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Sustainable development

Sustainable development in Urban areas: Cities that lead by example

As cities worldwide continue to grow at a rapid pace, sustainable development is seen as a key component in safeguarding the world and its ecosystems for future generations. But what does it mean, exactly, and what constitutes some good examples of sustainable city development?

Here, we will exemplify using excerpts and data from three different of Sweco’s Urban Insight reports – examples of cities in Europe and elsewhere that have made sustainable choices to solve specific urban challenges.


What is sustainable development?

The word “sustainability” is used so frequently today that we rarely stop to think about what it means. And there are several definitions of the term. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030, for example, encompass no less than 17 different issues ranging from poverty and equality to energy efficiency and clean oceans. The Brundtland Commission came up with the following, widely-used definition:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

What we will focus on here is how this can apply to city structures, infrastructure and urban areas in general.


Example 1: Inspirational Urban spaces for people on the move

These are some places that demonstrate the ethos of placemaking – an approach to urban planning that seeks to strengthen the connections between people and places, even in cases where they were not developed using this specific theme.

Amsterdam, Netherlands: The city of Amsterdam has a mix of urban functions and a mix of transportation modes. Its urban areas are pleasant to move through and provide a rich variety of impressions, clustered around a city core that preserves the integrity and coherence of the city’s open spaces. There is no urban sprawl here, as there is in American cities. Mobility by foot or public transport is favoured. Land use is multifaceted within areas and combines work, residence and leisure to create a diverse, complex urban lifestyle. The city is home to people from diverse backgrounds, which reduces the tendency towards formation of income-, origin- or race-based ghettos and improves social integration.

Barcelona Seafront, Spain: One main challenge in European cities is to overbridge infrastructure barriers. One example of successfully bridging barriers and reclaiming the city for citizens can be found in Barcelona, where the city has been reconnected with the Mediterranean seashore. Other cities have bridged barriers on a smaller scale in strategic places and created urban links using eco-corridors, building clusters and fine grids of bicycle and pedestrian bridges.

Parque Manzanares, Madrid Spain: The city of Madrid transformed the motorway in the middle of the city into a park by digging 43 km of tunnels to incorporate the exit routes and carriageways of the 6-kmlong section running alongside the River Manzanares. The project was completed in spring 2011.

On the surface of the motorway tunnel there are now 8,000+ pine trees. By relocating one of the most important roads into the centre of Madrid to an underground tunnel and providing underground parking for 1,000 vehicles, the space was transformed into a garden to benefit local residents. Adorned with cherry trees and a cherry motif, the result is the creation of a brand-new public space.

The 6-km-long park in the middle of Madrid has bike and pedestrian routes that connect the city in new ways. The environment offers great spatial quality to the cyclists and pedestrians passing through the park on their daily travels.

Klyde Warren Park, Dallas USA: Uptown Dallas, with its cluster of hotels, has been connected with downtown Dallas, with its museums and opera house. The two sections of the city were previously entirely separated by the eight-lane 366 motorway, but there is now excellent urban potential for pedestrians in a city designed primarily for cars.

Built on decking that spans the highway, Klyde Warren Park packs numerous amenities into its three-block length, including a large performance stage, a children’s play area, croquet and putting greens, a restaurant, table tennis, and plenty of movable tables and chairs. Curved paths lead visitors through alleys of trees but keep most of the park open for civic gatherings.

Gelderland’s bicycle routes, Netherlands: There is a good chance that efficient bike lanes and routes will play a major role in our city transformation towards sustainable mobility. Several fast bike routes have been built in Holland’s Arnhem-Nijmegen region, connecting residential, work and shopping areas in the region’s towns and cities. These are fast, direct, comfortable and safe routes that cover longer distances, and are also pleasant and attractive.

The province of Gelderland is promoting the bicycle as an attractive mode of transport to encourage people to travel by bike rather than car.


This Urban Insight report makes the argument that urban spaces should be designed with great care and from a human perspective, as this will improve people’s well-being and make it easier to choose sustainable means of transport.


Example 2: Storm water management and the blue-green infrastructure

The use of so-called blue-green infrastructure (BGI) is an important tool that can generate multiple benefits, even turning threats into opportunities.

Stockholm Royal Sea Port:  The award-winning Stockholm Royal Sea Port project is the largest urban development area in Sweden, (390 ha), with 12,000 new homes and 35,000 workplaces, and is located in a former industrial area. Sustainability, including climate change adaptation and biodiversity, is a key feature of the project.

Goals relating to storm water include adaptation for future higher sea level and climate change with more intense rain events, offering attractive public spaces and integrated storm water systems (SuDS). SuDS methods have included green planters along streets and infiltration surfaces in a central park. Storm water management strategies were developed for the project and include key principles such as hard surfaces not connected directly to the drainage system, storm water should be detained and used for irrigation – promoting biodiversity; no increased pollutant load at recipient; raingardens designed for two-year flooding events.

Sweco was involved in the storm water management systems in every stage of the project, from strategies, developing new measures, technical support, design of public spaces such as roads, parks and squares. The project received a C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group award for the best sustainable urban development project in 2015, presented at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris.

Catchment based Surface Water Management in Scotland: In South Dalmarnock, for Clyde Gateway, a Glasgow regeneration company, green networks were used to address site drainage, including an innovative “flood finger” river interface, capable of mitigating loss of floodplain storage caused by land raising as part of the redevelopment, and providing attractive flood defence.

A SuDS basin and riparian landscape was constructed in 2013 at the site of the former Dalmarnock Power Station, and construction commenced for the residential plots in 2018. As part of the Cumbernauld SWMP for Scottish Water, the largest (volumetrically) SuDS detention pond solution in Europe at 22,000 m3 total capacity, was designed and constructed using a “cascading pond” design.

The scheme was delivered 40 per cent under budget, realising savings of approximately £2 million. Consultation and involvement of the local community was an important stage. There were multiple benefits as part of the project, including culvert daylighting, greenspace enhancement, creating capacity in existing watercourses, storm water and combined sewers to facilitate future development objectives and public amenity benefits without the need for wholesale sewer upgrades.


This report details the role of sustainable drainage systems and how these can be developed to benefit citizens and the environment in equal measure.


Example 3: Sustainable mobility solutions

Public transport is going through transformative changes in many European cities. Many changes are yet to come, but in some cities, the future has to some extent already arrived.

Bybanen, Bergen Norway: The light rail “Bybanen” is the winner of the Innovation Award for Universal Design in the transport category. The aim of the award is to acknowledge innovative solutions that anyone can use. A universal design was a fundamental requirement for the development of Bybanen. It is the first rail line in Norway universally designed with a focus on traveller accessibility. Bybanen offers an equitable transportation solution – public transport for the mountains. It makes public space, otherwise hard to reach, accessible to all Bergen residents and visitors.

The city of Bergen’s light rail is now the preferred means of public transport for the mountains and has changed the city landscape for travellers. Highly accessible mobility solutions and a universal design improve inclusion, equal opportunities and equality. This also sets a standard and provides a good example of new, user-focused mobility solutions for future travellers.

Electric scooters, Stockholm Sweden: Electric scooters (or kick bikes) help you minimise your carbon footprint and reduce your greenhouse emissions. This service is connected to an app. Scooters are booked via smartphone, and users pay only for the time used. Scooters can be picked up and dropped off all over the city, so travellers are not limited to predetermined routes.

This Urban Insight report explores the concept of shared mobility, and how new technology such as self-driving cars and mobility-as-a-service is likely to affect the way we use our public transport system.

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