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Challenges of sustainable urban planning: the case of municipal solid waste management

By Ning Ai


This study aims to demonstrate the critical role of waste management in urban sustainability, promote planners' contribution to proactive and efficient waste management, and facilitate the integration of waste management into mainstream sustainability planning. With anticipated increases in population and associated waste generation, timely and effective waste management highlights one of the most critical challenges of sustainable development, which calls for meeting "the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (WCED, 1987). Waste management in urban areas plays a particularly important role, given that waste generated from urban areas are often exported out of the region for processing and treatment, and the impacts of waste disposal activities may pass on to the other jurisdictions, and even to the next generations. An urban system cannot be sustainable if it requires more resources than it can produce on its own and generates more wastes than the environment can assimilate. The current waste management practice, which focuses on short-term impacts and end-of-pipe solutions, is reactive in nature and inadequate to promote sustainability within urban systems, across jurisdictions, and across generations. Through material flows in and out of urban systems, many potential opportunities exist to reduce waste generation and to minimize the negative impacts on the environment, the economy, and the society. City planners' involvement in waste management, however, has been largely limited to siting waste management facilities. Linking waste management with three important lenses in planning-land use, economic development, and environmental planning, this study investigates the impacts of urban growth on waste management activities, the need of transforming the reactive nature of current waste management, and the challenges and opportunities that planners should address to promote urban systems' self-reliance of material and waste management needs. This study includes three empirical analyses to complement theoretical discussions. First, it connects waste statistics with demographic data, geographic characteristics, and policy instruments at the county level to examine whether waste volume can be decoupled from urban population growth. Second, it examines the life cycle costs of different waste management options and develops a simulation study to seek cost-effective strategies for long-term waste management. Third, it compiles evidence of geographic-specific characteristics related to waste management and demonstrates why waste management policies cannot be one-size-fit-all. This study finds that, with successful implementation of strategic policy design, waste generation and its associated impacts can be decoupled from population and urban growth. Good lessons about waste reduction programs can be learned from different communities. Meanwhile, this study also reveals various challenges facing communities with heterogeneous characteristics, such as housing density, building age, and income. Accordingly, this study discusses the potential opportunities for planners to contribute to community-specific waste management programs, the prospect of transforming waste management practice from a cost burden to a long-term economic development strategy, and the need to incorporate waste management into the sustainable urban planning agenda.PhDCommittee Chair: Leigh, Nancey Green; Committee Co-Chair: French, Steven P; Committee Member: Bras, Bert; Committee Member: Stiftel, Bruce; Committee Member: Yang, Jiawe

Topics: Economic development, Environmental planning, Waste management, Urban sustainability, Sustainability, Sustainable development, Sustainable urban development, City planning, Refuse and refuse disposal
Publisher: Georgia Institute of Technology
Year: 2011
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