A Contemporary Look at Sustainable Urban Planning

Thoughts from the SUME Project & the 47th ISOCARP Congress

By Mitchell Reardon

Our Common Future has just been released. The term 'sustainable development' has entered the public discourse. There is a growing awareness about the negative effects humanity is having on the environment. Around the world, urbanisation continues to increase. The first hints of a renewed interest in cities are beginning to manifest themselves amongst the public, planners and politicians. Now fast forward a quarter century. It's almost 2012. What does sustainable urban development mean today? How is it applied? And what challenges remain?

During this 25 year period, a global tipping point was reached; more than half the world's population now lives in an urban setting – with forecasts that this will increase to 70% by 2050. The causes of climate change have been established and some steps have been taken to reduce their impacts. There is a global interconnectedness that is unparalleled at any time in human history which offers individuals the opportunity to keep up on what is taking place on the other side of the world in almost real-time; creating a virtual global village. Yet, there is an ever-growing disparity between the rich and poor, within nations and around the world. A severe economic crisis has hindered current development opportunities. Widespread environmental degradation continues. And many of the urban regions experiencing the most rapid growth are those that have the fewest resources to handle it.

Although only realized to a limited extent in practice, the capacity for sustainable urban development has expanded considerably during this period. Select eco-friendly projects have appeared in a number of countries, such as Norra Djurgårdsstaden in Stockholm, Sweden; Vauban in Freiburg, Germany; and Dockside Green in Victoria, Canada. Even more inspiring; new projects that are building on the lessons learned from these pioneering developments continue to evolve and rapidly developing countries such as China are investing vast resources to encourage greener living patterns. At the building level, technological advancements abound, as illustrated by more energy efficient materials, advanced systems for the reuse of waste and advances in photovoltaic energy, to name a few. On a wider scale, new models for the urban form are promoting a reduction in material and resource consumption, such as transit oriented development, brownfield regeneration and balanced urban structures, and have been adopted in urban regions the world over. Finally, a growing body of research surveys the advancements that have been made and continues to inject valuable new ideas into the debate.

The SUME perspective

The recently completed EU FP-7 project Sustainable Urban Metabolism for Europe (SUME), which Nordregio was a partner on, is one project that sought to contribute to the greater understanding and promotion of sustainable urban development. The SUME project considered how future urban systems could be designed to be consistently less damaging to the environment. In doing so, the concept of urban metabolism was used to understand how resources such as energy and land are consumed. Using the urban metabolic approach, the flows of resources, energy and waste – in, through and out – of the urban system were explored with a focus on the built environment, transport and the spatial qualities of the urban form.

The project produced outcomes that were relevant at varied scales. At the local level, this included the importance of creating viable alternatives to the private car for complex daily trips in reducing energy consumption and the technological potential of new buildings in promoting resource efficiency. A series of Metabolic Impact Assessments (MIA)s were used to evaluate the extent to which a select number of large-scale urban development projects, including Norra Djurgårdsstaden in Stockholm, were influencing the resource and energy flows of their respective cities. They also served as a measuring stick for the commitments that these cities have made to fostering a more sustainable future.

At the regional scale, two scenarios were developed for seven cities, including Stockholm, Newcastle and Marseille. These scenarios evaluated the development potentials of each city based on official population, economic and demographic estimates between 2000 and 2050. A BASE scenario accepted the continuation of a status quo approach to planning that is unique to each city, while the SUME scenario saw each city adopt a more resource efficient planning approach that led to reduced land consumption, and sprawl. In doing so, one aspect of sustainable urban development that the SUME approach illustrated was how higher densities in specific areas could reduce urban expansion, without necessarily requiring greater building heights. Further, the value of considering cities as functional urban regions as a means of realizing greater resource efficiency was underlined.

Illustration: Mitchell ReardonIllustration: Mitchell Reardon

Left: Marseille - A northward view of the inner city, including Vieux Port and the Euromediterranee development area. Buildings continue to be added to the city's dense urban fabric as it develops over time, contributing to its resource efficiency.

Right: Stockholm - Great demand for property located in the urban core ensures that densities remain high and in some cases are increased, as is the case with the planned Västra City project.

At the policy level, institutional frameworks, policy packages, regulatory frameworks and positive incentives were explored to create practical mechanisms that helped to motivate sustainable resource use. Here, the need for a strong regional governance system that fostered cooperation between otherwise competing municipalities became apparent for reducing sprawl and ensuring a cohesive regional vision.

