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Sustainable Consumption Institute

What is happening to the sustainable city?

What is happening to the sustainable city? Why is this question arising now? And does it matter? These concerns are addressed in our recently published edited book, After Sustainable Cities?

This volume brings together a group of leading established and early career researchers who each have a unique contribution to make to debates around sustainable cities.

Looking back to Engels in the 19th Century, Ebenezer Howard in the early 20th Century and the New Towns movement in the second half of the 20th Century, the issue of polluted environments and the implications for human health were critical urban challenges. That said, the origins of contemporary sustainable cities’ debates can be located in the late 1960s and early 1970s at a time of multiple economic, ecological, urban and industrial crises and responses to this by Western nation states.

This period was important in framing a role for cities as producers of environmental problems. But it also laid the foundations for thinking about how cities and their relationships with economy and ecology could be re-worked through the alternative technology movement, urban community and ecological experiments and the development of ecological design.

Yet by the late 1980s the radical forms of response that were being raised in the 1970s were being replaced by the view that ecological crisis could be solved through an agenda developed and implemented through society’s existing institutions. This view was most notably made in the 1987 Brundtland Report, Our Common Future. Brundtland was key in framing the need for a response to the ecological crisis that could be attractive and yet also incorporated into the agendas of large international agenda-setting organisations such as the World Bank and IMF.

What followed from this was the need for national and sub-national action on sustainable development as the agenda cascaded down from these institutions as part of a new multi-level governance of sustainable development. Agenda 21 was the non-binding action plan on sustainable development that was developed at the Rio summit in 1992 and, through the principle of subsidiarity and the view that local authorities were agencies that were close to the people, Local Agenda 21 was proposed.

Brundtland and particularly the Rio Summit were important in framing the view of cities not only as problems but as sites of response and thus in setting expectations about what local authorities should do. In this view of sustainable cities the management of social and environmental concerns are reliant on the proceeds of economic growth. The dominance of this view through the 1990s and into the 2000s amongst national governments, city authorities and other agencies was apparent in the EU, North America and other areas of the world. This was a consensual view, a managerial view, and an accommodation between notions of economic competitiveness, social justice and environmental protection that was thin on conflict.

Moving into the 2000s a wide range of issues began to question the existing basis of the debate. The economic growth underpinning the management of urban environments and social concerns spectacularly crashed in 2007/8. International agreements and targets around carbon dioxide emissions were increasingly being cascaded by national governments to cities and regions. In times where crisis may have become normal questions were asked about what sorts of vulnerabilities face urban centres and how is resilience effectively built? Is there a role for wired-up so-called ‘smart’ cities as part of responses? Will we see the organisation of secure enclaves of economic and ecological privilege or will technocratic responses give way to more experiential, situated and social understanding in urban design?

With these issues to the fore, After Sustainable Cities? asks: what is happening to sustainable cities’ debates? Are we seeing their intensification, their transformation or even a squeezing or narrowing of these debates? Are we moving to an era after sustainable cities? By engaging with what often seem to disconnected issues around resilience, security, green economy, cities as living laboratories, material flows analysis and smart urbanism the concern of the book is to ask whether collectively these strands add up to a fundamental shift in the terms of debate around sustainable cities.

The book illustrates that there has been an apparent fragmentation of sustainable cities’ research and policy into a series of newly emerging eco-logics. It develops a framework and research and policy agenda for engaging with this shifting agenda. It sets this in a historical context to remind us that making sustainable cities is an ongoing process and not an end; and with that in mind, what they could and should look like, and why that should be the case, are also the subject of ongoing debate.