Free Interactive Report
Sustainable Cities and Communities in the US
By 2030, SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities aims to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. This includes providing accessible, affordable, and sustainable public transportation, protecting cultural and natural heritage, and providing access to safe green spaces. It also means reducing the environmental impact of cities, especially related to carbon emissions, air pollution, and waste management.
Sustainable Cities and Communities in Context
Cities and urban areas are powerhouses of economic growth, contributing about 60% of global GDP. While cities occupy just 3% of all land on Earth, they account for 60-80% of energy consumption and 75% of all carbon emissions.
3.5 billion people – half of the world’s population, live in cities and urban areas in 2021. This is expected to grow to at least 5 billion people by 2030.
Making cities sustainable will require innovation in career and business opportunities, ensuring safe and affordable housing, investing in public transport, creating green public spaces, and improving urban planning.
In the US:
- 80% of the population lives in urban areas, covering just 3% of the country (SDSN).
- Parks and green spaces that serve majority Black, Indigenous and people of color are, on average, half as large—45 acres compared to 87 acres— and nearly 5x as crowded as parks that serve majority-white populations.
- Almost 10 billion trips were taken on public transportation in 2019, saving an estimated 37 million metric tons of carbon from being emitted. You can check the statistics at the state level using the Interactive Tool in this report.
Public Transportation in the US
Public transportation in the US is available in every state, in urban and rural areas, and includes everything from bus systems, water-borne services, subways, and light rail, to commuter rail and intercity high-speed systems. The majority of these transit providers are nonprofit organizations.
Access to public transit provides a multitude of benefits to cities and their residents including access to jobs, social connections, and basic services, as well as safer and more environmentally friendly ways to move around.
- There were 146x more fatalities on highways than on transit in 2018
- Subways lower carbon emissions by 73% compared to cars, and buses reduce emissions by 33%-82% depending on how many passengers are on each trip.
One in ten Americans (11%) say they take public transportation on a daily or weekly basis. However, in urban areas, 34% of Black and 27% of Hispanic residents report taking public transit daily or weekly, compared with only 14% of whites. 45% of Americans have no access to public transportation.
41.7% of U.S. households also report having access to just one vehicle and would benefit from public transportation. Additionally, many of the current systems in place are old and in need of repair – including 40% of buses and 25% of rail transit.
Improving public transportation in order to achieve SDG 11 will require not only increasing access and affordability but also ensuring there is sufficient, safe infrastructure in place and that renewable energy sources continue to be increasingly used by the sector.
Urban Green Spaces in the US
Within urban areas especially, city parks and other green spaces provide physical and mental health benefits to residents, and can also improve environmental conditions.
Outdoor air pollution is estimated to be responsible for up to 10% of the total annual premature deaths in the US, and vegetation, especially trees, have been shown to act as natural filters for both gases and particulate matter in urban environments – with significant positive impacts on local air quality.
Areas within a 10-minute walk of a park can be much as 6 degrees cooler than surrounding areas. But currently, over 100 million people across the country, including 28 million children, don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk of home. Use our Interactive Tool in this report to check how many cities in your State pledged to make walkable cities by 2030.
Low-income residents are more likely to live in hotter neighborhoods and be exposed to more air pollution, often partly as a result of less green infrastructure. Parks and green spaces that serve majority nonwhite populations are also half the size and nearly 5x as crowded on average compared to parks that serve majority-white populations.
In 2021, over 100 million people across the country, including 28 million children, don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk of home.
While there are many benefits that green spaces can bring to communities. They can also have unintended negative consequences – higher demand for housing in areas close to parks can drastically increase living costs and displace low-income groups that have been there for decades – often referred to as eco-gentrification.
Explore more using our interactive report
This interactive report is continuously updated, and it is free thanks to X4Impact Founding Partners. The report highlights some selected indicators related to sustainable cities and communities in the US .
You can use the interactive charts to understand partnership for the UN SDG goals-related indicators, as well as exploring by state the list of nonprofits that work on this issue.
