Environmental sustainability refers to ways of structuring human activities that guarantee the conservation of the biosphere resources and their quality in the long term. In an urban context, environmental sustainability is linked to local development policies that guarantee equitable access to public services while the impact on the ecological environment minimises the impact. Local environmental sustainability is obtained through the efficient use of resources, the appropriate management of waste and the promotion of environmentally friendly behaviour by citizens.
The environmental sustainability concept stems from the relationships between humans and their natural environment. The approach of sustainability was initially fundamentally economic and anthropocentric. It was about conserving the necessary resources to maintain human life in the long term, according to the economic criteria at each moment of history. In that perspective, the fundamental strategy was the fine tuning of technical solutions to more efficiently use the resources and minimise the effects of human activity. Recent years have paved the way for a perspective that grants an own value to the nature and to each of the living beings, beyond their usefulness for human beings. That approach shows that environmental sustainability is not a merely technical matter, but rather requires a change in values that assumes an attitude of respecting nature.
There are three important dimensions to understand the meaning of the environmental sustainability. First, environmental sustainability must be considered globally, beyond the local space, as the different planet ecosystems are interconnected. Second, it is a long-term issue, as ecosystems must be managed for future generations. Third, environmental sustainability must be addressed comprehensively, by harmonising social, economic and ecological factors in a respectful and effective way.
Promoting environmental sustainability has the following implications for the behaviour of individuals, the organisation of civil society and public institutions.
In order to support environmental sustainability, citizens should come aware of both local and global environmental problems, change their lifestyle and consumer patterns (for example, reducing, recycling and reusing waste), and observe a more responsible, committee and engaged attitude towards nature and the urban ecosystems. They should also take into account the accumulative impact of individual unsustainable attitudes that, taken together, cause significant damage affecting the community. People and families may also transmit responsibility, social justice and sustainability values and behaviour to future generations.
Social organisations play a very important role when it comes to making the population aware of environmental sustainability and problems, to reaching a consensus and proposing participatory solutions, and to questioning environmental policies and highlighting the structural aspects (political and economic) that are beyond the ecological problems. At the same time, social organisations are fundamental stakeholders in the communication and promotion of social learning with respect to social behaviour for citizens, thus facilitating a genuine ethical and social change towards a local culture of environmental sustainability.
The City Council, as the local authority closest to the citizenry, is empowered to create and maintain infrastructure, and to implement social and economic policies that foster the wellbeing of the population while respecting the principles of environmental sustainability. The City Council must, therefore, integrate environmental sustainability in its management, by establishing a series of prescriptive municipal rules regulating aspects such as the protection of urban natural space, managing waste, maintaining air quality, or sustainable urban development. At the same time, it must encourage citizens to behave in an environmentally friendly way, including recycling, responsible consumption, or the use of a less polluting public transport. The same City Council must introduce a reflective change towards sustainable technical, political and institutional behaviours.