Urban systems theory, operationalized (part 1)

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As promised, I’d now like to share with you some ways systemic urban sustainability is operationalized, through urban agendas. 

The theories and concepts I previously posted here have been in the past few decades shaping and informing a broad range of urban agendas. The figure shows the approximate positions of these agendas in time and regarding the weak/strong sustainability debate and other sustainability milestones. In the literature, the sustainable city the most prominent and most frequently occurring urban agenda. Directly deriving from SD and SCD, this agenda first appeared in the 1994 Aalborg Charter and was highly influenced by the UN Agenda 21 and the 2002 Melbourne Principles on Sustainable Cities sponsored by UNEP (the United Nations Environment Programme) and ICLEI.

Different authors provide different interpretations of the sustainable city: some view it as a framework for greater ecological and resource protection; for others it is a way to safeguard economic growth with greener technology while somewhat preserving ecological stability and social equity (“greener urban growth”); and others draw attention to all three pillars of sustainability.

What would a sustainable city be like? Mori and Yamashita offer an integrative but simple definition: a sustainable city maximizes socio-economic net benefits while considering environmental constraints and the limits of economic and social inequity. For Roseland, a sustainable community (urban or rural) is dynamic and engages in activities to sustain the environment, empower citizens, and ensure the needs of current and future generations can be met. Other scholars highlight key form characteristics: inclusive and accessible, healthy and well-planned, adequately dense, energy efficient, resilient against climate and other risks, economically competitive and affordable, and with protected ecosystems, eco-friendly transportation infrastructure, and strong regional linkages.

Approximate positions of urban agendas in time and in relation to the weak/strong sustainability debate and other sustainability milestones.

Note that the figure includes the approximate position of the urban productivity agenda presented in a next post. Color coding denotes extent of subscription to each sustainability dimension: green = environmental; orange = social; and blue = economic. Original graph with information from these sources: De Jong et al., 2015; Fu & Zhang, 2017; Hassan & Lee, 2015a, 2015b; Hodson & Marvin, 2010; Joss et al., 2015.


De Jong, M., Joss, S., Schraven, D., Zhan, C., & Weijnen, M. (2015). Sustainable-smart-resilient-low carbon-eco-knowledge cities; Making sense of a multitude of concepts promoting sustainable urbanization.Journal of Cleaner Production,109, 25–38. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2015.02.004

Fu, Y., & Zhang, X. (2017). Trajectory of urban sustainability concepts: A 35-year bibliometric analysis.Cities,60, 113–123. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2016.08.003

Hamman, P. (2017). Definitions and Redefinitions of Urban Sustainability: A Bibliometric Approach.Urban Environment,11(April).

Hassan, A. M., & Lee, H. (2015a). The paradox of the sustainable city: Definitions and examples.Environment, Development and Sustainability,17(6), 1267–1285. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10668-014-9604-z

Hassan, A. M., & Lee, H. (2015b). Toward the sustainable development of urban areas: An overview of global trends in trials and policies.Land Use Policy,48, 199–212. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2015.04.029

Hodson, M., & Marvin, S. (2010). Urbanism in the anthropocene: Ecological urbanism or premium ecological enclaves?City,14(3), 298–313. https://doi.org/10.1080/13604813.2010.482277

Jenks, M., & Jones, C. (Eds.). (2010). Dimensions of the sustainable city(Vol. 25, Issue 9). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13398-014-0173-7.2

Joss, S., Cowley, R., De Jong, M., Müller, B., Park, B. S., Rees, W. E., Roseland, M., & Rydin, Y. (2015). Tomorrow’s City Today: Prospects for standardising sustainable urban development.

Kanuri, C., Revi, A., Espey, J., & Kuhle, H. (2016). Getting Started with the SDGs in Cities—A guide for Stakeholders (UN SDSN).

Mori, K., & Yamashita, T. (2015). Methodological framework of sustainability assessment in City Sustainability Index (CSI): A concept of constraint and maximisation indicators.Habitat International,45(P1), 10–14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.habitatint.2014.06.013

Roseland, M. (2012). Toward Sustainable Communities: Solutions for Citizens and Their Governments(4th ed.). New Society Publishers.

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