Sustainable development


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Sustainable development in urban areas: Cities that lead by example

As cities worldwide continue to grow at a rapid pace, sustainable development is seen as a key component in safeguarding the world and its ecosystems for future generations. But what does it mean, exactly, and what constitutes some good examples of sustainable city development?

Here, we will exemplify using excerpts and data from three different of Sweco's Urban Insight reports – examples of cities in Europe and elsewhere that have made sustainable choices to solve specific urban challenges.


What is sustainable development?

The word "sustainability" is used so frequently today that we rarely stop to think about what it means. And there are several definitions of the term. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030, for example, encompass no less than 17 different issues ranging from poverty and equality to energy efficiency and clean oceans. The Brundtland Commission came up with the following, widely-used definition:

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

What we will focus on here is how this can apply to city structures, infrastructure and urban areas in general.


Example 1: Inspirational urban spaces for people on the move

These are some places that demonstrate the ethos of placemaking – an approach to urban planning that seeks to strengthen the connections between people and places, even in cases where they were not developed using this specific theme.

Amsterdam, Netherlands: The city of Amsterdam has a mix of urban functions and a mix of transportation modes. Its urban areas are pleasant to move through and provide a rich variety of impressions, clustered around a city core that preserves the integrity and coherence of the city’s open spaces. There is no urban sprawl here, as there is in American cities. Mobility by foot or public transport is favoured. Land use is multifaceted within areas and combines work, residence and leisure to create a diverse, complex urban lifestyle. The city is home to people from diverse backgrounds, which reduces the tendency towards formation of income-, origin- or race-based ghettos and improves social integration.

Barcelona Seafront, Spain: One main challenge in European cities is to overbridge infrastructure barriers. One example of successfully bridging barriers and reclaiming the city for citizens can be found in Barcelona, where the city has been reconnected with the Mediterranean seashore. Other cities have bridged barriers on a smaller scale in strategic places and created urban links using eco-corridors, building clusters and fine grids of bicycle and pedestrian bridges.

Parque Manzanares, Madrid Spain: The city of Madrid transformed the motorway in the middle of the city into a park by digging 43 km of tunnels to incorporate the exit routes and carriageways of the 6-kmlong section running alongside the River Manzanares. The project was completed in spring 2011.

On the surface of the motorway tunnel there are now 8,000+ pine trees. By relocating one of the most important roads into the centre of Madrid to an underground tunnel and providing underground parking for 1,000 vehicles, the space was transformed into a garden to benefit local residents. Adorned with cherry trees and a cherry motif, the result is the creation of a brand-new public space.

The 6-km-long park in the middle of Madrid has bike and pedestrian routes that connect the city in new ways. The environment offers great spatial quality to the cyclists and pedestrians passing through the park on their daily travels.

Klyde Warren Park, Dallas USA: Uptown Dallas, with its cluster of hotels, has been connected with downtown Dallas, with its museums and opera house. The two sections of the city were previously entirely separated by the eight-lane 366 motorway, but there is now excellent urban potential for pedestrians in a city designed primarily for cars.

Built on decking that spans the highway, Klyde Warren Park packs numerous amenities into its three-block length, including a large performance stage, a children’s play area, croquet and putting greens, a restaurant, table tennis, and plenty of movable tables and chairs. Curved paths lead visitors through alleys of trees but keep most of the park open for civic gatherings.

Gelderland's bicycle routes, Netherlands: There is a good chance that efficient bike lanes and routes will play a major role in our city transformation towards sustainable mobility. Several fast bike routes have been built in Holland’s Arnhem-Nijmegen region, connecting residential, work and shopping areas in the region’s towns and cities. These are fast, direct, comfortable and safe routes that cover longer distances, and are also pleasant and attractive.

The province of Gelderland is promoting the bicycle as an attractive mode of transport to encourage people to travel by bike rather than car.


This Urban Insight report makes the argument that urban spaces should be designed with great care and from a human perspective, as this will improve people’s well-being and make it easier to choose sustainable means of transport.


Example 2: Storm water management and the blue-green infrastructure

The use of so-called blue-green infrastructure (BGI) is an important tool that can generate multiple benefits, even turning threats into opportunities.

Stockholm Royal Sea Port:  The award-winning Stockholm Royal Sea Port project is the largest urban development area in Sweden, (390 ha), with 12,000 new homes and 35,000 workplaces, and is located in a former industrial area. Sustainability, including climate change adaptation and biodiversity, is a key feature of the project.