The Sustainable City: A Book Review & Exploration into Living Systems

The Sustainable City

Steven Cohen’s The Sustainable City is a must-read for anyone who is interested in the future of the built environment… or who is curious how to create an economic and resilient human habitat .. or who wants to focus on infrastructure that minimizes emissions of conventional air pollutants … or whose areas of interest are protecting biodiversity and enacting climate action goals. The Sustainable City, as you are now beginning to see, appeals to all of us who believe that a sustainable, renewable resource-based economy can rebuild our sense of community through shared sacrifice, increased ecological awareness, and contemporary political dialogue that moves beyond nostalgia and toward a positive vision of a sustainable society.

The book is broken into three parts: 1) Concepts; 2) Cases in Urban Sustainability; 3) Conclusions. Each of the first two parts has five chapters, while part three stands alone in its vision ahead “toward a sustainable city.” Thoroughly researched — with 3-5 or more citations on each page and 36 pages of references at the end — Cohen reminds us that “how we behave toward each other reflects our values and ethics” (p. 203).

Because we have damaged natural systems ranging from groundwater to climate, we need now to manage the impact of our species on the planet, he says. The Sustainable City describes how a deep understanding of earth systems science, the impact of human-built technological creations and systems, and the global biosphere is necessary today if we are to create sustainable living for future generations. Only then, he says, can we “avoid a completely artificial world” and “prevent the destruction of the natural world” (p. 208).

What is a Sustainable City?

Built on production and consumption processes, a sustainable city embraces infrastructure that enables human settlements to survive and thrive with the least possible impact on natural systems.  According to ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability (2016), “sustainable cities work towards an environmentally, socially, and economically healthy and resilient habitat for existing populations, without compromising the ability of future generations to experience the same.”

A 2013 report by the United Nations states that sustainable cities can be achieved when integrating four pillars: social development, economic development, environmental management, and urban governance. The World Bank defines sustainable cities as those that are “resilient cities that are able to adapt to, mitigate, and promote economic, social, and environmental change.”

What Elements Must Be Considered in a Sustainable City?

Even in today’s highly technological society, we do not have the innovations to supplant nature. We have no choice but to attempt to build human settlements that preserve the natural world. These include social, political, managerial, and economic elements of the sustainable city.

Energy. Cohen outlines that a sustainable energy system would be a smart grid capable of storing, transmitting, and receiving energy with maximum efficiency.

Water. Yes, we all feel that, because it’s necessary for human life, water should be free. Cohen reminds us, however, that no longer can water be obtained for free, and we need to also be aware that “we contaminate groundwater through toxic everyday life activities” (p. 20).

Solid Waste Management. The Sustainable City tackles one of our undiscussables by outlining the different dimensions of solid waste management: waste reduction, waste separation (i.e. dry and wet), and waste treatment. The US EPA defines integrated water management as having source reduction and reuse; recycling; composting; energy recovery; and treatment and disposal.

Sewage. The sustainable city must have sewage and sewage treatment systems that are “funded, designed, built, and maintained” (p. 27), which involves a complicated network of systems and structures.

Food. Food sustainability includes sufficiency for adequate nutrition, cultivation and transport energy intensity, accountability for environmental impacts of industrial farming, consumption/ nutrition/ diet factors, and a reliable food supply.

A Sustainable City

Open Spaces and Parks. Recreation, ecological connections, commercial-free zones, gathering spaces, and a “democratizing feature” (p. 33) — in that rich and poor alike share the same space and “can contribute to social understanding and political stability” (p. 33) — are all byproducts of urban open spaces and parks.

Transit Systems.  A fundamental need of the sustainable city is a “density of population and enterprise” (p. 35), which, of course, requires a “combination of market forces, publicly funded infrastructure subsidies, and user fees” (p. 37) that can develop a public-private transit system and usher in mobility while alleviating environmental impact.

What Organizational Structures are Needed in the Sustainable City?

Most organizations now recognize that a sustainable supply chain is no longer an optional decision but “critical to the success of their operations” (p. 63). Cohen argues that sustainability managers must manage physical dimensions of sustainability such as water quality and quantity, toxicity, waste, energy efficiency, environmental effect, and the impacts of toxics on ecosystems and human health. Requiring a “fundamental transition,” sustainable cities must contain business structures with the “organizational capacity to understand our planet well enough to manage and control our interactions with it” (p. 66).

One of the central messages of The Sustainable City is that greater care and thought must be devoted to the use of natural resources and the impact of an organization’s production, outputs, and consumption on ecosystems. Goal setting, development and maintenance of organizational capacity, and sustainability metrics contribute to an organization’s routine planning and management system.

At the organization level, Cohen suggests that sustainability can be obtained as part of a conceptual framework that assesses the physical elements of an organization’s material inputs, work processes, outputs, and outcomes. Sustainability must also be reflected in financial markets and in factors influencing the deployment of capital such as:

  1.  private financial instruments and techniques;
  2. investor relative risk in comparison to businesses that ignore sustainability;
  3. analysis of financial costs and benefits in assessing cost structures within sustainable practices; and,
  4. growing markets in tradable pollution rights, carbon offsets, and other exchanges of environmental assets (p. 77).

Final Thoughts

Sustainable change, Cohen says, will be given operational meaning alongside concern for the “physical dimensions of sustainability: the use of energy, water and other materials; recycling and designed reuse of finite materials; and, effects to reduce the environmental impact of organizational outputs” (p. 87).

An important theme of The Sustainable City is that we may end up living in smaller and better-designed personal spaces along with increased access to more interesting and beautiful public spaces. The business of industrial ecology will infuse a way of thinking about the life cycle of products and services that inherently examines the finite resources utilized and pollution  release into the environment by production processes. This is a bit different from most explanations of sustainable cities, and it’s absolutely necessary to consider as part of larger discussions of sustainability if our future cities can become viable living communities and complements to the natural world.

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