Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho

Sustainable Urban Transformation

  • Joshua LongEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-63951-2_100-1


“Sustainable Urban Transformation” refers to theoretical and applied advancements in sustainable development that focus on the central role of cities in achieving recognized sustainability goals, emphasize collaborative contributions from various stakeholders, and integrate diverse perspectives from various bodies of knowledge and expertise.


The origins of Sustainable Urban Transformation have been largely codified in McCormick et al. (2013a) and McCormick et al. (2013b), and have been exemplified in such case studies as Hellstrom-Reimer et al. (2012), Block and Paredis (2013), Trencher et al. (2013), Mejía-Dugand et al. (2013), and Ernst et al. (2016). “Sustainable urban transformation” (SUT) builds upon historical conceptualizations of sustainable urban development that were articulated in detail in such works as the 1987 WCED Brundtland Report and the 1992 United Nations Agenda 21 Action Plan (Wheeler and Beatley 2014). However, scholars of SUT point to a distinction between this term and traditional notions of sustainability, noting that “sustainable urban development is primarily about development in urban areas while [SUT] is about development or change of urban areas” (McCormick et al. 2013b, p. 4). With that in mind, this chapter acknowledges the close relationship between these concepts and broadly addresses the historical evolution of terminology related to urban sustainability and sustainable urban development. It begins with a brief introduction to the scholarship of sustainable urban development and then traces its ongoing relationship with broader changes in economic policy and governance. Next, scholarship that critically interrogates the shortcomings of urban sustainability initiatives is reviewed. That section is followed by an examination of recent developments in urban sustainability planning, including climate mitigation and adaptation, challenges to Western notions of sustainability planning from cities in the global South, and recent applications attempted by cities seeking to achieve truly “radical” and “multidimensional” SUTs (McCormick et al. 2013b).

Context and Development of the Term “Sustainable Urban Transformation”

Background: Urban Sustainability from Brundtland to Present

The most cited source on sustainability and sustainable development remains the UN Brundtland Report, which defines sustainable development as that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” and goes on to emphasize the interconnected nature of the environment, economy, and society when engaging in any form of development, including urban development (1987, p. 43). The three dimensions or “pillars” of the Brundtland framework (i.e., environment, economy, and social equity) were further articulated 5 years later in the UN Agenda 21 Action Plan, which added an emphasis on stakeholder collaboration and a focus on cities as crucial loci for the advancement of sustainability. These documents created an important foundation for future engagements with urban sustainability and strongly influenced the development-oriented rhetoric employed by agencies such as the World Bank, UNDP, the Asian Development Bank, and others. The “three pillars” approach also influenced applied planning approaches such as New Urbanism, Transit Oriented Development, and Smart Growth, which in turn strongly influenced urban planning orthodoxy in the 1990s and early 2000s (Wheeler and Beatley 2014; Parnell and Oldfield 2014). Beginning with their popularization in North America and Western Europe, many of the common principles of what has come to be known broadly as “sustainable urbanism” have been adopted and applied in cities of East Asia and the Middle East, and have influenced planning policies in the cities of developing countries of the global South (Wheeler and Beatley 2014; Parnell and Oldfield 2014).

Although their application is contextually dependent on the regional economy and local political apparatus, the common principles of sustainable urbanism include: improved energy efficiency, density-oriented development, improved mobility and access to public transit, mixed-use development, careful management of local resources and ecosystems, and stakeholder collaboration (Duany et al. 2011; Calthorpe 2010; Wheeler and Beatley 2014). These have often materialized in actually existing structural changes that include the modernization of utility infrastructures, green building design, modernization of transportation networks, and the rehabilitation or establishment of parks, waterways, and green space. In terms of policy approaches, these may include such initiatives as recycling programs, waste reduction measures, tax abatements and incentives for conservation-oriented renovations and upgrades, and low carbon energy plans. In recent years, technological advancements in “intelligent” or “smart” systems such as real-time feedback mechanisms, city sensors, smart grids, and smart buildings are spurring investments and influencing policy priorities as they relate to SUTs (Luque-Ayala and Marvin 2015; Marvin et al. 2015). In industrialized cities throughout the world, the integration of data-driven networks and data-informed programs into urban transportation systems, housing, emergency response systems, and several other aspects of city management are all currently in process and remain highly relevant to conversations of SUTs (Hellstrom-Reimer et al. 2012; Trencher et al. 2013; Kitchin 2014; Aelenei et al. 2016).

