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As defined by the omniscient Wikipedia, “sustainable urbanism” is:

New Urbanism.

Yep, there is no definition for “sustainable urbanism”.  Perhaps this is because it isn’t a product yet.  No one can buy, sell, or trade sustainable urbanism.  Still, the question remains.  What is sustainable urbanism?

Aside from being two incredibly popular buzzwords smashed together, the initial response would be that sustainable urbanism is a method of developing dense (i.e. urban) human-centered environments that are built and maintained in a way that does not sacrifice the ability for future environments to maintain themselves.

Without going into the differences between the ideas of “sustainable” versus “thrivable”, one could also assume that sustainable urbanism should deliver an environment that:

-Maximizes human health and happiness.

-Protects and nourishes the natural ecosystems that provide humans the ability to create such habitat.

That’s it.  Two things.  Differences in construction materials, lot platting schemes, food availability, water usage, and the like mean very little if they cannot withstand the rigor of those two criteria.  Each method/process/material must also not be judged by initial impressions, but by in-depth analysis.

Stone and wood may be very pleasing, warm, construction materials, but how are they extracted from the land?  If the method by which they were produced does not protect and nourish the Earth, then they can not be considered part of a sustainable urbanism.

By the same standard, if a method of “urbanism” seeks to implement traditional (i.e. pre-1900) city development patterns as an addendum to post-WWII suburban sprawl by dictating lot layouts, street block ratios, and building heights, but contributes little to the health of its inhabitants, it can not be considered a sustainable urbanism.

So for design professionals in regional/city/planning roles, or for regular folks who are concerned about their health and the health of their environment:  The next time you are faced with a decision to purchase a certain good, purchase a home, dictate form for a road, house, plaza, or otherwise, judge it against the aforementioned criteria.

You may find that sustainable urbanism is not something to be dictated or imposed.  It is something created by everyday decisions that contribute to the well-being of the whole.

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