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using mass transit
The Negative Impact in the US
The US is the second largest contributor of total greenhouse gas emissions after China, and also leads the world in per capita emissions. Carbon dioxide accounted for the largest percentage (80%) followed by methane (10%), nitrous oxide (7%), and other greenhouse gases (3%).
Transportation is the largest source of US carbon emissions (29%). 50% of transportation emissions come from passenger cars and light-duty trucks (i.e. sport vehicles, pickup trucks and minivans). Public transportation has the potential to significantly reduce emissions and contribute to reducing the negative impacts of climate change – almost 10 billion trips were taken on public transportation in 2019, saving an estimated 37 million metric tons of carbon from being emitted.
Currently, there is an estimated $176 billion transit repair and upgrade backlog, a deficit that is expected to grow to more than $250 billion through 2029.
The lack of green space in urban areas contributes to the creation of Heat Islands – areas that are consistently a higher temperature than surrounding areas. This often results in increased energy consumption from demand for air conditioning and therefore is also associated with increased greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.
The Economic Impact of Sustainable Cities
According to the American Public Transportation Association:
- Every $1 invested in public transportation generates $5 in economic returns.
- Every $1 billion invested in public transportation supports and creates approximately 50,000 jobs.
- Every $10 million in capital investment in public transportation yields $30 million in increased business sales.
Access to affordable public transportation also benefits the local economy – 50% of trips are made going to and from work, and almost 40% are for shopping and recreational reasons. However, while the number of transit trips has increased by 37% over the past 50 years, it peaked in 2014 and The COVID-19 pandemic has only sharpened the decline, in some cases by as much as 70%.
Trees in urban parks remove up to 7,111,000 tons of toxins from the air annually at a value of $3.8 billion to cities.
The United Nations Impact Indicators related to UN SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities
The United Nations has defined 10 Targets and 15 Indicators to track progress towards reaching the Sustainable Development Goal of Sustainable Cities and Communities by 2030. Key indicators in the U.S. relate to urban planning, transport systems, water, sanitation, waste management, disaster risk reduction, and more.
The indicators for success outlined by the U.N. include (SDG Tracker):
- The proportion of the population that has convenient access to public transport.
- Per capita spending on the preservation, protection and conservation of all cultural and natural heritage.
- Reducing the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management.
- The amount (total number and share of city space) of green and public spaces open to all, but in particular for women and children, older persons, and persons with disabilities.
Interactive Report Notes:
* The 10 Minute Walk Campaign is a nationwide movement led by The Trust for Public Land, National Recreation and Park Association, and the Urban Land Institute, to improve access to parks & green spaces by ensuring everyone in a city has safe, easy access to a quality park within a 10-minute walk of their home by 2050.
** Passenger trips are defined as the number of passengers who board public transportation vehicles. Passengers are counted each time they board vehicles no matter how many vehicles they use to travel from their origin to their destination.
Interactive Chart Sources:
- Museums & Aquariums: X4Impact analysis of forms 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service -IRS 2018-2020
- 10 Minute Walk Campaign Cities & Population Impacted: X4Impact analysis
- Public Transportation Trips & Carbon Saved: X4Impact analysis of data provided by EPA.
- Nonprofit-related data: X4Impact analysis of over 600,000 forms 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service -IRS 2018-2020
- UN – Cities
- Public Land Trust – 10 Minute Walk Campaign
- Infrastructure Report Card – Transit
- Scientific American – Who Benefits from Public Green Space?
- WRI – Green Space: An Underestimated Tool to Create More Equal Cities
- US DOT – Public Transportation’s Role in Responding to Climate Change
- APTA – Factbook
- ATPA – Public Transportation Facts
- The Trust for Public Land – Heat is On
- C2ES – U.S. Emissions
- Pew – Who relies on public transit in the U.S.
- Dedoussi, I.C., Eastham, S.D., Monier, E. et al.
- City Parks Alliance – Why City Parks Matter
- EPA – Heat Islands