sustainable urban development

What is Sustainable Urban Development

What is sustainable urban development, why is it that complex, what is necessary to attain sustainable urban development, why is sustainable urban development the only way forward. These and more questions will be discussed in this post about Urban Sustainability.

It is out of question that anthropogenic activities have got a measurable impact on climate change and the planet. 360° changes in politics, economics, culture and society are required for the global population in order to contain the global temperature rise below 2°C. Moreover, the growing global population requires deep changes in the way we eat, the way we move, the way we live and the way we consume. Regardless of where you live and work in this planet, we are all part of communities and a specific urban system.  What is sustainable urban development is, in fact, what it is required to address the required changes.

Cities are the engines of economic growth and employment, but at the same time, cities are the cause of one of the most extreme impacts on the environment as they degrade natural habitats, disrupt hydrological systems, modify energy flow and nutrient cycling. Cities are responsible for over two-thirds of the energy consumption and more than 70% of the CO2 emissions globally. Thanks to the high percentage of surface covered by poorly thermal performing materials such as asphalt and concrete, cities are affected by the albedo effect which creates urban heat islands. Scientists measured that surface temperatures in cities which reached sometimes up to 10-15°C higher than in their rural surroundings.

Cities are the cause and the consequence of urban migration from rural areas due to the exponentially increased opportunities to jobs, education and well-being. However, the increased imbalance between cities and rural areas exacerbates even more the rural living conditions and isolation, low agricultural productivity and food insecurity. In the other hand, the same migration phenomenon, if not properly managed, concludes impacting the cost of living in urban areas due to housing, employment, transportation, utilities and food competition. The living conditions often are sacrificed to be able to cover the cost of living and, in essence, quality of life gets impacted and deteriorates, which was the reason for migrating in the first place.


75% of the European population lives in urban areas which is expected to rise up to 80% by 2050. The European Environmental Agency stakes for encouraging revitalisation and transition towards environmental sustainability of urban areas and cities to improve liveability, promote innovation and reduce environmental impacts while maximising economic and social co-benefits.

It is logical to think that Sustainable Urban Development (SUD) is the way forward to mitigate climate change and to return the balance to social and economical issues. But what is Sustainable Urban Development?

  • SUD seeks to create cities and towns that improve the long-term health of the planet’s human and ecological systems. To achieve this objective implies protecting and restoring natural ecosystems in urban areas, creating community environments that nurture human potential, using land and resources wisely, and facilitating human lifestyles that contribute to global sustainability.
  • Improving the quality of life in a city, including ecological, cultural, political, institutional, social and economic components without leaving a burden, e.g., the result of a reduced natural capital and an excessive local debt, on the future generations—and thus forming the sustainable city.
  • Five goals that make a city sustainable are: minimising the consumption of space and natural resources; rationalising and efficiently managing urban flows; protecting the health of the urban population; ensuring equal access to resources and services; maintaining cultural and social diversity.
  • A sustainable city is a city where achievements in social, economic, and physical development are made to last and where there is a lasting supply of the natural resources on which its development depends. Further more, a sustainable city maintains lasting security from environmental hazards that may threaten development achievements by allowing only for acceptable risk.
  • Integrated urban places designed to bring people, activities, buildings, and public spaces together.
  • A city moving toward sustainability improves public health and well-being, lowers its environmental impacts, increasingly recycles its materials, and uses energy with growing efficiency.
What is required to achieve Sustainable Urban Development?

Regardless of the role of the built environment, the protection of the human health and well-being in order to nurture the human potential lays at the heart of the Sustainable Urban Development’s main goal. Hence, to achieve SUD, urban development must be environmental-socio-economically viable and be capable to be sustained in the long-term so the objective can be achieved. However, noting the continuously changing conditions in the economy, the society and the environment in a given system (neighbourhood, city, region, country, continental or planetary) the task of developing urban planning sustainable becomes more than just standardising a model for SUD.

Values that underline Sustainable Urban Development

SUD requires a frame of values that will underpin the main objective: The protection of the human health and well-being in order to nurture the human potential. 

Values are often subjective depending on the background of the author, and so will be the list proposed here below, although we have tried to be as un-biased as possible. Our proposed list is based on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals

  • Environmental protection, restoration and enhancement
  • Comfort, equity and livability
  • Diversity, respect and equality
  • Identity, community and meaningfulness 
  • Participation and collaboration
  • Safe, secure and just
  • Vitality, resilience and growth
  • Health and well-being 
  • Human potential development

Therefore, recognising that Sustainable Development is a field that involves multiple disciplines at multiple system levels, SUD requires the synergy of these different disciplines working together in a new multi-connectivity level. 

