Sustainable Urban Development

Thematic Essay

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Stephen Wheeler, University of California, Davis, USA

Urban planning, design, and development processes are central to sustainability, and many jurisdictions around the globe have begun the challenge of reforming these so as to produce more sustainable urban development. The range of existing or potential urban actions is vast. Priorities include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, adapting to global warming, greening the city, promoting biking and walking, ensuring compact and walkable urban form, improving social equity, and developing green economies. The best strategies in any given place depend on the context, but there is substantial agreement on many basic approaches, and many of these are now embraced by mainstream organizations such as the American Planning Association and the Royal Town Planning Institute.

The literature on the subject of urban sustainability is also vast. Building on the work of past visionaries such as Ebenezer Howard, Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, and Ian McHarg, groups such as the Worldwatch Institute and Friends of the Earth as well as individual writers developed initial urban sustainability visions in the 1970s and 1980s. Then a flood of sustainable city-related writings appeared beginning in the 1990s, spurred in part by the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. Excerpts from many leading contributions to the urban sustainability literature are contained in Routledge’s Sustainable Urban Development Reader (Third Edition 2014). This section of Routledge’s Sustainability Hub will likewise reference many urban sustainability themes and resources.

The main point I’d like to develop in this brief introductory essay is that the sustainable development of cities and towns is not a question of technocratically applying a given set of strategies, though that can be important as well, but of developing more creative, ecological, and proactive ways of understanding and addressing urban problems. Sustainability requires a different mindset than those that created the problems in the first place, to paraphrase Einstein. Such paradigm change is very difficult, and requires a process of social evolution, within which institutions, economics, technologies, and social environments change so as to reinforce different behaviors and outlooks within individuals.

One main part of the new mindset is ecological thought. This doesn’t mean focusing on environmental issues; rather it means understanding the world in terms of dynamic, evolving, interconnected systems, and learning to see opportunities to improve urban sustainability within these complex contexts. This approach is truly transdisciplinary ‒ thinking outside the boxes of traditional disciplines, institutions, and research methodologies. Whereas in the past many urban planning and development specialties proceeded in isolation from one another, often planning transportation systems, land use, housing, economic development, and environmental protection separately as though they did not affect one another, the urgent need now is for integration. Closely related is the need to coordinate different scales of urban planning (linking strategies at the building, site, neighborhood, district, city, regional, national, and global scales), and to think across time frames (developing a better sense of how actions might benefit both near- and long-term social and ecological welfare as well as building on knowledge from the past). Such types of integrative thought can lead to more effective sustainability solutions since they better reflect the dynamic, interdependent nature of urban systems. Urban planning has been moving towards more ecological outlooks for several decades now (and many of the earlier visionaries mentioned previously also called for this), but much more can be done.

Equally important is the need for professionals to be more proactive and visionary. The sustainability mindset throws out the modernist notion of the detached, objective urban planning expert crunching numbers separate from policy formation or action, and acknowledges the need for everyone to actively help bring about more sustainable cities and towns. At different times in their lives each person can play many different roles ‒ as activist, organizer, visionary, technical expert, community member, collaborator, and communicator. Granted, we must all specialize to some extent, and some jobs call for particular roles more than others. But it is crucial to keep the focus on action and on actually achieving sustainability goals. “Muddling through,” as urban planners have frequently been content to do in the past, is not enough. Greenhouse gas emissions must in fact be reduced, species saved, social equity improved, and other objectives met. When little progress is being made through one approach, another can be tried.

Current political systems in many parts of the world are dysfunctional, and great economic power supports the status quo. Business-as-usual just isn’t going to produce sustainable urban development. So new mindsets, as well as new social and political institutions ‒ for example, to limit the power of corporations and the wealthy ‒ are essential. The challenges are great, but as the links on this website will make clear, the variety of interesting strategies and opportunities related to sustainable urban development is large as well. Behind each example lies the question of what creative new ways of understanding sustainability opportunities have led to the innovation, and how participants might develop even more creative approaches in the future.


Berry, Thomas. 1999. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. New York: Bell Tower.

Capra, Frijof. 1996. The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. New York: Anchor Books.

Girardet, Herbert. 2008. Cities People Planet: Urban Development and Climate Change. Hoboken NJ: Wiley.

Korten, David. 2006. The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Lerch, Daniel, ed. 2008. Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty. Santa Rosa CA: Post Carbon Institute.

Meadows, Donella, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. 1972. The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books.

Norgard, Richard. 1994. Development Betrayed: The End of Progress and a Coevolutionary Revisioning of the Future. London: Routledge.

Roseland, Mark. 2012. Toward Sustainable Communities: Resources for Citizens and their Governments. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Wheeler, Stephen M. and Timothy Beatley, eds. 2014. The Sustainable Urban Development Reader, Third Edition. London: Routledge.

Wheeler, Stephen M. 2013. Planning for Sustainability: Creating Livable, Equitable, and Ecological Communities. Second Edition. London: Routledge.

