What is a sustainable city? 10 characteristics of green urban planning

Author profile picture

Susan Meyer

Senior Editorial Manager

  • Licensed Insurance Agent — Property and Casualty

Susan is a licensed insurance agent and has worked as a writer and editor for over 10 years across a number of industries. She has worked at The Zebr…

Table of contents:

Imagine a world where city centers are smog-free and full of thriving green ecosystems, with more cyclists and pedestrians than cars. While this vision might seem straight out of a fairy tale, sustainable cities are working to achieve this idyllic urban setting.

Yet the U.S. is home to zero of the top 10 most sustainable cities in the world. New York City is the first U.S. metropolitan to make the list at number 14, followed by San Francisco and Seattle, at 16 and 19 respectively. It’s clear that America has a long way to go in terms of making its dense urban centers sustainable.

So how can the U.S. rise to the challenge? Read on to discover popular features our cities can adopt. We’ll also cover how sustainability is a risk mitigation strategy in the fight against climate change (and what this means for your home insurance cost). For a visual guide, jump to our infographic.

Recently moved to a greener city? Compare home insurance quotes now.

Location pin icon
No junk mail. No spam calls. Free quotes.

What does it mean to be a sustainable city?

A sustainable city is one designed to address social, environmental and economic impact through urban planning and city management. Many sustainable initiatives are achieved by building eco-friendly alternatives into city infrastructure, such as adopting walk and bike lanes. Regulations and fines can also achieve change: waste removal orders have proven to reduce landfill waste.

While finding ways to help the planet is essential to sustainability, reducing costs and creating a vibrant culture for citizens are equally important. Through planned infrastructure, public green spaces, smart waste removal and more, cities can leave behind a net zero footprint for a more sustainable world.


1. Public transportation

Cities that focus on sustainability must address transportation head-on, as motor vehicles are responsible for 75% of carbon monoxide pollution in the U.S. today. Cost-efficient and accessible public transportation takes cars off the road, reducing harmful emissions generated by daily driving commutes and errands.

Here are some public transit examples sustainable cities have enacted:

  • Electric trolleybuses
  • Metro systems
  • Underground railways
  • Maglev trains

Another great way to improve public transportation and encourage greener practices is to incentivize alternative travel by reserving certain lanes for buses, electric cars and carpooling. The future of transportation is tackling greener public transit with new technology such as hyperloop and smart roads.


2. Walkable and bikeable neighborhoods

One of the best ways to reduce carbon emissions throughout a community is to have citizens ditch transit altogether. Walking and biking are great alternatives to encourage, and city leaders can do so by approving infrastructure changes, passing laws to protect cyclists and making smart urban planning decisions.

Take Copenhagen, where bicycles outnumber cars more than five to one, and 42% of residents bike to work. This bike culture was achieved through city management: Cycling superhighways were created across the city by a series of paths and bridges designed specifically for bikers.

Walk and bike-friendly infrastructure includes:

  • Pedestrian bridges
  • Bike path networks
  • Connected urban grids
  • Shared micromobility

3. Vehicle charging stations

An electric vehicle produces zero tailpipe emissions compared to a typical passenger vehicle, which produces 4.6 metric tons annually. For cities hoping to become carbon-neutral, vehicle charging stations for electric or other alternatives must become commonplace.

Cities can incentivize charging station construction by teaming up investors from the private sector with public servants. Urban planners can work with developers to map out charging station locations that suit both drivers and local homeowners. After all, installing charging stations on random street corners could result in property value loss and increased congestion.

Another eco-friendly vehicle that requires newly constructed refill stations is a hydrogen-powered car. Powered by hydrogen and oxygen, these cars can run twice as long as an electric vehicle before needing a refill (rather than a charge). Yet today, only 376 refueling stations exist worldwide.


4. Solar farms

The switch to clean energy is essential for cities to become sustainable. Solar farms can improve air quality in a city while also providing renewable energy to citizens and municipal facilities.

Solar energy also creates well-paying jobs and stimulates economic growth. The U.S. added 110,000 net new clean energy jobs in 2018, outnumbering fossil fuels nearly three to one.