It is also important to note the role that universities and other Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs) play in Sustainable Urban Transformations. IHEs have emerged as local leaders in the research, education, and practice of sustainable transformations. These institutions serve as venues for teaching students about sustainability, but they also serve as living laboratories that allow faculty, staff, and students to expand upon the current boundaries of sustainability education. Furthermore, IHEs are tasked with the development of future leaders, scientists, and other professionals that will 1 day assess current initiatives as well as create innovative sustainability initiatives of their own (Brown and Hamburger 2012; Evans et al. 2015; Marans and Callewaert 2017). With some IHEs containing populations as high as 80,000 community members (or more), campuses often act as cities within cities. As such they are uniquely positioned as promoters and practitioners of Sustainable Urban Transformations. The campus itself serves as a way to implement new strategies of energy conservation, the creation of sustainability offices and/or committees, sustainably-minded building construction and renovation, waste management, sustainable dining operations, curriculum development, and engagement with their host community (Brown and Hamburger 2012; Evans et al. 2015). As the scholarship on the social and political-economic dimensions of Sustainable Urban Transformations continues to evolve, university campuses are becoming testing grounds for these dimensions as well. Historically, IHEs have failed to address the issues of social sustainability, work equity, and social justice (Mountz et al. 2015; Rankin et al. 2010; Marshak et al. 2010; Museus et al. 2015). However, as activism and research has raised awareness about these issues, some universities have begun to consider transformative measures focused on increased budget transparency and stakeholder collaboration, retention of marginalized and unrepresented students, recognition/inclusion of diverse viewpoints, and expanding disability and mental health services (Marshak et al. 2010; Marans and Callewaert 2017; Hudler et al. 2017). A tremendous amount of work still needs to be done on these issues, but as living laboratories for transformative sustainability, IHEs are an ideal place for research, activism, and practice to advance these dimensions of sustainability.

As mentioned earlier, all of the above applications of urban sustainability must consider the broader political-economic forces at play. There has been a great deal of scholarship exploring the ways cities, municipalities, and institutions have coupled sustainability measures to popular neoliberal growth agendas and economic trends (for example, While et al. 2004; Kahn 2006; Brand 2007; Müller 2013). Since at least the 1980s, city leaders have implemented ambitious programs dedicated to ecological modernization, density-oriented development, and smart urbanism in an attempt to present “win-win” scenarios for the economy and the environment (Brand 2007; Krueger and Gibbs 2007; Hodson and Marvin 2017). As Gibbs et al. (2013, p. 103) note, in the twenty-first century, sustainability is often presented not as an “obstacle to capitalist accumulation, but rather a constituent part of it.” Indeed, many of the most economically successful cities of the twenty-first century have strong reputations for environmental sustainability and have used their green image as a means to attract skilled labor and compete for desirable industries and capital investment (While et al. 2004; Krueger and Gibbs 2007). However, applied strategies to attract mobile labor and capital are often not implemented evenly throughout the urban landscape, resulting in rising inequality in cities known to embrace many of the principles of ecological sustainability, including San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Cape Town, Curitiba, and others. The following section reviews some of the critical scholarship on increasing inequalities appearing in cities that identify themselves as sustainable. This is a necessary exercise considering that progress toward equity and justice has been identified as an important goal of SUT but has significantly lagged behind notable success in environmental and economic sustainability initiatives (Dempsey et al. 2011; Hamann and April 2013).

