Cities and Sustainable Living

Consumption in urban areas contributes greatly to greenhouse gas emissions. Because of their size and density, cities have an outsized influence on shaping household demand and global supply chains.

Cities have a unique opportunity to leverage action by local governments and urban stakeholders to tackle unsustainable consumption. They can meet their citizens’ needs and aspirations to thrive: living well for all within planetary boundaries.

Cities shape everyday living

Local governments have an important role to play in enabling and supporting sustainable everyday actions by residents and businesses. Of all levels of government, they have the most direct interface with individuals and communities, and are most accountable for issues relating to quality of life. Cities already use a wide range of policy, infrastructure and technology interventions to guide people’s consumption patterns, from shaping land-use decisions to overseeing municipal purchasing. 

Local governments are successful over the long term when they prioritize the health and well-being of their residents. This requires rethinking planning  and living in cities to enable improved quality of life for all income groups without exceeding planetary boundaries. The key is to generate momentum for sustainable choices that in turn empower action – whether it’s how people spend their time and money, or who they vote for.

Local governments are successful over the long term when they prioritize the health and well-being of their residents.

The Cities and Sustainable Living solution area inspires city leaders to take innovative steps to advance sustainable living. This requires first identifying the priority areas of impact, whether at the regional, community, or neighbourhood level. By pinpointing the most critical actions that can be taken locally to reduce emissions and ecological impacts, cities can help drive wider global reductions. 

To gather key metrics, cities can undertake consumption-based emission inventories or measure and reduce the city’s ecological footprint. Using these metrics will help identify footprint hotspots. It might also involve identifying areas where consumption might need to increase in a sustainable way to improve quality of life for those who aren’t yet meeting their basic needs. 

The Beacon is helping cities go beyond their “standard” approaches and to explore fresh, cross-cutting ways to advance high-quality sustainable lives among residents. At the most basic level, cities can use planning, procurement, regulation, data and convening tools to target priority footprint areas. But they can also innovate in next-level ways to support sustainable living – including by making sustainable choices the default and by demonstrating the types of innovations needed to build a low-impact culture. 

To move the needle on sustainable living, cities are well positioned to explore opportunities to:

  • Drive innovation in the food system
  • Expand and promote low-carbon leisure options
  • Support sustainable innovation and experimentation
  • Become ambassadors for high-quality sustainable living
  • Make sustainable choices the default
  • Expand, regenerate and maintain spaces for nature
  • Shift advertising to divert attention from high-carbon activities and consumption
  • Build a low-impact culture.


ecoCity Footprint Tool

Developed by the BCIT Centre for Ecocities, this tool helps cities evaluate and address the impacts of their carbon and ecological footprints. This bottom-up approach has contributed to award-winning strategies such as Vancouver’s Greenest City Plan and Lighter Footprint Goal, and the One Planet Saanich initiative on Vancouver Island. The Lighter Footprint App helps people understand their footprints and take action to achieve wider emission reduction targets.

C40 Thriving Cities Initiative

The Thriving Cities Initiative pilots new tools for holistic thinking, governance and policymaking to foster collaborative action towards socially just and ecologically safe cities. C40 works across city divisions and with local communities and businesses to open up new insights and possibilities for transformation. They aim to demonstrate how cities can co-create regenerative systems and powerful narratives to inspire collective behaviour change and mainstream low-carbon living.

Low Carbon Cities Canada (LC3)

The LC3 network, established by the Canadian government and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, helps unlock investment to finance emission reductions from the built environment, modeled after the successful Toronto Atmospheric Fund.

Neighbourhood Action on Lighter Living 

OneEarth Living provides resources to help city residents engage with their neighbours in climate- and planet-friendly living. The Lighter Living Action Pack for Neighbourhoods is full of fun and inspiring examples of how to build sustainable lifestyles at the community level, like building on the block party, cultivating connections and the lighter living super challenge.


WRAP, a climate action NGO, works in 40+ countries to help local authorities, businesses and communities transform local food and textile systems, eliminate plastic pollution and increase recycling. Impactful campaigns related to sustainable living have included Love Food Hate Waste, Clear on Plastics, Love Your Clothes and Recycle Now.

Smart Living Handbook 

Since 2007, Cape Town, South Africa has regularly updated this handbook to teach citizens to conserve resources and adopt sustainable practices in support of city sustainability goals. Related public events include a Future Energy Festival and the Smart City Kids programme, aimed at 4-8 year-olds.

The Beacon is led by OneEarth Living and Hot or Cool, with generous support from the KR Foundation