Sustainable Cities: 6 Ways to Build a Greener Future

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Learn about the characteristics of sustainable cities and why they’re important to building a greener future.

[Featured Image]:  Public Health Analyst reviewing data  on sustainable cities

Cities in Scandinavia such as Oslo, Copenhagen, and Stockholm consistently rank highly on happiness and sustainability indexes. But what is a sustainable city? What are the most sustainable cities in the world? 

There are countless frameworks that are being used to assess a city’s social, environmental, and economic principles as they relate to sustainability. What we do know is that promoting green practices and policies alongside urban transformation has benefits for people, planet, and profit. 

Learn about the characteristics of sustainable cities and why they’re important to building a greener future.

What is a sustainable city?

A sustainable city is one that is designed to address social, environmental, and economic impact through urban planning and transformation. Goal 11 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” [1]. 

According to a World Bank report, cities require good governance, integrated urban planning, and financial management to deliver four outcomes: robust economic growth, conservation of natural resources, mitigating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and fostering inclusiveness and livability by reducing poverty [2].

Features of a sustainable city might look like affordable housing, public green spaces, walkable streets, and inclusive access to health care, education, and jobs. 

Read more: Sustainable Development: Goals, Importance, and Career Guide

Benefits of greener cities

There is no limit to the benefits of greener cities. Here are a few key benefits to know.

  • Less pollution and traffic

  • More peace, reduced stress

  • Conservation of biodiversity

  • Locally produced food

  • Increase in real estate valuation

  • Stronger ties to local communities

  • Cooler environment 

6 characteristics of sustainable cities

These are some of the characteristics that can pave the way to a greener future.

1. Access to public resources

Sustainable cities help residents achieve sustainability in everyday life by providing access to public resources. This might look like recreational facilities, libraries, museums, health centers, garbage collection services, and public transportation. Initiatives such as telecommunications, insurance, and technology centers contribute to stimulating public health and the economy, which uphold the “people” and “profit” pillars of sustainability.

2. Transportation

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the transportation sector accounted for the largest portion (27 percent) of total GHG emissions in 2020. This includes cars, trucks, planes, trains, and more [3]. Between 1990 and 2020, this number increased more than any other sector. People are traveling more than ever, and it’s taking a toll on cities (and our earth).

Subways and other train systems are the most sustainable forms of public transportation. Cities that prioritize greening public transit benefit from tackling one of the main drivers of GHG emissions.

3. Green public spaces

It’s no secret that parks, lakes, and tree-lined streets can be a welcome respite from a city’s noise and crowds. Not only are green spaces good for public health, especially our mental and physical health, but they also help curb pollution and promote biodiversity. Urban farms and community gardens can supplement a neighborhood’s diet with fresh organic produce and flowers.

Further, cities that build and design for walkability and bikeability benefit from more sustainable and enjoyable commutes, whether you’re going to work or to a friend’s house across town.

4. Green architecture

Approximately 34 percent of the world’s energy demand comes from buildings, according to the UN Environment Programme [4]. The solution? Green buildings can reduce carbon emissions, plus they have cheaper electricity and water bills. In the long term, green architecture also benefits builders who can save on costs and receive tax incentives.

Building green from the ground up means introducing solar panels, smart heating and cooling systems, and natural building materials like stone or bamboo. In the US, the Green Building Council awards LEED certification for buildings that reduce their energy demand and water consumption.

5. Water conservation

Ensuring the resourceful management of water is another characteristic of sustainable cities. By 2050, nearly 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities [5]. Of those urban centers, 90 percent are located near coastal areas [5]. 

While these areas are at risk for natural disasters, especially as climate change increases the likelihood, water conservation practices such as rainwater harvesting and green infrastructure (restoring wetlands) can help cities maximize natural resources near the coastline.

6. Waste management

Another characteristic of sustainable cities is the way it disposes of waste. Households produce waste, but consider the amount of waste generated by offices, hotels, schools, and more. To tackle this problem, cities can adopt better recycling programs, stricter trash collection policies, and go paperless. Data-driven technologies can help monitor our consumption and contribute to sustainable waste innovation.

Most sustainable cities in the world

So, what are the most sustainable cities in the world? The Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index, in its fifth edition of the report, ranks 100 of the world’s cities based on 51 metrics and 26 indicator themes under the three pillars of sustainability: planet, people, and profit [6].

Here are the top 10 sustainable cities in the world:

1. Oslo

2. Stockholm

3. Tokyo

4. Copenhagen

5. Berlin

6. London

7. Seattle

8. Paris

9. San Francisco

10. Amsterdam

It is important to note that there are numerous factors and frameworks for measuring sustainability and applying it to cities, so the lists of sustainable cities can be arbitrary. The list cited above is one of the most widely-accepted.

Learn more about sustainable cities

Boost your knowledge and skills for navigating urban transformations. Enroll in Lund University’s highly rated course Greening the Economy: Sustainable Cities, part of the Sustainable Cities and Communities Specialization. You’ll learn how sustainable cities fit within the context of climate change, while examining visions, experiments, and innovations in urban areas. 



Greening the Economy: Sustainable Cities

How can we shape our urban development towards sustainable and prosperous futures? This course explores sustainable cities as engines for greening the ...


(2,345 ratings)

90,325 already enrolled


Average time: 1 month(s)

Learn at your own pace

Skills you'll build:

Systems Thinking, sustainable development, city futures

Article sources


United Nations. “Goal 11,” Accessed December 8, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

Big savings for your big goals! Save $200 on Coursera Plus.

  • For a limited time, save like never before on a new Coursera Plus annual subscription (original price: $399 | after discount: $199 for one year).
  • Get unlimited access to 7,000+ courses from world-class universities and companies—for less than $20/month!
  • Gain the skills you need to succeed, anytime you need them—whether you’re starting your first job, switching to a new career, or advancing in your current role.