Critical Scholarship on Urban Sustainability: Issues of Justice and Equity

As the principles of sustainable urbanism gained momentum in North America and Western Europe, scholars began to question the paradoxical and uneven implementation of sustainability initiatives (see for instance, Krueger and Gibbs 2007) and their tendency to exacerbate issues of environmental injustice and social inequality (Heynen et al. 2006). Two authors in particular provided an important theoretical framework that detailed the initial links between revitalization-oriented sustainable urban development and what has come to be referred to broadly as “environmental gentrification.” Dooling’s work (2008; 2009) on ecological gentrification noted that cities that employ an environmental ethic as justification for economic development often implement plans that result in the displacement or exclusion of vulnerable populations. Examples of this include the revitalizations of urban watersheds, the rehabilitation of degraded parks and greenbelts, or the removal of polluting industries and locally unwanted land uses in poorer – and often minority – neighborhoods. Later, Quastel (2009) expanded upon Dooling’s arguments by articulating a broader political ecology of gentrification related to sustainable development initiatives. Quastel’s case study of ecodistrict development in Vancouver highlighted the promotion of several forms of creative sustainable urbanism (i.e., smart growth, transit-oriented development, ecosystem protection, ecological modernization, and the attraction of educated knowledge workers) and their direct relationship with class-based gentrification and exclusionary displacement. Following these works, Checker (2011) introduced the term “environmental gentrification” as a broader term to refer to the many processes of sustainable urban development that employ an environmental justification for economic development projects that result in the displacement of vulnerable populations. At this same time, scholars throughout North America and Europe had begun to detail case studies of the widespread integration of sustainability rhetoric into city management plans, planning agendas, and the mission statements of public-private partnerships for the purpose of justifying neighborhood revitalization and ecological modernization projects. The selective employment of sustainability principles has been identified and expanded upon by such scholars as Pearsall and Pierce (2010), Curran and Hamilton (2012), Rosol (2013), Long (2016), Wolch and Dear (2013), Pearsall and Anguelovski (2016), and numerous others. As these scholars and others note, when the environmental and economic “pillars” of sustainability are implemented without consideration of social equity issues, sustainable development ultimately fails for at least three reasons. First, it elevates some populations and their ecosystems as more productive and valuable, therefore prioritizing the basic needs and lifestyle choices of those people and areas over others. Second, it reduces stakeholder collaboration and the diversity of perspectives, obfuscating insights provided by a broader knowledge base. Lastly, it creates additional challenges by displacing vulnerable populations and relocating environmental degradation to places where social and environmental problems are less visible and may be more difficult to remedy.

While many of the above scholars speak specifically about these issues on the municipal scale, they also note that this is a complex, multi-scalar problem. Not only are sustainability initiatives implemented unevenly within specific cities but the conceptualization of sustainability principles and the production of urban theory may indirectly lead to inequalities at the regional and even global scales. Since its inception, urban sustainability theory and practice has been dominated by Western and industrialized perspectives. As Parnell and Robinson (2012, p. 596) note, the global North has “overlook[ed] the rapidly growing cities of the global South where traditional authority, religion, and informality are as central to legitimate urban narratives as the vacillations in modern urban capitalist public policy.” The grounding of sustainable development knowledge in a purely Western context not only ignores the sustainable practices of urban citizens and municipal leaders of the vast majority of the global population, it elevates a code of practices and principles that (a) are at times inappropriate and even counterproductive in the context of the Southern urbanization, and (b) insert the necessity of a financial investment model that reinforces problematic power structures (Parnell and Robinson 2012; Parnell and Oldfield 2014). Such problems have led some scholars to call for a (re)theorizing of urban development from the global South (Parnell and Robinson 2012); this notion carries a great deal of weight for the definition of SUT. Simply put, since SUT calls for “structural transformation processes…that effectively direct urban development towards ambitious sustainability goals” (McCormick et al. 2013b, p. 1), it becomes necessary to remain cognizant of the ontological origins of sustainability goals as they apply to vulnerable and marginalized populations, and to remain critical as to whether some initiatives labeled as “sustainable urban transformations” may benefit some populations while ultimately burdening others.

Issues of justice and equality are further complicated by the increasing threat of climate change. Already, scholarship that critically analyzes urban measures to address climate change have had mixed results in cities of the developed world, leading to unintended consequences such as “carbon gentrification” (Rice et al. 2019). Indeed, some have suggested that shifting focus on climate change and climate resilient infrastructure in the neoliberal era begs several questions about equitable implementation and is increasingly indicating a shift toward a less socially just mode of development dubbed “climate urbanism” (Long and Rice 2018). This is particularly concerning for cities in the global South. As numerous scholars have noted, the hazards associated with climate change already disproportionately affect citizens of the global South – in particular women and poorer populations – and these vulnerabilities are projected to worsen (Adger et al. 2013; Blaikie et al. 2014; Olson 2014). The urban populations of these regions are expected to double by 2030 and the land area covered by cities is expected to triple (UNDP 2015), suggesting that the need for SUTs is much greater in the rapidly growing cities of the global South. While the majority of case studies in sustainable urban transformations remain focused on cities of the global North, works such as Hamann and April (2013), Mejía-Dugand et al. (2013), Bhagavatula et al. (2013) explore SUTs in cities of South Africa, Latin America, and India, respectively. In the following section, applications in these cities and others will be discussed as the chapter moves beyond an overview of the theory of SUT toward current practices and future considerations.

