Environment, People and Design Research Group
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Leverhulme Project:

Sustaining Urban Habitats - an interdisciplinary approach


Project: Sustaining Urban Habitats: An interdisciplinary approach.

Funder: Leverhulme Trust
Programme: Programme Grant
Duration: 2014 - 2019
Funding: £1.75M (with an additional £1.65M Institutional Support) 

ePad Personnel: Prof Darren Robinson (Principal Investigator)

Project Partners (Co-Investigators at The University of Nottingham): 

Project Background

Funded by a prestigious Leverhulme Programme Grant, the ambitious aim of this project is to transform our understanding of how sustainable cities, and by extension our species, can be. Our objectives in achieving this aim are to:
    • Confront and understand the complex interrelated and competing factors influencing urban sustainability. 
    • Holistically define, measure and model urban sustainability. 
    • Identify pathways to transition developed cities and accommodate growth in developing cities in minimally unsustainable ways. 
    • Define policy and governance structures to implement these pathways in practice.

The project is organised into six interrelated themes, shown below:


With two growth cities in China (Chengdu, Shanghai) and two transition cities in Europe (Nottingham, Stuttgart) as our empirical focus, key research questions being tackled by the interdisciplinary team leading this project include:

1) Environmental

  • How do we define environmental sustainability in a measurable, predictable and realistic way, which also deepens our insights into the functioning of the city, to identify where there is scope for improvement? 
  • Taking a conceptual model of a hypothetical city as an open system, to what extent can we maximise resource flow circularity: how sustainable can a city system be and what would it look like? 
  • Can we prepare a city sustainability label and associated assessment method and corresponding vocabulary (avoiding the oxymorons: eco-town, eco-city, sustainable neighbourhood / district / city)?

2) Social and Cultural

  • What do citizens understand by ‘sustainability’ and what do they see as important? How do they react to scenarios of change? How do we embed this understanding in a computer modelling environment?
  • To what extent does the ecological footprint vary between social groups?
  • What views do different social groups express about their ecological footprint, and about strategies to reduce it?
  • How does optimization of social and cultural factors of sustainability impact on city form?

3) Economic

  • What are the dominant factors influencing the city’s economy? What is the role of rural-urban migration in developing / transitional economies and is there a viable alternative to this?
  • What will make the city’s economy sustainable for the foreseeable future? Are there economic limits to urbanisation and urban growth?
  • Of the key behaviours and interactions impacting on city economic sustainability, what are the dominant stimuli influencing them: availability of capital? Technological and organisational innovations? Education and training?
  • To what extent can these stimuli be manipulated to bring about structural changes influencing city sustainability and how should these be augmented by public policies as well as public and private investments?
  • How city forms result from this process?
4) Measurement and Data

In addition to supporting the other themes, modelling in particular, the following questions will be tackled:

  • Can we combine the outcomes from themes 1, 2 and 3 to indicate city sustainability in a comprehensive way?
  • Can we use our sustainability indicators in conjunction with knowledge of city form and functioning to identify city archetypes and tailor policy measures accordingly?
  • What are the most effective means for acquiring and managing urban data for monitoring and modelling purposes?

5) Modelling and Optimisation

  • What form should a modelling framework take so that it is adaptable enough to provide answers to the questions of most interest to stakeholders for cities of different scales in both developed (transition) and developing (growth) economies? How do we ensure it is directly usable by these stakeholders?
  • Based on abstract representations of cities in these economies, what is the optimal combination of policy measures to maximise some integrated measure of city sustainability?
  • What would a utopian city (maximally sustainable) look like in the case of transition and growth cities?

6) Policy and Governance

  • Who are the main interested actors and their advocacy coalitions in policy-decision making? How do different actors use information and evidence in making their decisions, and how do they use modelling as decision support tools? What role do existing governance processes and structures play?
  • What role does the public (want to) play in the decision-making process? To what extent and how do key actors identified above involve the public in their activities (e.g. processes and structures, modelling)? How does the public understand issues of environmental sustainability?
  • What specific policy measures are required to achieve our visions for maximized sustainability in our growth and transition cities? How robust are they?


Watch this space as we report the key findings emerging from this project through to its conclusion in late 2019.

Environment, People and Design Research Group

Faculty of Engineering
The University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

telephone: +44 (0)115 82 32502