It’s no secret that urban planning methods have been in need of an evolution for decades. Cities around the world are often plagued by design choices that seemed cheap or simple when they were made but which will all but require expensive updates several years down the line.
The reality is that sustainable urban planning is important for more than just the health of the planet. Saving the planet can admittedly be a difficult sell to some members of the powers that be but saving hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars isn’t. While there are some corporations and politicians seeking to mask the fact, the truth is that going green is a remarkably savvy business decision.
Join our experts today as we go over some smart, sustainable choices you can make as an urban planner that will pay big dividends in the coming years. The benefits of a sustainable city are many and go far beyond just keeping the sky a nice shade of blue.
Water is King
It’s hard to overestimate just how important water is to a community. The water crisis in Flint Michigan illustrates this fact. Good water management is an absolute cornerstone of all urban planning.
A city consumes massive amounts of water. For example, in California, the average consumption sits at 75 to 135 gallons per resident per day. Considering the high population and density of that population in most cities, this presents many unique design challenges.
Sustainable urban planning can substantially decrease the load this consumption puts upon a city. At the same time, the critical nature of water means there is not much room for error. Even tiny amounts of pollution or a slight water shortage can have a big impact on a population.
One of the earliest things you need to do for your project is to figure out how both the inflow and outflow of water will be handled. These rates will vary wildly depending on the purpose of the project, its location, and the number of people you need it to handle. Research heavily into expected water needs as miscalculating could prove an incredibly expensive mistake.
Here at Swiftdrain, our experts have some experience with water and drainage systems. In terms of sustainable planning, we have a few tips worth considering when planning for an urban environment’s water needs:
#1 – “Efficient” Is Not the Same as “Cheapest”
On some level, this is a point most urban planners should understand. Many options that seem initially low cost are actually terrible investments. Unfortunately, many cities choose cheaper options and then neglect to account for the cost to maintain those same options in the future. Consistent urban planning that only takes into account immediate cost can be catastrophic in the future, as a cascade of expensive problems begin to plague a community a decade or two down the line.
Proper urban planning means accounting for maintenance. Cheap pipes and grates generally last for less time, with critically worn water infrastructure potentially leading to incredibly expensive damages if pipes burst or toxins manage to leach or permeate into a community’s water supply.
#2 – Plan With Disaster in Mind
Any urban planner knows it’s impossible for a community to be prepared for every potential disaster. However, a community still should have a water infrastructure that can handle a significant increase in strain before failing. Furthermore, planning a community so disasters such as flooding impact critical services last can help save lives and reduce the overall impact of a potential disaster.
Exactly what disasters a community should be prepared for depends on location. Proper urban planning should involve researching common disasters in the region. Priority should be given to guarding against the disasters most likely to occur and to designing a community in such a way that problems can cascade into each other as little as possible.
#3 – Look for Hidden Dangers
Not all dangers to a community’s water are obvious. For example, when mines flood, they can pour huge pools of water poisoned by heavy metals into nearby watersheds. More obvious are the pollutants industrial plants are semi-notorious for introducing into nearby water supplies, intentionally or not.
Sustainable urban planning accounts for the actions less responsible actors may take. Ideally, aquifers will be kept clean, with potential polluters placed in such a way that their actions have a limited impact on a community’s water. At the very least, the community’s water treatment plants should be placed in such a way that the water they produce is unlikely to become contaminated on the way to being used.
#4 – Drainage Matters
A poor drainage system leads to flooding. Even moderate mismanagement of flooding risk has the potential to at least cause traffic accidents; a small buildup of water on roads can cause a serious loss of control.
The trick is estimating the realistic needs of a given area, which is admittedly often easier said than done. An area should be surveyed so you can understand where water is likely to build up. It is going to flow through the path of least resistance and pool when it reaches areas it can do so.
If an area is likely to see a significant flow of water, it needs drainage. This is especially true in areas where water can pool. Pooling water can make roads completely unusable and potentially destroy businesses and homes.
On a smaller scale, you want water to divert whenever possible from critical areas to unimportant ones (and ideally into areas that drain into the wider network). Areas where people are expected to be, vehicles need to drive, and where expensive equipment will be stored should all factor into your decisions.
Our site actually has a huge amount of information and tools for those looking to install drainage systems. Our tools can help direct you to the best drains for your project’s needs.