Toward a More Complete Understanding of Sustainable Urban Transformation

More than half of the global population lives in cities and that number is expected to rise to nearly 70% by 2050 (UNDP 2015). In addition to their rapid population growth, cities are also experiencing growing economic primacy and rising political influence; there is little doubt as to why the twenty-first century is being referred to as the “urban century.” As a result, cities are the logical focal points for sustainable development and intervention. Cities are responsible for at least 70% of all greenhouse gas emissions, contribute significantly to solid and toxic waste pollution, produce heat island effects that can alter surrounding temperatures and ecosystems, and contribute vast amounts of air pollutants (Kennedy et al. 2007; Benton-Short and Short 2013). In addition to having ecological footprints as much as 200 times as large as the city itself and consuming vast amounts of open space due to sprawling development, cities throughout the global south have experienced significant over-urbanization and slum development (Wigginton et al. 2016). Today, nearly 900 million slum dwellers live in cities throughout the world, revealing just one of myriad social challenges related to inequity and inadequate development that cities face in the urban century (UNDP 2015). Despite the attention focused on cities as the greatest offenders of environmental degradation and social ills, there are those who remain optimistic about their transformational potential. In recent years, the United Nations has made cities the focus of sustainability agendas while mainstream scholars, advocacy groups, and think tanks look to cities as the appropriate scale to pursue development agendas and action on climate change.

The literature on SUTs builds upon this focus by taking a multidimensional approach to sustainable urban development through theoretical advancements, urban modeling, performance assessment, bottom-up grassroots and social movements, technological advancements, and other multi-scalar sustainability projects.

While scholars and practitioners acknowledge the strong relationship between sustainable urban development and SUT, they are quick to point out their different approach: SUTs often shift traditional or existing development paths, focusing on the transitional change of urban areas by addressing “drivers of radical change and multi-dimensional urban structures” (McCormick et al. 2013b, p. 4). According to McCormick et al. (2013b), “drivers of change” include governance and planning, innovation and competitiveness, and lifestyle and consumption; “sustainable urban structures,” on the other hand, refer to resource management, climate mitigation and adaptation, transport and accessibility, buildings, and the spatial environment and public space (see Table 1).
Table. 1

SUT: Driving Forces vs. Structures. Adapted from McCormick et al. (2013a, b)

Drivers of change

Sustainable urban structures

Governance and planning

Innovation and competitiveness

Lifestyle and consumption

Transportation and accessibility buildings

Resource management and climate mitigation and adaption

Spatial environment and public space

Sustainable urban transformations are policies, interventions, and applications that frame their actions along social, economic, and environmental interactions among these dimensions. Despite the many case studies of specific projects that explore and apply the SUT framework, scholars of SUT insist that all actions take a “programmatic rather than a single project-based approach” (McCormick 2013b, p. 7). Still relatively nascent as body of literature, the bulk of studies (n = 20) that employ this overall framework can be found in a 2013 special issue of the Journal of Cleaner Production (although other examples certainly exist; see for example McCormick 2013a; Hellstrom-Reimer et al. 2012; Seeliger and Turok 2015). The studies from the aforementioned special issue are geographically, thematically, and methodologically diverse. While it is beyond the scope of this chapter to describe each of them in detail, three are briefly summarized here in an attempt to reveal the unique ways in which the SUT framework may be employed. These include a new assessment tool aimed at measuring and reducing urban waste, disseminating and reproducing an innovative transportation intervention (Bus Rapid Transit), and urban preparation and planning for climate hazards.