SUD is a multidimensional concept involving environmental, economic, social and political issues, and in order to achieve the values that underpin SUD, Urban Sustainability requires 7 spheres that should be equally attained: Cultural, Economical, Inclusive, Environmental, Technological, Natural, and Institutional. 

  • A Culturally Sustainable City is a city capable of nurturing cultural interaction within its diverse population while safeguarding traditions and providing equal access to education, cultural events and places. The culturally sustainable city will enable cultural enrichment, promote respect, equality, participation, identity and community growth. 
  • An Economically Sustainable City will allow individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems to survive, adapt and grow in response of the ever evolving environmental, governmental and social conditions. The economically sustainable city should enable a thriving green economy, based on green and blue infrastructure, sustainable mobility and urban agriculture, and overall built environmental quality, that delivers ecological multi-functional healthy human and ecological systems to unlock human potential.
  • An Inclusive Sustainable City means designing urban places that allow to bring people, activities, and spaces equally to the wide variety of citizens by means of an integrated planning and sustainable mobility. The inclusive sustainable city should deliver environmental quality and cater for equal healthy exposure to environmental stressors such as air pollution, noise or temperatures within buildings and open spaces. On the same note, the inclusive sustainable city should facilitate equal access to culture, education, jobs, housing, services and nature among other requirements for an equal mentally healthy, balanced and well-being lifestyle, that is safe, secure and just. 
  • The Environmentally Sustainable City is characterised by a green, low carbon, circular, ecologically healthy and energetically efficient region where the built and natural systems provide high-quality services, where resources are generated, managed and consumed sustainably and where waste is designed out of the system for a vital and resilient region in collaboration with its wider global (built and natural) environmental system. 
  • Designing Technology in SUD means equipping cities with devices and sensors that can share information in real time to develop kinetic buildings and smart cities that can generate, manage and consume clean energy and natural resources in its highest efficient way. A technologically sustainable city will enable resilience, low carbon, high energy efficiency healthy, inclusive and economically prosperous city. 
  • Designing Nature in SUD means introducing Blue and Green Infrastructure into the cities to create a climate positive organic architectural landscape of high social, economic and environmental quality but also of human and natural high resilience. Designing nature in SUD would also allow inclusive, cultural, comfortable, liveable, healthy and economically viable sustainable for present and future local, regional and global communities.
  • The role of Institutions in Sustainable Urban Development is to cater, implement and maintain a synergetic work of the different disciplines in a new multi-connective level to achieve the different dimensions of SUD and its values. 
Methods to evaluate progress against sustainability

Evaluating progress towards sustainability can be again another subjective task. Urban sustainability focuses on human wellbeing which depends, fundamentally, on the flows of ecosystem services (provisioning, regulating, and cultural) derived from natural capital (biodiversity and ecosystems) locally, regionally and globally. 

Although, the main goal of the protection of the human health and well-being in order to nurture the human potential is universal, values are not achieved in the same degree across the globe (developed countries and developing countries, in their different degrees of development). While there is global consensus on certain data that should be measured and monitored (i.e.: Green House Gases, precipitation, fresh water, ice reserves, vegetation cover and quality, population growth, economy, GDP, access to education, crime, unemployment, energy consumption and energy mix, etc), more specific indicators should be designed on a regional and local levels. 

Attention should also be given to clearly differentiate between measured data, indicators and indexes. While indicators will normally be calculated using formulas that combine variable measured data, indexes will be markers or benchmarks to gauge against other similar systems. Therefore, indicators will be formulated to set up targets individually for a system and measure progress against goals, whereas indexes will be used to compare our progress against another system. 

Methods to evaluate progress in urban sustainability defer from country to country and could even vary on a regional and city level depending on specific targets to be achieved. However, any method at any system level will aim at addressing the values that underpin SUD.