#5 – Closed Loops are the Ideal
While it isn’t always viable, closed water loops should be the goal of sustainable planning. This is when a project’s water, once supplied, can essentially sustain the buildings the water is intended for indefinitely.
The most difficult part of this sort of loop is obviously keeping the water clean. As people use the water or it is otherwise dirtied, it generally becomes less and less useful.
This is one of the primary purposes of water treatment plants; they clean water so it can be more readily used again. However, traditional water treatment plants aren’t the only option for a building’s source of water.
It is very much possible with modern technology for a given project to clean its own water in part or in full. Done correctly, this has the potential to sharply reduce water costs and even more sharply reduce waste. This sort of mini-urban ecosystem approach is great for the planet and can reduce a building’s reliance on facilities that may be far away or under the control of an unreliable entity.
A Modern Urban Drainage System
Sustainable urban drainage systems (SuDS) or low-impact development (LID) are two similar approaches to water drainage that an urban planner should keep in mind when attempting to futureproof a project.
SuDS is largely an acknowledgment of much of the advice we gave above. It takes flooding, potential contamination, local wildlife impact, and more into account when one is designing a system.
LID is basically identical in nature to SuDS, with the terms often used interchangeably. The goal of LID is to develop in such a way that a drainage system has minimal impact on the local environment (which is ostensibly also true with SuDS). The difference between the terms is largely semantic, although an argument could be made SuDS is more widely an approach intended to create a sustainable system for a city whereas LID is more specifically environmentally focused.
One of the biggest advantages to proper SuDS design is the ability to harvest runoff and snowmelt. This water can be properly processed and used, rather than simply picking up contaminants and dumping them in a difficult to predict location (as is common in traditional drainage design).
There has been something of a grassroots push for SuDS design in recent years. The design philosophy is both incredibly popular with communities and a relatively easy sell to developers. Some tips for implementing this philosophy into your own planning includes:
#1 – Design for Water Control
SuDS requires water be “controlled” for a longer period of time and in greater volumes. By this, we mean that water must flow through a human-designed system longer and that you will ideally be processing larger amounts of potentially dirty water while doing so.
This is arguably the biggest obstacle of SuDS design. A system will never be able to process all rain and snowmelt. Concessions will always need to be made in order to prevent backup and flooding.
At least some water that is not collected and flows uncontrolled is always going to get into the wider environment. This then gets into earlier points about the designing of a water system. An urban planner must learn to prioritize what water should be caught and processed (and in what volumes).
#2 – Pay Close Attention to Flooding Risk
Improper SuDS design will exacerbate flooding risk. It goes without saying you must understand local flooding risks before making radical changes to the flow of water, especially when you might be slowing that flow.
The flow rate and volume of runoff should be well-established and discussed with relevant parties. There may be bottlenecks in the system you have little or no control over. An urban planner must design for the project at hand, not the project they wish they had.
It won’t especially matter if your designed system can handle huge volumes of water if the systems it connects to simply can’t. While moderate overdesign may help futureproof a project, having your project vastly more capable than the greater community often carries little benefit (and can be expensive).
#3 – Healthy Ecosystems Are Valuable Ecosystems
Performing an environmental impact study can provide valuable information on how your project may impact the local environment. Even if such a study is unnecessary, you should still have an understanding of the local ecosystem and how water flow can affect it.
It is easy to forget that even urban environments have ecosystems that even seemingly small changes can impact in major ways. Water is critical to this equation, especially if the city is near an ocean, river, or other body of water.
Determining the exact monetary value a healthy ecosystem may have is a process perhaps too complex to consider here, but as a general rule, healthy ecosystems increase land value. People want to live near diverse and vibrant life.
Considering the fact plant and vegetative life dying off generally also signals there is a local health risk to a human population, it should be easy to justify encouraging biodiversity when designing a water drainage system. All else aside, such design should encourage health for all life in the area, humans included.
#4 – Water Carries Whatever It Touches
As we touched briefly on earlier, water carries the contaminants it flows over. As it flows, it will pick up contaminants and then spread these contaminants along its path. Things will generally be worst where the water eventually settles.
Unfortunately, urban environments are full of places where poisons like heavy metals may be picked up by water and deposited elsewhere. Car fluids, garbage, and more can all potentially be carried somewhere important and poison important soil or water deposits. Proper urban planning needs to account for this.
