As global temperatures continue to rise and extreme weather events increase in frequency, the need for sustainable solutions has never been more apparent. Human activities are largely responsible for climate change, and urban areas are adversely affected. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the effects of climate change may be amplified within the world’s cities, including rising temperatures.
More people are living in urban areas than ever before — the United Nations estimates that 68% of the global population will live in cities by 2050. Although various sustainability initiatives exist to combat the effects of climate change in an increasingly urbanized world, urban planning must now incorporate sustainable solutions into every design to reduce humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels.
Even as sustainability sits at the forefront of modern architectural trends, developing alternative energy solutions isn’t without its challenges. For example, not every city is ideally situated for harnessing solar power due to atmospheric conditions that limit annual sunshine. The good news is that solar energy is just one of the various forms of alternative energy that can be utilized by urban planners in sustainable building designs.
Combating the Effects of Climate Change
Those involved with sustainable urban development must consider such factors as the effects of climate change, various costs associated with alternative energy systems, local regulations and ordinances, and more. Since the end of 2020, for example, all newly constructed buildings in the European Union (EU) are required to incorporate sustainable designs to achieve “nearly zero” energy usage. Solar energy is at the forefront of their efforts.
However, many of the global leaders in alternative energy, including Sweden and Germany, aren’t necessarily the world’s sunniest nations. For its part, Denmark sources more than 50% of its national electricity needs from alternative sources, primarily sun and wind.
The summer months, when sunshine is abundant and shines for upwards of 17 hours per day, are prime conditions for harnessing solar energy. Conversely, Denmark only gets around 8 hours of sunlight daily throughout the winter, and wind energy helps bridge the gaps in terms of national energy needs. The country’s impressive alternative energy numbers wouldn’t be possible without mindful designs from urban planners with a deep understanding of local climatic conditions.
In those areas like Denmark, where solar energy may not be the most reliable choice year-round, urban planners may need to think outside the box. To determine the most cost-effective alternative energy source for a particular area, climate and weather considerations are just as crucial as estimated energy usage. And indeed the smallest details shouldn’t be overlooked within sustainable design plans - even the most advanced solar and/or wind energy systems can be quickly drained by inefficient devices such as air conditioning units and water heaters.
Sustainability and Urban Planning
To successfully design and maintain sustainable architecture that will last into the future essentially hinges on the drastically changing global climate. Sustainable buildings can vary significantly, and popular green building designs often incorporate the natural landscape and strive for nearly zero waste. Earthships, for example, commonly seen in the southwestern U.S., are often built partially into the earth and rely completely on alternative energy from the sun and wind.
Urban planning on a city-wide level, however, is much more complex than that of Earthships, which are primarily single-family homes, located off-grid. Affordability is also a key part of the equation for urban planners and city leaders alike in regards to sustainable building design. The rising price of lumber, for instance, is both another by-product of climate change and a huge consideration in the design process. There are also building and permit costs to consider, as well as a possible labor shortage stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Future of Green Building Design
Climate change and urbanization are intrinsically linked, and the environmental impact of urban living is substantial. For large metro areas to continue to sustain an increasing population while also actively reducing emissions, change must come from the same source: cities themselves. When building sustainable neighborhoods, from apartment complexes to community spaces, alternative energy has become an integral part of the solution.
In terms of architecture for all, it’s important to note that the benefits of sustainable building design span well beyond reduced emissions. Urban planners can also do their part to foster healthier and happier communities via the various elements of sustainable design. Integrated alternative energy systems, dedicated bike lanes, and linked sidewalks can help revitalize a community while also reducing harmful pollutants.
By incorporating alternative energy into design plans, urban planners thus have a unique opportunity to improve the quality of life for countless global citizens. As the effects of climate change and increasing temperatures become even more pronounced, we must look for actionable solutions. Within cities, integrating alternative energy, whether harnessed from the sun, wind, or water, into future city planning represents a massive step towards improved climate and public health.
Amanda Winstead is a writer from the Portland area with a background in communications and a passion for telling stories. Along with writing she enjoys traveling, reading, working out, and going to concerts. If you want to follow her writing journey, or even just say hi you can find her on Twitter.