbia University Press or your favorite bookstore.  

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cesar valdivieso
6 years ago

Despite the high quality of life that some of the so-called developed nations have achieved, the truth is that the world, considered as a group of countries located in a fragile and geographically limited biosphere, is threatened with extinction due to human conflicts and the depredation of the environment.
Notwithstanding the good and very important actions taken by groups and individuals in favor of a better world, deterioration at all levels continues to increase dangerously.
After more than thirty years dedicated to these matters, and since “an image is worth a thousand words” we have come up with a novel idea of designing a model city that has all the characteristics of infrastructure and organization inherent to the peaceful and sustainable society that we want for ourselves and our descendants, whose representation in the form of scale models, animated series, feature films, video games and theme parks, would constitute a model to follow to generate the necessary changes.
The prototype that we present has some characteristics that are opposed, sometimes in a radical way, to the religious, economic, political and educational traditions and customs that have been transmitted from generation to generation, yet are the causes of the aforementioned problems, and therefore must be transformed.
If you are interested in knowing about this project, or even participating in it, we invite you to visit our website (written in Spanish and English), where we are working in that sense.