Green Urban Planning

GREEN Urban Environments

Central Park, New York City

Importance of GREEN Spaces in Urban Environments


Ideally, cities should set out to have land-use plans that conserve as much natural setting as possible.

Free Buildings Streets photo and pictureUrban roads should feature natural landscapes nearby; thus increasing the positive environmental influence of nature on public health.

Trees and green spaces serve to create healthier air by filtering urban pollutants, in addition to providing aesthetic value and numerous other benefits.

Planting trees and other greenery in cities also cools urban environments (as well as other smart urban growth solutions like green and cool roofs), helping to reduce the heat island effect in cities.

Cities should also feature walkable city plans; city plans with green spaces, wide sidewalks, wide bike paths, and car-free or low-emissions zones in city centers (or at least timed road closures to cars in order to encourage walking, biking, and mass transit).

Cities with a greater share of green spaces and public mass transit tend to be more productive, as well as being a more healthy place to live.

Mass transit also serves to help keep air pollution reduced in cities, creates less traffic congestion, and translates into less fuel per passenger-mile overall (especially when sustainable mass transit is used).

Please see the Green City Times article on Sustainable Mass Transit (and also below) for more information on public mass transit.

Definitions of Urban Planning


Modern urban planning is conceived much like a business plan; where potential revenue, environmental attributes, and socioeconomic concerns, are prioritized in order to attract public and private investments.

Urban planning involves planning the development of an urban area, as far as the urban layout, urban environment, and urban infrastructure - and also now includes a few other concerns, to give a more modern viewpoint.

The more current definitions of urban planning include socioeconomic issues, sustainable development goals, conservation of wildlife habitat, an emphasis on green spaces, and efforts to manage urban environmental issues.

Electric Bus
Electric buses are increasingly common sustainable public mass transit options in cities

The development of sustainable public mass transit is a useful means for estimating potential revenue increases in urban areas.

Areas of an urban environment that are developed closely with access to mass transit see increases in business development and employment opportunities; helping to create productive urban city centers.

A green city incorporates sustainable mass transportation into urban planning; thus addressing environmental, social, and economic concerns. The best modern urban plans develop mass transit around areas that offer a high concentration of employment potential; creating busy urban centers of job growth, economic vitality, and a thriving local economy.

Prioritizing sustainable mass transit in urban planning for inner cities, as well as suburbs, also addresses social justice issues; by boosting cities' economic opportunities regardless of the location and socioeconomic status of the given area's residents.

Green Urban Spaces and Urban Forestry


Green Urban Planning
Stanley Park, Vancouver

The most sustainable urban plans are city designs with plentiful bike routes and walking paths near green spaces and urban forestry. 

Sustainable cities prioritize environmental concerns.

These concerns include environmental conservation, and healthy urban environments, as well as investments in protecting, restoring, and maintaining green spaces, urban forestry, and local ecosystems.

Sustainable modes of transit that don't necessarily involve vehicles (walking, cycling, electric micro-mobility) are essential alternative sustainable transit options.

The ideal urban environment is built around concentrated areas of business and productivity, which have a variety of environmentally and economically sound public transportation options available; as well as easily accessible alternative transit options.

Concentrated areas of productivity include sustainable businesses, and walkable city centers with plenty of shops and busy enterprises.

Highly populated cities and smaller suburban towns should also embrace concepts such as environmental conservation and the reduction of urban sprawl. By implementing these principles, green spaces are made efficient to maintain and develop in and around urban and suburban areas.

Here's a quote from a CNBC article about the importance of green spaces and urban forestry in improving air quality in urban environments:

"One solution to help tackle the problem of air pollution [in cities] could be increasing the number of trees and green spaces within urban areas, according to experts.

As well as being aesthetically pleasing – the sight of branches covered in blossom can lift even the gloomiest of moods — trees can offer a range of benefits. A number of cities are now making concerted efforts to improve green spaces and boost the number of trees on their streets and in parks.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN has stated that one tree can absorb as much as 150 kilograms of carbon dioxide annually. It has also described large urban trees as being excellent filters for urban pollutants and fine particulates.