The difference controlling the flow of contaminants through an urban environment can have is often more significant than we tend to imagine. By controlling runoff, you reduce the pollutants that people, animals, and plants in the area end up consuming. Longterm, this can save thousands or even millions in healthcare and cleanup costs.
Our company produces drains and grates, so it should come as no surprise we think quality water grates are important. At the same time, saying so isn’t a marketing gimmick. Proper drainage is critical and failing to protect your drains and trenches can cause a host of problems.
There are plenty of grate options to protect trenches, all of which suit different needs. What’s important is to once again emphasize that cheaper options are not always better. If the option you choose fails too soon or otherwise doesn’t work, you’ve got a big problem on your hand.
A few factors to consider when choosing a grating option for a sustainable (or any other type) project include:
Load rating, as most urban planners are already aware, is essentially the weight a given part or structure is cleared to safely handle. Grate load ratings broadly can be split into five categories, lettered A through E.
Rating A grates can handle under 160 psi or about 3,337 lbs. These grates generally will be the cheapest but are only really suitable for areas that are going to see foot and bike traffic. Meanwhile, rating E grates can take close to 600 psi or a whopping 134,800 lbs.
Most projects will likely only need grates rating A through C, depending on the particular needs of where they’re going to be installed. You must consider the heaviest weights a grate is going to handle as well as what kind of weights it is going to consistently be exposed to. If a particular grate is likely to consistently see pressures close to the upper-end load of the grate you’re considering, you should go one tier up just to be safe.
Will Your Grate Be ADA Compliant?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is something any urban planner must consider. It won’t be relevant in all projects and certainly not all aspects of a project, but failure to properly comply can result in major headache.
The mistake some planners make is thinking grates are all compliant by default but this isn’t true. ADA compliant grates have smaller slots, making it easier for people with disabilities to safely walk over them without stumbling.
In a similar vein, your project might also require ADA tiles and warning plates be installed near road crossings and other unsafe areas. These plates are to help the visually impaired understand there is a danger nearby. They should be a significantly different color than the surrounding area and textured so as to easily be felt underfoot and under wheelchairs (which the ones we offer are).
It goes without saying that you should research and understand all applicable regulations relevant to a given project, ADA compliance included.
The Importance of Sustainable Energy
Perhaps even more controversial than sustainable water design is the topic of sustainable power. Many people in the United States misunderstand exactly what sustainable energy is or the many ways it can benefit a community.
The consumption of fossil fuels undeniably is having a negative impact on the planet, with the eventual damage it will do left unchecked literally totaling in the trillions of dollars.
Notably, this also isn’t really up for logical debate. The actual experts in relevant scientific fields are almost unanimous on this point. Humanity should be making big changes.
However, as with water, we admit that generally isn’t a convincing argument if you’re an urban planner. You will generally need to justify a plan to a diverse group of people, at least some of whom are likely to be global warming deniers.
Luckily, sustainable energy solutions tend to have many more immediate and obvious benefits, their positive impact on the greater environment aside. These additional benefits include:
While not literally always true, most projects could see savings of some kind by implementing energy-efficient and sustainable energy solutions into their design. This just makes logical sense; power costs are reduced if a given project is energy-efficient and/or producing some or all of the power it needs without needing expensive fuel or an outside supplier.
A project with an in-built sustainable energy solution is resistant to brownouts and blackouts. If there is a problem with the local grid, critical systems can still be kept reliably powered through the use of energy solutions such as solar power.
In what capacity this is true will depend on the project and region. Regions that see a lot of sunlight may even allow for some projects to remain fully or nearly fully powered during disasters. Combined with a backup generator and connection to the local grid, a building or group of buildings can essentially be guaranteed power in all but the most severe circumstances.
Sustainable energy solutions are also reliable in the long-term. One factor of non-renewable energy that is sometimes overlooked is that it doesn’t just tend to be worse for the environment, it is also (unsurprisingly) non-renewable. Someday, even if it may be many decades from now, power sources like oil and coal will be gone.
Leading up to that point, these sources of energy will get increasingly expensive. Renewable energy sources don’t have this weakness. Until the sun stops shining or the wind stops blowing, energy generators that use these resources will continue to function so long as they are maintained.