Examples of globally accepted Indexes are:

Ecological Footprint (EF) 

EF = P/YN x YF x EQF


  • P = amount of product harvested, 
  • YN = average yield for P,
  • YF = yield factor, and 
  • EQF = equivalence factor 

Green City Index (GCI) 

GCI = CO2 emissions + energy + buildings + land use + transport + water and sanitation + waste management + air quality + environmental governance 

City Development Index (CDI) 

CDI = (Infrastructure + Waste + Health + Education + Product)/ 5


  • Infrastructure index = 25 x Water connections + 25 x Sewerage + 25 x Electricity + 25 x Telephone 
  • Waste index = Wastewater treated x 50 + Formal solid waste disposal x 50 
  • Health index = (Life expectancy – 25) x 50/60 + (32 – Child mortality) x 50/31.92
  • Education index = Literacy x 25 + Combined enrolment x 25
  • Product index = (log City Product – 4.61) 9 100/5.99 

Environmental Performance Index (EPI) 

EPI = f(Environmental Health, Ecosystem Vitality), in which 20 indicators representing 9 issue areas are aggregated through an unequal weighting scheme 

Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) 

GPI = Cadj + Gnd + W – D – E – N 


  • Cadj is personal consumption expenditures adjusted for income inequality, 
  • Gnd is non-defensive government expenditures, 
  • W is non-market contributions to welfare, 
  • D is defensive private expenditures, 
  • E is the costs of environmental degradation, and 
  • N represents depreciation of the natural capital base 

Genuine Savings (GS) 

GS = Gross domestic savings – Consumption of fixed capital (Depreciation) + Education expenditure – Air pollution costs – Water pollution costs – Depletion of nonrenewable natural resources – CO2 damage costs 

Human Development Index (HDI) 

HDI (1990–2009) = 1/3(Life Expectancy) + 1/3(Education index) + 1/3(GDP per capita, adjusted for purchasing power parity)

  • in which Education index is a combination of adult literacy rate and enrollment ratio 

HDI (2010–) = (Life Expectancy)EXP1/3 x (Education index)EXP1/3 x (GNI per capita, adjusted for purchasing power parity)EXP1/3

  • in which Education index is a combination of mean years of schooling and expected years of schooling 

Happy Planet Index (HPI) 

HPI = Happy life years/Ecological Footprint 


  • Happy life years is the product of Life expectancy and Experienced well-being which is obtained from surveys 

Wellbeing Index (WI) 

WI = 1/2(Ecosystem Wellbeing Index + Human Wellbeing Index)


  • EWI = 1/ 5(land + water + air + species and genes + resource use)
  • HWI = 1/5(health and population + wealth + knowledge and culture + community + equity) 

Sustainable Society Index (SSI) 

SSI = Human Wellbeing + Environmental Wellbeing + Economic Wellbeing, or 

SSI = 1/7(Basic Needs + Health + Personal & Social Development + Natural Resources + Climate & Energy + Transition + Economy) 

Formulated indicators for local and regional systems will depend on the socio-economic and environmental conditions of the system to plan and manage. Cities function as energy and material sucking funnels, importing resources from and exporting wastes to places far beyond their physical boundaries. These urban systems interact with each other across organisational levels and spatial scales. A city that derives most of its ecosystem services from other regions nationally or internationally is subject to myriad environmental and sociopolitical uncertainties and thus hardly sustainable in the long run. Hence, Urban sustainability at the local and regional levels will focus on realising a status where certain level of human wellbeing security can be achieved. 

The method to evaluate progress against sustainability will employ a multi-scale analysis of local, regional and global indicators and indexes. However, the selection of indicators might be subjective considering the different degrees of socio-economic and environmental conditions of the city / region / country and its connectivity with the rest of urban systems.

It is then assumed that measuring progress against sustainability for any the of system will include both, indicator sets and composite indices that are suitable for assessing the sustainability of urban systems. Additionally, indicators and indexes should be utilised both, as reporting and as management tools.

It is equally important to define well the method of measuring progress in order to take qualitative and quantitative steps towards urban sustainability attainment. Furthermore, the method of measuring progress must be a continuously improving process well fed by reliable data.

Policies, programs and plans

Urban development is defined by its politic-socio-economic and environmental conditions. The interlinks of these 4 dimensions of SUD (environment, economy, society, governance) are that entangled that it is totally unfeasible to address them separately, so methodologies for SUD planning and management are called to include an integral and holistic vision leading to long-term, cross-cutting and interdisciplinary approaches, where Governance is assumed to be at the core for the transition to urban sustainability.

Governance on SUD should be holistic, flexible, fluid and dynamic allowing policies, programs and plans to adapt to changes rapidly in this diverse urban context and prevailing the ever evolving socio-economic and environmental conditions of urban systems.