In addition to absorbing CO2 — an important step in battling climate change — trees can also provide other benefits that may not be immediately obvious.The main thing that trees do [is] help cool the city. So by cooling the city there is less need, for example, for air conditioning costs.”

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Reduction of Urban Sprawl 


One major emphasis in sustainable city development has remained the reduction of urban sprawl. Bringing work, home, and shopping as close as possible geographically has become quite important.

Ideally, urban development would be concentrated around mass transit, employment opportunities, and commercial centers (shopping/ grocery/ retail outlets and markets).

Urban developments should focus on ubiquitous access to mass transit, as well as pedestrian and cycle paths, in proportion to roads for cars.

Urban planning solutions to urban sprawl are seen in major metropolises such as New York City, Vancouver, and London. These cities feature the urban planning strategies of building vertically, as in skyscrapers and high-rise apartments, but also fit definitions of walkable cities.

These bustling centers of urban productivity combine strategies of high-density urban development for residences and businesses, sustainable mass transit, as well as plenty of walk/ bike paths along with green spaces.

A different urban planning strategy to reduce urban sprawl is seen in small suburban communities such as Vauban, Germany. The urban planning techniques of “filtered permeability” and "fused grid" were implemented in the design of the municipality of Vauban.

These urban planning terms refer to a town design of connected streets throughout the town, as well as plenty of pedestrian and bike paths. Urban planning led to a city layout in Vauban that lends itself to cycling as the primary mode of transit.

Vauban, Germany
Vauban, Freiburg, Germany
urban plan of Vauban, Germany
urban planning layout of the city district of Vauban, in Freiburg, Germany

Here are six cities that feature cutting-edge sustainable, clean energy, and energy efficiency innovations and technologies (technologies and innovations that exemplify successful urban planning efforts). These cities all feature sustainable urban plans:

Green City: Curitiba - Bus Rapid Transit and Urban Planning

Green City: Urban Planning and Sustainable Transit in Portland

Europe's Greenest City District - Vauban, Germany

Green City: Vancouver, Green City: New York City, Green City: London

Please also see:

What Makes a City Sustainable?

for more great ideas on environmental sustainability, ecological conservation, and urban sustainability solutions; especially in urban environments.

Low-emission Zones


Low Emission Zone Sign In London Uk
Low emission zone sign in London

A pioneering low-emissions zone in Europe is in London. The congestion charge (C-charge), and the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) in London, are strategies to reduce pollution caused by internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.

Low-emission zones in a major world city were first made fully operational in London in 2008, and have rapidly spread across Europe (there are over 250 low and zero-emission zones throughout European cities).

Low-emission zones are designed to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and other pollution from inefficient fossil fuel cars. Low-emission zones are also designed to get lower-emitting, more fuel-efficient vehicles (like electric vehicles (EVs), hybrids, and plug-in hybrids) on roads in place of their dirtier petrol-fueled ICE counterparts.

Crit'Air throughout France is another example of where low-emission zones have taken off.

Another trend-setting European city as far as reducing tailpipe pollution is Oslo, Norway. Oslo is in the midst of putting a citywide ban on fossil-fuel-dependent ICE cars; and has the highest rate of EV adoption of any city in the world.

Zones that propose to eliminate ICE vehicles in favor of EVs, as well as pedestrian and bicycle-only zones, are known as zero-emission zones (please see: Global ICE Phase-out).

Vauban in Freiburg, Germany has set a sustainable example by greatly reducing the number of vehicles on its roads.

Vauban has effectively reduced the number of cars on its roads dramatically; by eliminating parking spaces except for a limited quantity of high-priced spaces. Vauban has dedicated most roads in the city to pedestrians, cycling, or sustainable mass transit (in Vauban's case, electric trams).

Other European cities like Copenhagen, Paris, Amsterdam, and Madrid, are implementing limitations on ICE vehicles on their city's roads. Even Manhattan, NYC, is considering mandating a congestion charge similar to the one in London.