(Usually) Positive PR
Sustainable energy solutions generally bring with them positive PR for a given project. Supporters of green energy tend to have quite a positive view of green solutions while those less invested in green projects only rarely care enough to actively view such design choices as a negative.
The one notable outlier is wind energy, which can have mixed reactions depending on the community they will be installed in. Some view turbines as aesthetically unpleasing and they admittedly can be loud. While a more common issue for suburban and rural planners, urban planners should keep this negative in mind when considering wind power (a solution which still carries many positive benefits).
Energy Solutions to Consider
Once you’ve decided you want your urban project to take partial or full advantage of a sustainable energy solution, you will then have to consider your options. There are many ways power can be sustainably sourced, so we shall focus today on three of the biggest: Solar, Wind, and Water. It’s also worth noting these solutions aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive among themselves or to less sustainable energy solutions. Depending on the needs of a project, a mixed energy approach may actually be the best option.
Solar power is an incredibly popular solution for sustainable urban planning. Clean in appearance, slick in design, and easily scalable, solar energy has plenty of benefits.
That said, this solution has its weaknesses. For one, installing solar panels in an urban environment generally won’t produce a net positive amount of energy. While it can offset energy costs, the buildings being powered will almost certainly still need a secondary source of power.
The one exception will be if your urban planning project allows for the construction of a full-scale solar plant, but this would be unusual. Generally, solar solutions will instead involve the installation of panels on rooftops and other key areas to help offset traditional power costs with a supplemental source of cheap, clean energy.
Finally, solar power is simply not a valid option in all regions. The benefits solar paneling can bring to a project in the southern United States greatly exceed those for a project in a northern region.
Perhaps the most divisive sustainable energy solution (unless one counts nuclear energy), wind remains an incredibly valuable and underutilized source of electrical power in the United States. By installing turbines which rotate generators as they are blown by the wind, clean electrical power can be made readily available day and night.
Generally cost-effective and capable of producing green jobs, wind power is fairly scalable. However, it also is only generally a viable solution in areas windy enough that it can compete with traditional sources of power. It also requires space that simply won’t be available for some urban projects.
Wind turbines are often accused of being aesthetically unpleasing (which is debatable) and noisy. What’s undeniable is they sometimes can negatively impact local wildlife, with flying creatures like birds and bats sometimes being killed by their spinning blades. However, our understanding of this impact has been constantly evolving and both technology and proper siting has slowly lessened the impact turbines have on wildlife.
To put water’s potential to power not just a project but entire communities into perspective, consider that the Hoover Dam produces enough energy to serve 1.3 million people each year. While your own projects almost certainly won’t rival the Hoover Dam, the fact remains that water has a huge amount of potential to provide power.
The difficulty with water power is obviously that your project must have (moving) water accessible. While many cities are built near large bodies of water, this doesn’t necessarily guarantee you will be able to secure its use for power generation.
Because structures like dams and even less invasive water generators often change the flow of water and can impact local wildlife, it can be difficult to get approval for a project that relies on a water solution unless it is fairly large in scope. Water power is certainly worth considering when looking over green energy solutions, but may not be a meaningful consideration for most urban planning projects.
Consider Some Green in Your Green Design
Modern urban development is plagued with a problem that could broadly be called “sprawl.” Sprawl is essentially this habit for design to essentially come in the form of dense block after block of buildings, with no real consideration for how they affect commute or the city as a whole. This design can take up huge portions of land, decentralize urban hubs, and slow traffic down dramatically.
Adding some green can help mitigate this issue, at least in part. By establishing segments in a project in which plant life can grow (or sparing plant life already naturally there), you give an urban environment more space.
This design choice isn’t just for the benefit of a community either. People like green in their urban environment. It helps a space feel more vibrant and less oppressive.
Allowing for green in a project, especially for parks or similarly park-like spaces, will attract people to an area. It also can potentially boost property values and almost invariably will allow for an at least moderate boost in PR.
On a large enough scale, urban greening can combat noise pollution, air pollution, and more. There is some evidence its boost to local morale may even help calm traffic and reduce crime!
London has plans to green at least 5 percent of the surfaces in their Central Activities Zone by 2030 and another 5 percent by 2050. While this may not sound like much, it is a huge amount of land for an urban environment.
