Sustainable Cities in the Anthropocene

By: Marshall B. Distel

As the global population continues to increase in the coming years, it will be imperative to plan for the development of cities and communities that are sustainable, efficient, equitable and livable. The interdisciplinary field of urban ecology can assist planners, designers and local governments with the creation of a vision to support future urban growth that is resilient and sustainable. Beginning in the late 1990s, urban ecology emerged as a field that integrated a diverse set approaches and disciplines to advance the understanding that cities are complex systems characterized by both human and natural processes (Alberti et al., 2018).

While the field of urban ecology was first thought of a discipline that focused on the prevalence and distribution of plant and animal species in cities, it has expanded in scope to address a broad range of aspects related to environmental quality, sustainability and community livability within urban areas (McDonnell & MacGregor-Fors, 2016).

In addition to studying ecology within an urban environment, urban ecologists now also study the ecology of urban environments to better understand the wide-ranging socio-environmental impacts of urbanization (McHale et al., 2015). As urban areas continue to grow on a global scale, it will be essential for planners and policymakers to support sustainable patterns of development as well as inclusive and equitable growth.

Urbanization has become one of the most prominent features of the Anthropocene, which is known as the new geological epoch that is dominated by humanity. Even though humanity has only existed for a minuscule fraction of Earth’s timeline, humans have altered global planetary systems by prompting the mass extinction of countless plant and animal species, polluting the environment and changing the composition of Earth’s atmosphere through the release of carbon emissions (Stromberg, 2013).

While there is still some debate within the scientific community with regards to the beginning of the Anthropocene, many scientists agree that the pairing of humans and petroleum shortly after the start of the Industrial Revolution was the driving agent that initiated the Anthropocene and allowed humans to alter Earth’s natural cycles. The expenditure of millions of years of stored energy through the burning of fossils fuels has had a significant impact on global biodiversity and Earth’s climate. Hydrocarbons have fueled the growth cities around the world. Furthermore, urban areas contribute to about 60% of all residential water use, 75% of global energy use and 80% of human-related greenhouse gas emissions (Wu, 2014). Since the growth of cities has had a significant impact on natural resource consumption, it will be necessary to address the development of urban areas when planning for global sustainability.

Following World War II, the density of urban areas has declined significantly. From 1990 and 2050, the average population growth in 200 global cities is expected to reach nearly 300 percent, while the average physical footprint of these cities is predicted to expand by over 500 percent (Misra, 2016). Urban sprawl, which is a regional pattern of land use featuring scattered, low-density and single-use development that forms high levels of automobile dependency, has had adverse environmental and socio-economic impacts on cities. The rapid geographic expansion of urban areas has caused a dramatic shift in the quality of natural habitats through the destruction of well-connected green landscapes and the creation of a highly fragmented natural environment (Alberti et al., 2018).

The low-density expansion of the built environment has led to increases in energy consumption, a rise in air and water pollution, the amplification of climate change and the deterioration of global biodiversity (Squires, 2002). If urban areas around the world continue to grow and spread as they have done since the Industrial Revolution, the Anthropocene could end up being a disaster for the environment and humanity (Wu, 2014).

While cities have historically been centers of production and consumption, which ultimately degrades the environment, cities can also be an essential part of a sustainable future (McHale et al., 2015). As Peter Calthorpe described in his TEDTalk titled 7 Principles for Building Better Cities, the shape of our cities can impact the environment, social well-being, economic vitality and our sense of place. The principles of urban ecology can be employed to help planners and policymakers shape resilient and sustainable urban areas. A systems thinking approach is needed to plan for the expansion of urban environments.

In addition to supporting Smart Growth and New Urbanism, urban ecologists recognize that there is a need to invest in renewable energy, green infrastructure, active transportation networks, robust public transportation systems and a built environment that connects populations. As a transdisciplinary field that integrates the principles of ecology, geography, planning and social sciences, urban ecology can help planning professionals and municipal officials conceptualize the future of urban sustainability.


Marshall Distel is a graduate student in Virginia Tech’s Master of Natural Resources program. He expects to receive his degree in May 2019.

The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability thanks the following photographers for sharing their work through the Creative Commons License: James Willamor, Riverrat303Derek Σωκράτης Finch, and Brad Kahn.


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