City-funded solar farms allow residents who can’t harness solar energy on their own property to gain access to solar power. It also allows municipal buildings to transition to renewable energy. Fayetteville, Arkansas, is working to run 100% of local government buildings on clean energy by 2030.


5. Green buildings

Thirty percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings. One solution? Green buildings, which reduce CO2 emissions by 32%. They also require less maintenance and have cheaper water and electric bills. These cost benefits, along with additional tax incentives, have allowed green building construction to become widespread without the use of government mandates.

Here are some popular ways green buildings address these areas:

  • Smart heating and cooling systems
  • Natural building materials
  • Enhanced ventilation and insulation
  • Solar panels
  • Green roofs

In order for a city’s infrastructure to be truly green, all municipality buildings should be LEED certified. The U.S. Green Building Council awards LEED certification to buildings that address energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction and more.


6. Food production

The World Research Institute estimates that the world will need to produce 50% more food by 2050 while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds. This unique challenge requires cities to feed more people via more eco-friendly means.

Urban farming is one way cities can cut down on carbon emissions tied to food production. Teaming up with with like-minded organizations can help educate residents on nutrition and encourage them to make healthier, more sustainable choices. Conservation is another area in which governments can invest, but today only 5% of agriculture subsidies go toward these efforts.


7. Accessible public resources

Sustainable cities also help residents achieve sustainability in their own lives by providing opportunity and access to resources. Public health buildings, economic development centers, technology hubs and more are all examples of resource centers that can stimulate public health and the economy.

These resources also include recreational facilities and programs in which community members can take part. Some of these facilities, such as museums and cultural centers, can rehumanize urban centers and help a city define its identity. Allocating public funds towards cultural amenities and events is a great way to promote diversity and inclusion at the city level and help build bonds within a community.

 sustainable city

8. Water conservation

Resourceful urban water management is also a characteristic of sustainable cities. Over 90% of the world’s urban centers are near coastal areas. While this puts these cities at greater risk of natural disasters and climate change threats, it also opens the door for better use of these nearby water sources.

Here are some water conservation practices cities can adopt:

  • Rainwater harvesting
  • Green infrastructure
  • Waterless hardware

Green infrastructure uses the natural water cycle to create clean water sources in place of a water treatment plant. For example, restoring wetlands and planting trees can reduce the need for manmade flood infrastructure such as levees.

 park lake

9. Public green spaces

Urban green spaces should be a high priority for sustainable cities, as these areas solve a number of challenges at once. Cities can achieve pollution control, public health and thriving biodiversity by adopting green infrastructure, all while increasing property value in the area. Parks, greenways and trails, street trees and protected conservation areas are all examples of public green spaces.

Building community gardens and urban farms can also solve food challenges. In addition to free or affordable gardening spaces for residents, edible landscaping can be incorporated to ensure urban plants serve two purposes: ornamental and functional.


10. Waste management

Rather than throwing waste away only to end up in a landfill, disposal processes should be circular. While many (if not all) cities have adopted recycling programs, more aggressive urban centers have seen huge gains over the last 20-30 years. In San Francisco, recycling and composting mandates have helped the city achieve a waste diversion of more than 77%.

Energy recovery is a great solution for waste that can’t be recycled using traditional methods. This process captures fly ash burned at landfill sites and converts it back into energy.

Using technology to go paperless is another great way to promote sustainability on a city-wide scale. Many government offices have moved forms and applications online, which is both quicker and less wasteful than mailing or dropping papers off.

Sustainable cities as a risk mitigation

Sustainable cities aren’t just a lofty goal for city planners and eco enthusiasts: They are a necessity in the fight against climate change. Flooding, heat waves, damaged water supplies and more can all be mitigated by sustainable infrastructure. Even disease spread, like we have seen with the coronavirus pandemic, can be limited (or even eradicated) through smart, sustainable urban planning.

Cities who reduce their risk of climate effects and other naturally occurring disasters will see less property damage, insurance losses and even casualties, making sustainable city practices a necessity for long-term success.

To learn more about the characteristics of a sustainable city, check out our visual below.


Living in a sustainable city can improve your health and put money back in your wallet. Using green energy can reduce your homeowner’s insurance, as can living in an area with solution-based infrastructure.

World Resources Institute | New Climate Economy | LiveScience