In addition to implementing low-emissions zones, sustainable cities worldwide are investing in and encouraging alternative forms of transit - such as biking, walking, electric micro-mobility, and sustainable public mass transit (such as electric buses and electric light rail).

Waste Management


Central to sustainability efforts for any city are substantial waste management measures, also considered 'resource management'; such as food waste, wastewater, and other municipal waste management. Waste can also be used as a vital resource for a city.

For example, waste from restaurant kitchens and small businesses, as well as other municipal waste, in combination with agricultural waste streams from farms, can be transformed into energy sources (as in various waste-to-energy - W2E - technologies). 

Waste is converted into energy in anaerobic digesters and can help supply power to a city's grid, as seen in Copenhagen, Denmark. Additionally, there are a variety of W2E technologies that cities should consider investing in.

For another example, rainwater and greywater can be sent through water treatment facilities, and then reclaimed as usable potable water to help meet a city's needs.

Food "waste" and some farm "waste" aren't really "waste" at all, but still usable edible goods (albeit less desirable); and can easily be donated to a city's food banks and charities, such as in the case of the Central Texas Food Bank in Austin, Texas

Important waste management concepts and measures include conservation, and all cities should consider forming a conservation workforce similar to Greencorps (the environmental non-profit organization based in Chicago).

All cities should consider forming conservation-based non-profit organizations to help foster a clean, thriving environment.

Organizations like Greencorp can help maintain urban forestry, help create a zero waste urban environment, and provide assistance with the reuse of resources (as in the case of treated greywater/ rainwater reclamation, organic material for energy generation, and still usable food for food banks). Environmental non-profit organizations can also practice recycling and help create a circular economy.

The following snippet from the website Waste 360 is in reference to Vancouver's Zero Waste Centre:

"Vancouver, British Columbia's Zero Waste Centre is part of the city’s new plan to achieve zero waste by 2040. Vancouver is leading Canadian cities in going green, and that includes the efforts of many Vancouverites to recycle,” says [former] Mayor Gregor Robertson. “Our Zero Waste Centre will help us become the world’s greenest city by making it easier—and in many cases, free—for residents to do their part and recycle or reuse more materials than ever before.”

The Zero Waste Centre replaces a smaller recycling center that took fewer materials. The new facility accepts materials including bicycles, books, cardboard, cell phones, textiles, cooking oil, electronics, glass bottles and jars, foam packaging, household batteries, large and small appliances, lead acid car and truck batteries, plastic bags and overwrap, paper, propane tanks and scrap metal." 

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Greenfield Sites, GIS maps, LEED


Greenfield site in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, UK
Greenfield site in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, UK

Urban planning concerns itself with both the development of open land (“greenfield sites” - undeveloped land without infrastructure or buildings) and the revitalization of existing parts of the city. Therefore, it involves goal setting, data collection and analysis, forecasting, design, strategic thinking, and public consultation.

Urban planning draws on engineering and architectural disciplines, as well as social and political concerns. Urban planning is variously a technical profession, an endeavor involving political will and public participation, and an academic discipline. 

GIS map of Portland, Oregon
GIS map of Portland, Oregon

Geographic information systems (GIS) maps are ubiquitous tools in modern urban planning. GIS maps are utilized in urban planning to create visualizations and simulations in order to optimize and balance environmental, economic, and social concerns; based on a range of urban planning development choices.

The process of urban planning involves the disciplines of engineering and architecture; as in transportation and building planning. Ideally, a city striving to become a sustainable city would prioritize green building, especially Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) construction practices.

Of critical importance in the ongoing development of modern sustainable cities is the practice of retrofitting existing buildings to high energy efficiency standards; and sustainable mass transportation, especially electrification.

Before these modes of action can be initiated, the political and social will to change development ideas must be brought to the surface. Education and activism become the focus, in order to promote the concepts of sustainability and raise public awareness.