Therefore, SUD planning aims at modifying objective characteristics of urban sustainability such as ‘energy generation’, ‘clean city’, or ‘access to education’ and SUD management aims at addressing subjective characteristics of urban sustainability, such as population behaviour, aiming at reducing energy consumption, emissions to environment from urban mobility choices or inclusivity. 

Some key governance principles for policy-makers, programs and plans’ developers are:

  1. Focus on connectivities between environmental, economic, social and political dimensions that interact and impact the others in a cumulative and a reciprocal way.  Strategies involving different dimensions may lead to outcomes (positive or negative) in which the aggregated result clearly exceeds what could be expected from separately dealing with them. 
  2. Participation and stakeholders’ involvement in a well structured, organised and coordinated manner between the three different types of stakeholders (state, civil society and private sector) based on the understanding that tackling public problems in a shared-power world, needs collaboration of all those who are relevant to a particular problem.
  3. Building partnerships and networking through urban sustainability planning and management. Meaning the establishment of cooperation links among local, regional and national authorities, local communities’ organisations and other actors involved. Well-functioning networks are powerful instruments for promoting change due to its adaptability, flexibility, efficiency, promptness, creativity and contextual suitability.
  4. Vision and action concurrency combining long-term visions building with short-term solution-oriented actions taking. Complementarily, action implementation is focused on the short and medium term and its scope is limited to specific goals and problem-solving, while keeping its interaction with strategic vision. It provides a space of action where specific ideas, strategies and principles are ground-tested while stakeholders and resources are mobilised enabling a more dynamic and realistic decision making at strategic level.
  5. Learning oriented process. Changing attitudes, stimulating new ways of thinking about issues and problems, developing new approaches to usual tasks and creating willingness and determination to convert these innovations into changes at operational level. This learning-oriented process requires knowledge at expert and tactical levels to develop new skills and assuring new values towards new healthy behaviours, routines and a new sustainable culture.
  6. Pre-eminence of the local level acknowledging and emphasising the significance and uniqueness of cities. Cities need to be understood as the dynamic crossroads of local, national and transnational place-making processes. This means that there is no universal methodology to be applied everywhere so methods and tools should be customised and adapted to fit the uniqueness of the specific city.
  7. Systematic Programme Monitoring. Concerning impact monitoring a set of indicators should be defined in relation to each specific dimension of urban sustainability (environment, economy, society, and governance). Monitoring and evaluation should not only be focused on assessing results and impact, but also on evaluating processes.
  8. Institutionalisation meaning that main ideas of urban sustainable development planning and management are absorbed and integrated into institutions and organisations of the city to provoke permanent change. Institutionalisation is about making those changes permanent, building them into habits, procedures, norms and routines.
Institutions to achieve sustainable urban development 

An institution consists of a concept (idea, notion, doctrine, and interest) and a structure (a framework or apparatus). An institution is an organised system of social relationships which embodies certain common values and procedures and meets certain needs of the society.

In this definition, ‘common values’ refer to shared ideas and goals, the ‘common procedures’ are the standardised behaviour patterns the group follow, and the ‘system of relationship’ is the network of roles and statuses through which this behaviour is carried out.

Urban sustainability planning and management is all about change. Those changes take place at different levels ranging from values and behaviours of people, to organisational and structural changes. Those ideas are absorbed and integrated into institutions in an organised and structured manner to create a new sustainable culture. Hence, SUD clearly requires institutional transformation. 

Institutions can be embedded within the urban system level at spatial scale or be cross-boundary in nature. Institutions within the urban system level include governments, councils, industries, businesses, unions, cultural communities, financial institutions, and the like. Whereas cross-boundary institutions will include non-governmental organisations, non-profit groups, universities and research institutes, religious institutions, charities, and the like. 

What makes SUD complex is the multitude of interacting institutions, combined, of course, with the often unpredictable nature of human behaviour. Moreover, changing institutional arrangements is no simple task. It needs a coordinated commitment and effort of all institutions to make a desired change permanent.


The pathway to SUD is not a single straightforward solution and requires practical understanding of institutional innovation and societies to be learning-oriented and highly adaptive. The 4 dimensions of SUD for each and specific urban system defines the conditions for SUD planning and management. Dealing with this complexity requires investing in multiple ‘experiments’; an evolutionary design approach to development intervention. Furthermore, it requires careful monitoring and learning, not only against predetermined indicators, but also by drawing on the experiences and observations of those directly involved. Therefore, SUD is a continuously improvement process characterised by its holistic, flexible, fluid and dynamic nature. Hence, making SUD the only way forward.

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