Broadening horizons

The SUME project served to underline the importance of considering the unique development situations that exist in different urban regions. As such, it is impossible to separate an urban region from the distinct planning context that has developed their as a result of an enormous range of variables. In this sense, lessons and ideas from one situation can be applied from situation to another; however there is no 'one size fits all' solution for sustainable urban development.

This was something that arose again and again at the 47th ISOCARP Congress in Wuhan, China. At the congress, participants from around the world presented a wide range of projects under the expansive theme of 'Liveable Cities'. Many inspiring and thought provoking projects were discussed and it slowly became evident that although efforts have been made, a considerable gap exists between how sustainable urban development is perceived in developed and developing countries. This was underlined in a presentation on efforts at sustainable development in Côte d'Ivoire, where the national Minister of Cities and Urban Sanitation created an ecological greenspace in an attempt to promote environmental sustainability in the city of Abidjan.[1] The effort earned him widespread criticism and the nickname 'the gardener of Indénié' (the crossroad where the park was created). The city's residents felt that the money for the project could have been better spent on something more practical, like schools. This presentation underlined a pervasive theme amongst participants from developing countries: achieving environmental sustainability remains a luxury in many developing cities.

In reflecting on sustainable urban development from a global perspective, combining affordability and sustainability remains an enormous challenge. It is also particularly important when considering that the majority of the world's urban population growth is taking places in urban regions that are grappling with this issue.

Photo: Mitchell Reardon

In many Chinese cities, including Wuhan, environmental challenges are one challenge amongst many in the pursuit of sustainable urban planning.

The environment, economics & people

Amongst developed countries, the scope and meaning of sustainable urban development is also open to debate. Here, an obvious challenge is in cases where 'sustainability' merely serves an attractive marketing ploy; however even in cases where real efforts are made, certain aspects of sustainability are frequently emphasized, often to the detriment of others.

An environmental focus is central to nearly every contemporary sustainable urban planning project. Given the serious repercussions of climate change, this is an important area to consider. Beyond area-specific advancements, such projects serve to foster ideas and inspiration elsewhere and can thus have a wider impact on sustainable urban planning. The economic sustainability of a project remains a given. Sustainable urban planning requires investment; public, private or both. Without a viable long-term economic plan, sustainable urban planning simply does not take place in many regions.

Now we arrive at social sustainability. The vast majority of efforts aimed at sustainable urban planning discuss the importance of promoting this aspect, but how frequently is it realized to the same extent as the other pillars? This is well illustrated in flagship urban sustainability projects, whereby 'social sustainability' is frequently translated to 'mixed-use'. Mixed-use living patterns are important in creating safe, liveable spaces; however this in itself does not ensure the resolution of wider social challenges. To this end, mixed-use is to social sustainability what green space is to environmental sustainability: one piece in a larger puzzle. It also requires the recognition of the needs of all people regardless of income, background, age or gender; whether this pertains to housing, transport, economics or otherwise. Efforts to meet these needs frequently conflict with economic dynamics of a project, and can fall to the wayside as a result; something that has been exasperated during the economic crisis. Yet it is precisely during an era where such inequalities are becoming more pronounced that the realization of social sustainability is most important.

Sustainable urban development, what's next?

Sustainable urban development has evolved into a central aspect of urban planning over the past quarter century, but as illustrated in the SUME project, more can be accomplished. One way of looking at the remaining challenges is as an issue of perception. In an effort to promote resource efficiency, the SUME project demonstrated the value of viewing cities as functional urban regions rather than political entities; numerous presentations at the 47th ISOCARP Congress underlined the importance of adopting a wider perspective of sustainable urban development when considering the issue at a global level; and in achieving sustainable urban development that balances the overarching aims of sustainability in developed countries, the need to for a more holistic perspective was underlined. As "the age of the city"[2] unfolds, a sense of optimism towards sustainable urban development is justified by the advancements that have been made during the past 25 years. In looking forwards, a more flexible understanding of what sustainable urban development means to different people in different places can help to ensure that such advancements benefit all of the world's urban dwellers in ways that are best tailored to their respective needs.


[1] Ahmed Sangare. Environment Has Little Chance to be the Priority in Sub-Saharan African Cities.

[2] Peter Hall. World Cities: Achieving Liveability and Vibrancy. Eds.Giok Ling Ooi & Belinda Yuen, 2009.

Back to Nordregio News Issue 2, 2011