Steps Toward Sustainability: New Urbanism and Green Infrastructure at a Municipal Level

by Alan Constant

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about sustainable living and making conscious decisions to reduce our consumption and make green choices. These are obviously great things and I firmly believe that we as humans can make a big change just through our own patterns of consumption. However, I think it’s still extremely important to recognize how municipalities are incorporating ideas of New Urbanism and permaculture into their planning.

For these purposes, we should describe what is meant by New Urbanism and permaculture. New Urbanism refers to a method of designing and structuring cities, towns and neighborhoods that incorporates elements of sustainability and efficiency, while introducing ways to promote a sense of community and improved transportation options. Permaculture is often incorporated into New Urbanism, and represents the usage of novel and adaptive agriculture techniques in and around cities to make best use of the space — essentially creating stable, diverse and edible ecosystems.

Each of these represent key areas in A Rocha’s identity through the 5 C’s — namely our commitment to Community, Cooperation and Conservation. At their core, New Urbanism and permaculture are about fostering and strengthening relationships within communities, and developing new and creative ways for efficiency and sustainability — something that everyone should have an interest in.

Urban sprawl and the destruction of natural habitat is a huge concern. And as the global population increases, New Urbanism can serve as a valuable solution, due to its focus on intensification, rather than further expansion into our natural ecosystems. 

What might this look like? Some examples include prioritizing public transit and active transportation (cycling, walking, etc.), creating community gardens to increase access to healthy foods and strengthen community, and developing housing centered around common areas with a variety of services and spaces provided (such as gyms, libraries, workspaces, etc.).

Concepts of New Urbanism can be added through the simple increase of efficiency, or utilization of resources for new purposes. Implementing High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes into highways and freeways, for example, can not only increase the efficiency of the road, but also could incentivize drivers to carpool and decrease emissions through that. There have also recently been exciting developments into the idea of energy-generating walkways and paths — systems that use the kinetic energy generated by people walking around to produce electricity. The incorporation of systems such as this, especially in a centralized city development where a lot of transport can be done by walking or biking, could generate a high degree of electricity and provide a new green energy source.

Municipalities can further increase efficiency — not to mention aesthetics, which can be very important to both mental health and a sense of community — through the use of green infrastructure. This term essentially means that planners and developers use the natural world in their development – using and creating natural spaces throughout the municipality, even on the buildings themselves!

With design elements such as green roofs and green walls, municipalities can create aesthetically-pleasing spaces, that these elements also

  1. capture CO2 gas and purify the air,
  2. create urban wildlife habitats in regions where natural spaces and homes for wildlife are hard to come by,
  3. reduce costs for heating and cooling of buildings, and
  4. improve stormwater management and reduce the risk of floods.

That’s a lot of benefits for a simple (and beautiful) design choice, and in my opinion it exemplifies the direction that municipalities and organizations must go: utilizing nature to create and manage cleaner, greener living spaces. In effect, we are incorporating natural processes into cities to help them be as clean and non-damaging as possible – When we care for creation, creation cares for us.

There are so many interesting and exciting directions being investigated regarding New Urbanism, green infrastructure and permaculture. It seems like every day there are new discoveries and developments, and we are constantly stepping closer to a greener, brighter tomorrow. However, we must ensure that we are creative in the ways that we incorporate natural ideas into municipalities, and we must stay informed and outspoken to convince municipalities to begin to adopt more of these strategies.

This article should serve as a source of hope in an often-dreary world and show that there are new technologies and ideas being used to help bring about a more environmentally-friendly, creation-caring world. So, go out and plant a garden, create a small wildlife habitat in your backyard, find ways to incorporate nature into your life at home! Only together will we succeed in caring for creation.

Alan Constant is a conservationist and a two-time summer staff with A Rocha Ontario.