Not all greening needs to be on the ground either. Rooftop, hanging, and semi-indoor gardens can all help contribute to a project’s greening. Rooves especially tend to be good places for greening as roof space often goes partially or almost entirely unused.
Waste management can be a difficult issue for an urban planner to tackle unless the project is fairly large scale. As we’ve touched on, you have to work with the options you have, not the ones you want. This may mean not all the “best” solutions are available to you if the infrastructure your project would need to connect to in order to implement them isn’t there.
That all said, there are certainly ways to think sustainably about waste management and it is important one does so both for the wider environment and for the health and beautification of a project. For our purposes, we will split waste broadly into two categories: refuse/garbage and biological waste.
The United States is, on the whole, terrible at garbage management. This doesn’t mean your project has to be. Even fairly simple changes to a project’s design choices can help lessen the impact it has on the planet’s ever-growing landfills and bordering on critical pollution problems.
The first thing an urban planner should do when considering how to manage garbage that a completed project is likely to produce is research their options. Find out how local recycling is handled, if there is a way to make sure garbage goes to incinerators over landfills, and similarly relevant facts.
Ideally, as much waste will be recycled as possible. How far this can go will depend on several levels of the project, from how much decision-makers are willing to prioritize green solutions all the way to what kind of waste is going to come out of the project. At the very least, ensure that recycling cans are easily accessible and clearly marked for easy sorting. Where possible, recycling cans should be near trash receptacles, as one should always assume passersby will choose a close, convenient option over even a slightly farther green option.
For garbage that isn’t recycled, it may surprise some to be told incineration is usually preferable to landfills. While incineration isn’t completely clean, it does convert waste into energy while taking up very little space. On the broader scales of eco-friendliness, this is generally preferable to garbage sitting in a landfill and leaching chemicals into the ground.
Human waste management is critical to sustainable design but suffers from a fairly unique problem: People don’t like talking about it. For at least the past century, Americans (along with many other peoples) have had a stigma around any talk related to human and animal waste.
This problem has lead to something of a crisis in developing nations, who often need innovative solutions to booming populations and a spike in urban needs. Urban developers of all kinds can learn from the likes of sanitation policies being created in South Asia for lessons relevant not just to developing nations but developed ones as well.
One of the most interesting things of note is the technology exists to turn fecal matter into high-quality fertilizer. Currently a test project in ten cities around the world, there is little reason an American project can’t also look at green solutions to sanitization.
While sewage treatment tends to be much better in American cities than those in developing nations, that doesn’t mean it is completely green and efficient. When it comes to larger-scale projects, urban planners could see serious benefits from considering less common solutions to sewage needs. It is not unthinkable one could even combine the ability to turn waste into fertilizer with urban greening projects to increase the efficiency of resources even more.
Keep Your Finger on the Pulse of Sustainable Urban Planning
While this advice will perhaps be more general than some of the above, it is important when coming up with sustainable solutions to not get stuck in your ways. Fifty years ago, PV cells were astronomically expensive and electric cars essentially didn’t exist. The world of green technology sees rapid innovation and you need to evolve with the times.
At least once a year, you should research technological innovations that may be relevant to the kind of projects you work on. You can consider taking courses on sustainable urban planning (like this free one offered by edX).
The reality is that many people both above and below you involved in a project will have little knowledge about sustainability. To some, sustainability is not only viewed as secondary but as wasteful.
In many cases, this way of thinking is objectively untrue, even purely from the perspective of whatever company or organization is backing a project. Part of your job as an urban planner, especially if you want to push green, sustainable solutions, is proving your case. Look into relevant studies and do cost-benefit analyses to help show why the solutions you’re presenting are worthwhile.
Additionally, remember a choice doesn’t need to end at “good for the environment.” Sustainable solutions also can mean “less bad” or “longer-lasting,” as these modifiers can still be both good for the planet and an organization’s bottom line. Broadly speaking, even just using durable materials can go a long way to helping sustainability.
The sustainable solution won’t always be an economically viable one. Even more often, it won’t always be the most economically viable one. However, this doesn’t suddenly render all of sustainable planning null.
Keep your ear to the ground and be on the lookout for sustainable answers to design problems you frequently face. Even answers that don’t quite make sense today can make sense tomorrow as they slowly become cheaper, more efficient, and more effective. The world of green technology moves fast so you have to keep up.