Can a City Be Sustainable?


Worldwatch Institute State of the World Series

Island Press, 414 pages

Reviewed by Lance A. Williams

Within this well-organized and thoughtful anthology, the Worldwatch Institute asks the most profound question of modern times: can a city be sustainable? The anthropological interpretation of civilization began when mankind started assembling in an organized, clustered fashion – later dubbed culture.

Given the central role that urbanism has played in shaping the gestalt of human life, mankind’s continued existence in the face of oft-callous disregard for the requirements of environmental stewardship by now engenders uncertainty. This collection poses the question as essential to our understanding of what the future holds.

Clearly, the modern city is where the action is. Our species must meet the myriad challenges of diminished sustainable resources propelled by the urgent complexities of unbridled urban population increase. Can A City Be Sustainable? takes an exhaustive look at the associated challenges.

Contributors are impressive. Subject matter is timely. Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo da Costa Paes wrote one of the Forewords. Worldwatch Publications Director Gary Gardner posits five diverse essays collectively labeled Cities and Human Constructs as the opening gambit of this literary symphony.


Climate change and its impact is highlighted in the section entitled The Urban Climate Challenge, which features essays by Gardner’s colleagues Tom Prugh and Michael Renner, and urban designer Peter Calthorpe. Capital E President Gregory Kats, well-known to green building adherents for his seminal work in making the earliest business case for the LEED rating system, contributed the impressive “Energy Efficiency in Buildings: A Crisis of Opportunity”, an essay that hews in tone and style to the insistent sense of urgency that pervades this book.


But the most compelling element are the urban profiles titled City Views, compact narrative bursts dispersed throughout the body of this important work. Cities on view are Shanghai; Freiburg, Germany; Melbourne; Vancouver; the city-state Republic of Singapore; Ahmedabad and Pune, India; Barcelona; Portland, Oregon; Jerusalem; and Durban.


City Views is an impressive panoply of cities with wide population disparity (Shanghai – 24.2 million inhabitants; Melbourne – 122,207), climate conditions, political structure, ethnic and religious predilections, and potential for survival or obsolescence. Cities are examined for their future potential, key policies, achievements, and outcomes; sociability, and lessons learned, amongst other variables. On balance, these locales are presented as cities of hope and potential.


People with both a keen eye and vested interest in the specific city’s legacy are profilers. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson authored his city’s profile. Simone Arian Pflaum, Director of Sustainability Management for Freiburg offered her city’s perspective. Robert Doyle, Lord Mayor of Melbourne, authored his city’s view.


Can A City Be Sustainable? is examined from a plethora of viewpoints: at turns lovingly, and at other junctures head-scratching, with an eye to the staggering contradictions and challenges that the urban future promises. The vast range and volume of contributors guarantees that the ideas expressed here range from anxiety to hopefulness.


The most important takeaway is the recognition that the fate of the world’s urban sustainability effort must be approached with a willingness to envision an essential truism. That is, all manner of human life is worthy of respect and that we must seek to find commonalities with one another or our species will perish under the weight of our own unabated recklessness.