Mass Transit Helps to Reduce GHG Emissions


Sustainable mass public transit networks include bus rapid transit, commuter rail, light rail - trams, trolleys, streetcars, etc..., hybrid/ electric buses, and other alternative low-carbon forms of public transit - and provide the following benefits:

  • - reduce CO2/ other GHGs, improving air quality in cities
  • - increase the energy efficiency of travel by vehicle
  • - decrease the amount of energy needed for transportation
  • - help to produce numerous financial benefits in cities, creating urban centers of productivity
  • - reduce dependence on foreign oil
  • - help to decrease the number of vehicles (esp. cars) in cities, and thus the amount of GHGs generated per vehicle passenger. (Whether fossil fuel vehicles, hybrids, or electric vehicles - public transit always decreases the overall amount of GHGs per passenger, because vehicle passenger density is increased).

As far as carbon-based transit, the amount of energy used per passenger is greatly reduced with any type of sustainable mass transit compared to standard fossil fuel-dependent cars. The benefits of mass transit include more efficient energy consumption than private vehicles, i.e. lower fuel consumption per passenger, as seen in the following statistics:

"Fuel Efficiency - Single occupancy vehicles have the one of the lowest fuel efficiencies per rider of any form of transportation.  A full size diesel powered bus with as few as seven passengers offers a fuel economy greater than the average car.  A fully occupied bus has a fuel efficiency that is six-times greater while a fully occupied train car has a fuel economy 15-times greater than the average single occupancy auto.   By increasing ridership on public transportation, huge amounts of fuel can be saved while also reducing the amount of air pollution."   

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Modern, 21st-century transit technologies such as electric light rail and fuel cell buses, in addition to electric vehicles, and hybrid electric-biofuel mass transit modes, represent exciting new trends in environmentally sound and economically beneficial mass transit.

The higher the quantity and quality of public mass transportation, the greater becomes the opportunity and incentive for people to look beyond traditional car use.

Green Urban Planning
Electric light rail in Sydney, Australia

Modern rail modes (commuter rail, light rail) continue to be popular types of sustainable mass public transit; particularly electric urban rail (light rail).

Electric light rail (electric trams, trolleys, streetcars, etc...) provides various benefits relating to cost-effectiveness.

The low maintenance needs and low energy demands of light rail make this form of transportation highly efficient. Environmental benefits of sustainable public mass transit include the reduction of carbon dioxide, as well as the reduction of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide.

Traffic congestion is greatly reduced in any urban environment by the development of mass transit, and ultimately light rail systems can replace highways. Urban light rail networks create jobs both by producing a new source of capital and by creating new, busy economic centers.

Not only does electric light rail replace the use of fossil fuels, but the development cost of light rail systems is about half that of building freeways.

An exciting sign of progress in transportation is the further development of electric-only, biodiesel/ ethanol-fueled cars and buses, and hybrid electric-biofuel vehicles. As far as a complete departure from Middle-Eastern oil dependency, first-world nations must embrace technologies now available that offer alternatives to fossil fuels.

Globally, electric and biofuel hybrid buses are the dominant means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in transportation while giving the public alternative modes of transit.

Hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electric vehicles are all transportation technologies that are poised, along with other technologies in the sustainable transportation movement, to make a positive transition for transit. The newest and brightest of these technologies, used in sustainable public mass transit is hydrogen fuel.

A technology that looks promising as far as reducing the carbon footprint of public mass transit in sustainable cities in the future, hydrogen fuel cells, is used in public buses in demonstration projects in many countries in Europe (especially in Denmark, Norway, and Iceland), and Japan – just to name a few.

One great benefit of hydrogen fuel is that it produces absolutely zero GHG emissions, with water vapor being the only by-product. Please see - Clean Hydrogen in European Cities (CHIC) for more information on hydrogen fuel cell buses.

These cities exemplify successful sustainable urban planning design and implementation:

Green City: Curitiba

Green City: Portland

Green City: Vancouver

Green City: London

Vauban, Freiburg, Germany

Austin, Texas, U.S.

San Diego, California, U.S.

Chicago, Illinois, U.S.

Please also see:

Sustainable Mass Transportation