Recommended Routledge Books

Supplementary Reading





Free Journal Articles

Chmutina, Ksenia, Graeme Sherriff and Chis I. Goodier, 2014, ‘Success in decentralised urban energy initiatives: a matter of understanding?’, Local Environment 19(5), pp 479-496
Colasanti, Kathryn J. A., Michael W. Hamm and Charlotte M. Litjens, 2012, ‘The City as an “Agricultural Powerhouse”? Perspectives on Expanding Urban Agriculture from Detroit, Michigan’, Urban Geography 333(3), pp 348-36
Drake, Luke, 2014, ‘Governmentality in Urban Food Production?: Following “Community” from Intentions to Outcomes’, Urban Geography 35(2), pp 177-196
Birky, Joshua and Elizabeth Strom, 2013, ‘Urban Perennials: How Diversification has Created a Sustainable Community Garden Movement in the United States’, Urban Geography 34(8), pp 1193-1216
Quastel, Noah, Markus Moos and Nicholas Lynch, 2012, ‘Sustainability-as-Density and the Return of the Social: The Case of Vancouver, British Colombia’, Urban Geography 33(7), pp 1055-1084
Arku, Godwin, Jordan Kemp and Jason Gilliland, 2011, ‘An analysis of public debates over urban growth patterns in the City of London, Ontario’, Local Environment 16(2), pp 147-163
Balaban, Osman and Jose Antonio Puppim  de Oliveira, 2014, ‘Understanding the links between urban regeneration and climate-friendly urban development: lessons from two case studies in Japan’, Local Environment 19(8), pp 868-890

Video Links

  1. Urban Sprawl

    Duration: 7:55

    This 2011 video focuses on problems associated with urban sprawl in USA, with a particular focus on negative environmental and human health consequences.

  2. Urban Sprawl and Urban Planning

    Duration: 2:47

    Dr Brendan Williams from University College, Dublin, looks at the problems of urban sprawl and examples of inner-urban renewal in Dublin.

  3. Living on the Edge: The Peri-Urban Interface

    This is a well-made 2010 video on the consequences of new forms of urban expansion in India. It calls for greater attention to the peri-urban interface, especially in countries with many marginalised, poor communities.

  4. China’s Urban Billion

    Duration: 4:13

    This is a video produced by the Financial Times on rapid urbanisation in China.

  5. China’s Renewable Energy Rush: Good or Bad?

    Duration: 2:14

    A Canadian TV broadcast from 2013 exploring the paradox that China is both the world’s biggest producer and consumer of coal and the biggest producer of renewable energy technologies.

  6. The Tragedy of Urban Renewal: The destruction and survival of a New York neighbourhood

    Duration: 8:33

    This powerful video shows the disastrous consequences for a vibrant New York neighbourhood of ill-conceived 1950s ‘urban renewal’ policies. It shows what can happen when urban planners lose sight of how communities work.

  7. Changing mindsets about urban planning and living

    Duration: 18:21

    Danish architect and urban designer Jan Gehl ‒ who played a critical role in reducing car dependency in Copenhagen ‒ delivers an entertaining talk about changing traditions and mindsets in urban planning.

  8. Water Sensitive Urban Design

    Duration: 4:16

    Something positive for a change: an animated presentation on clever ideas for making much more efficient and better use of the water that flows through urban environments.

  9. Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature

    Duration: 1:20:21

    This is a 2009 lecture by Chicago-based eco-architect Douglas Farr on the possibilities and pitfalls for sustainable urban design.

  10. A song of the city

    A TED talk by Jaime Lerner, former Mayor of Curitiba.

Blogs and Websites



  • The Urban Observatory
  • The Good Guide (to safe, sustainable, and equitable products)
  • Network of urban designers promoting more walkable, liveable communities

    Congress for the New Urbanism

  • Sustainable urbanism resources from the leading US urban planning professionals association

    American Planning Association Sustainable Communities Division

  • Various resources about the LEED green rating system for buildings, neighbourhood design, and other types of projects

    US Green Building Council

  • Various resources related to urban regeneration, sustainability appraisal, application of the BREEAM green design rating system

    Royal Town Planning Institute Regeneration

  • Various information on climate planning, healthy communities planning, and other topics

    Canadian Institute of Planners

  • Green Cities Campaign (Earth Day Network)

  • Biophilic Cities Project

  • A good alternative source of information on sustainable transportation

    Victoria Transport Policy Institute

  • A premier international organisation, the main developer of Local Agenda 21, promoting sustainable cities

    ICLEI: Local Governments for Sustainability

  • The go-to website for those interested in 'placemaking'

    Project for Public Spaces

  • This is a website dedicated to providing news and information about efforts to implement compact and mixed-use urban development. It provides access to blogs, articles and information which are updated daily

    Better Cities and Towns

  • Neptis Foundation is a private, Canada-based foundation which aims to provide information and resources for urban planning policy makers. As well as providing access to relevant publications, the Neptis website provides access to Neptis Geoweb, an interactive maps tool which facilitates analysis of selected urban and rural landscapes

    Neptis Foundation

  • Situated Ecologies aims to provide a platform for international research on the ecological impacts of urbanisation. The website provides access to people, projects, relevant publications and regularly updated news and information

    Situated Ecologies

  • Since being established in 2001, New Zealand-based Urbanicity has been a leading provider of online information about urban issues. The website provides access to four databases set up and maintained by Urbanicity



Eco cities

Group Activities

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