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Is urban sustainability going out of fashion?

25 July 2017 Author: Jonathan Metzger

Recent years has seen a proliferation of newfangled concepts which in one way or another purport to relate to ‘sustainable urban development’. These include, but are not limited to, resilient cities, green cities, low-carbon cities and smart cities.

In a recent research article Martin de Jong and colleagues performed a desk survey of various concepts occurring in the academic literature concerning urban development, and found out that in 2013 the usage of the term ‘smart cities’ surpassed the previously dominant ‘sustainable cities’.

Shifts in sustainability discourse

Furthermore, we are currently seeing that influential cities around the world seem to be shifting the language used to describe future desirable outcomes – as evinced for instance by Sydney’s relabeling of their overall strategic approach, from ‘Sustainable Sydney’ to ‘Resilient Sydney’.

In 2013 the usage of the term ‘smart cities’ surpassed the previously dominant ‘sustainable cities’.

Are these signs of a sea change in the focus of urban development practice?  For instance, in his ongoing research planning researcher Andy Karvonen is suggesting that there are quite distinct differences in how the concepts of sustainable cities and smart cities are being put into practice, and that these differences lead to different areas of focus.

The KTH Royal Institute of Technology, University of Cambridge and University of Gothenburg are currently working together on a research project Organizing Sustainable Cities that aims to learn more about the use of such concepts, and in which ways planning and urban development practitioners find them to be related (or not) to the more general idea of ‘sustainability’. It is funded by the Swedish Research Council.

Planners, tell us what you think about these different concepts

As part of the project, we are currently conducting a survey to obtain a picture of the most important working concepts for professionally active planners and urbanists in Europe.

We are very keen to learn about the similarities and differences between how these concepts come to be put to work in different national contexts, sectors of employment, levels of government and areas of expertise. What are the similarities and differences? And most importantly: how does this matter? Which of these concepts appear to point more clearly towards a focus on tackling long-term challenges of multi-dimensional sustainability, and which not so?

If you have ten minutes to spare, we would be extremely interested in learning your thoughts on these issues. The survey can be accessed here

The results of the survey will be completely anonymous and cannot be traced back to the individual participants. The results of the survey will only be used for research and education purposes.

Finally, we are hoping to obtain a broad scope of answers to our survey, so do feel free to forward it to any of your colleagues and associates that you believe may be interested in helping us out!

Any questions regarding the survey can be directed to the project manager at Urban and Regional Studies/KTH, Associate Professor Jonathan Metzger,

Guest blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.


Jonathan Metzger

Jonathan Metzger

Jonathan Metger is Associate Professor in Urban and Regional Studies at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. He is managing a research project entitled ‘Organizing Sustainable Cities’ which consists of qualitative fieldwork in Sweden, France and England where he is investigating how ambitions towards ‘sustainable urban development’ are translated into concrete professional practice at the urban level.