Sustainability in Developed Cities

By Alison Ernst

In discussing sustainable cities thus far in our course, we have mainly focused on growing cities in the developing world (Mumbai, Bogota, etc.) or entirely new cities, such as the Living PlanIT case. This is certainly logical; with 3.6 billion[1] of the world’s 7 billion[2] inhabitants living in urban areas, cities are expected to absorb nearly all of the world’s population growth over the next four decades. Urban population in the developing world is predicted to grow four times as fast as developed urban population, and thousands of new cities will be needed.[3]

However, it is crucial for us to also recognize the importance of sustainability in existing, developed cities. Though their growth will not be as rapid, energy consumption per capita in cities of the developed world is in some cases five or more times that of their developing-world counterparts, meaning there is major room for improvement.[4] Newer cities may have the benefit of allowing developers to begin with a blank slate, which beats working within the aging and perhaps inefficient infrastructure of an existing city. It also poses a challenge to work around the unique cultural and architectural history of a long-standing city. Developed cities, though, have the advantage of incredibly high visibility on the world stage: if New York implements wide-reaching sustainability measures, the rest of the world is much more likely to take note and follow suit than if a few software developers start building a smart “city” test bed in the middle of nowhere.

One such developed city that has made major strides in this area is Chicago.[5] The city has over 7 million square feet of green roofs, notably including the 2001 City Hall project.[6] It boasts the Chicago Center for Green Technology, the first LEED Platinum rehabilitated municipal building in the country. Huge tracts of land have been converted to green park space, such as the former Meigs Field[7] and Millenium Park. It is home to the nation’s largest urban solar field, a 10 MW facility on the former Pullman rail car factory site. In 2008, when I worked for the contractor of the Public Building Commission of Chicago, all new facilities were required to be at least LEED Silver.

In addition to physical infrastructure, Chicago has placed and emphasis on attracting talent to the city in the field of sustainability and renewable energy. It will soon become the site of the DOE’s Joint Center for Energy Storage Research. New organizations such as the Clean Energy Trust and a new technology accelerator, 1871, are establishing the city as a hub for ‘green’ jobs. Mayor Rahm Emanuel (along with Chief Sustainability Officer Karen Weigert, HBS MBA ’91) recently created the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, a public-private partnership aimed at retrofitting city buildings to improve energy efficiency.

Perhaps moreso in developed cities, attracting talent and putting favorable policies in place to promote sustainability are hugely important. Chicago doesn’t have the benefit of ‘starting from scratch’ to make the city’s operations sustainable and capital expenditures on infrastructure have already been made, so there is far less impetus for change. Talent and policy, therefore, need to make up for this. Examples like former Mayor Daley and Mayor Emanuel beg the question: is extremely strong leadership and a push from the top necessary to affect this type of change?

One thought on “Sustainability in Developed Cities

  1. While the need for sustainability in newly developing cities will be great in the coming years, I agree with the author that sustainability should also be given heavy attention in existing developed cities. On this note, the author rightly cites New York and Chicago as leaders in the field and raises the thought-provoking question of whether transformational sustainability action is innately dependent on “top-down” driven policies and strong leadership.

    I’d respond in saying that while strong city leadership and policy help set the initial tone and pace for sustainability transformation in existing cities, community-driven agendas are an important leg of the proverbial stool to help ensure such transformation is truly sustained over time.

    The emerging EcoDistricts paradigm in the United States provides a good example of how this community-driven framework could add continuous momentum to a city’s sustainability transformation, despite any “top-down” planning approach. Adopted from Europe, EcoDistricts are neighborhood-based districts with a community commitment to achieving neighborhood sustainability [1]. As opposed to top down planning strategies pushed forward by local government, EcoDistricts are unique in that they establish their own sustainability criteria and objectives and move forward on projects unique to their neighborhood to achieve them (although sometimes in concert or through the support of local government).

    EcoDistrict stakeholders include local citizens, designers, planners, developers, buildings, city government officials, utility providers, and other neighborhood stakeholders such as sustainability management associations. Despite their disparate nature, all stakeholders commit resources and time to improving a wide range of sustainability indicators through projects such as decentralized utilities, district-scale renewable energy production, green buildings, sustainable landscape design, sustainable food production, smart grid, or water management and conservation, among others. This approach puts more control in the hands of regular citizens and companies alike to determine the “sustainability direction” of a neighborhood or city district – and raise resources through means analogous to a Business Improvement District.

    Given this rather “decentralized” layer of institutionalized sustainability that EcoDistricts provide, I’d say that top-down planning strategies may be not need to be the sole agents that drive forward transformational sustainability agendas.


    [2] Portland Sustainability Institute –

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