In recent years, three influential phenomena - population growth, urbanization and the emerging Anthropocene - have renewed focus on the challenge of achieving sustainable development of human settlements. Urban sustainability has become a popular and widely-used term, reflecting the concept’s relevance across multiple disciplines.
As the literature on urban sustainability increases in volume and diversity, so too does the need for interdisciplinary study of the theory and practice of urban sustainability. This paper aims to contribute to the literature by clarifying the ways in which the concept of urban sustainability is framed and used by academics from different disciplines.
The paper presents results from a study of recent literature, published during the period 2011-2012. The study explores which types of literature are available; the role and purpose of literature; the methods or analytical tools used by authors; themes and topics addressed; and potential contributions that could enhance the study of urban sustainability.
The paper relies on content analysis to provide insight into both the “real-world” practice of urban sustainability, as observed and reported by academics, and the academic practice of observing urban sustainability. The analysis highlights inconsistencies and contradictions which cause fragmentation and lead to trade-offs, both in the practice of urban sustainability and in the academic study of the concept.
This forms the basis for a discussion on the study of urban sustainability and the identification of specific research needs, with particular reference to urban sustainability governance and the study of organizational aspects, processes and levels of participation. The paper raises a number of questions which may be addressed by future studies.
For example, the paper argues that future research should focus on how to overcome factors such as inertia or inaction, which may occur as a consequence of past or current “urban sustainability” practice and in turn impede future implementation. Such studies should focus not only on – or from the perspective of - municipalities and municipal politicians, but also on other stakeholders and with an awareness and sensitivity towards “invisible” interest groups, both locally and in other geographic locations.
3rd Annual Interdisciplinary Ph.D. Workshop in Sustainable Development, Columbia University, New York City, 12 April 2013