Zaman and Lehmann (2013) explore the concept of a “zero waste city” through the creation of an assessment tool used to measure the performance of zero waste systems. The tool, which they have called the “zero waste index,” measures the virgin materials that are offset by waste management systems and indirectly measures the resources (including water, raw materials, and energy) that can be diverted from extraction, consumption, and waste. By analyzing three case study sites (Adelaide, Australia, San Francisco, U.S.A., and Stockholm, Sweden), Zaman and Lehmann (2013, p. 123) achieved a comparative performance model that forecasted the amount of virgin materials, energy, water, and emissions that were substituted by the resources recovered from waste streams while also estimating the potential energy, emissions, and water savings that resulted from resource recovery. In this way, the authors engaged multiple topics within the SUT framework (i.e., Lifestyle and Consumption, Governance and Planning, Resource Management and Climate Mitigation and Adaptation) while also revealing the interactions among each. Their assessment tool also aims to promote radical and multidimensional change toward sustainability goals that include resource conservation, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and overall reduction of the urban ecological footprint.

In another example from the issue, Mejía-Dugand et al. (2013) explore the dissemination of Bus Rapid Transit Systems (BRTs) throughout Latin America. Rather than focusing purely on the environmental, economic, and social benefits of the adoption and promotion of BRTs, the authors chose to deepen their analysis by examining the ways in which BRTs overcame social barriers to gain public acceptance throughout a broad range of Latin American cities in a relatively short period of time. Mejía-Dugand et al. (2013) outline strategies, show the multidimensional effects of a sustainability innovation, and provide insight into how other sustainability innovations can be effectively disseminated. In doing so, they manage to address connections among multiple dimensions of the SUT framework while also providing the important perspective of an innovation that originated in the global South and has since influenced cities in the industrialized global North.

In the last example from this issue, Wamsler et al. (2013) identify the knowledge gaps between the theories and practices of urban climate change preparedness, specifically the ability of cities to prepare for and mitigate the risks associated with climate hazards. While theoretical in nature, the aim of this article is to contribute practical, applied knowledge for city policymakers and urban citizens who can use this knowledge to achieve the sustainable urban transformation of their city. The authors consider the full life cycle of climate-induced disasters: from initial causes, to short-term and long-term impacts, to post-disaster response and recovery (pp. 68–69). All of these are considered in the context of the complexity of the “city-disaster nexus,” which involves the various interrelationships among the urban fabric, urban society and culture, urban economy and governance system, and urban climate. They then describe the various strategies of adaptation and mitigation that either address or fail to address the city-disaster nexus. In the analysis of these issues and the presentation of their comprehensive assessment and planning framework, Wamsler et al. (2013) effectively address all of the dimensions of the SUT framework and provide multiple avenues for radical and multidimensional change.

The above three examples were chosen to show the various ways both applied and theoretical scholarship can effectively engage the SUT framework. Scholars of SUT note that this framework, coupled with the literature’s call for radical and multidimensional change, has prompted a fresh perspective on sustainability (McCormick et al. 2013b; Seeliger and Turok 2015; Zhang et al. 2016). However, SUT has inherited many of the same challenges as its conceptual cousin: sustainable urban development. As examples from Seeliger and Turok (2015) and Hamann and April (2013), both note issues related to social inequality and social injustice remain significant barriers to achieving truly sustainable urban transformations. Further, despite promising research from Radywyl et al. (2013) and Mejía-Dugand et al. (2013), challenging top-down and hegemonic approaches to sustainability and SUT remain especially difficult (although these same examples may prove as a sign that this could be shifting).

Despite criticisms, the crises posed by ongoing rampant urban growth in the global South, coupled with the looming threat of climate change, necessitate significant, persistent, and innovative interventions to advance sustainable urban development. Employing the SUT framework seems to provide a meaningful avenue for scholars and practitioners to engage and begin those transformations. In short, while Sustainable Urban Transformation remains new as a theoretical concept, it opens space for challenging some of the traditional pathways of sustainable urban development while encouraging and promoting radical and multidimensional interventions with an aim to achieve ambitious sustainability goals.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Environmental Studies ProgramSouthwestern UniversityGeorgetownUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Noor Adelyna Mohammed Akib
    • 1
  • Tehmina Khan
    • 2
  1. 1.Universiti Sains MalaysiaPenangMalaysia
  2. 2.School of AccountingRMIT UniversityMelbourneAustralia