Laboratory for Urban Complexity And Sustainability

Sustaining Urban Habitats: An Interdisciplinary Approach

There is an urgent need to envision and investigate approaches to sustaining urban habitats; to transition existing cities in developed countries and to accommodate further growth in developing countries.

Cities are incredibly vibrant springs of education, employment and commerce, social encounter and recreation; they are the nerve centres of the modern global economy and as such they continue to attract rural migrants seeking a better quality of life. Reflecting this, the urban fraction of the 6.7B strong global population reached parity with the rural in 2007 for the first time. But all too often migrants' aspirations are not realised. For example slum dwelling is estimated to have increased from 65M in 1990 to 863M in 2010, with most lacking access to modern energy services, drinking water and sanitation. This situation is likely to be compounded through to 2050, as the global population is projected to increase to 9.5B and its urban fraction to three-quarters; mostly in developing countries. Since cities are responsible for around 80% of global resource consumption, the potential adverse environmental consequences are profound. There is thus a global imperative to understand how this urban growth can be sustained. It is also important that we better understand how the resource intensity of existing cities of developed countries can be transitioned. This is a key challenge for Europe, which is already almost three-quarters' urbanised, as it strives to meet its commitment to reduce CO 2 emissions by 80% of 1990 levels by 2050.

Programme vision

The aim of this programme, funded by a prestigious Leverhulme Programme Grant, is to transform our understanding of how sustainable cities can be. 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.

A key aim here is to produce and compare the different visions of what constitutes desirable futures for sustainable living from stakeholders (decision-makers, sustainability advocates, academics, citizens) and examine the implications for public policy.

With two growth cities in China (Chengdu, Shanghai) and two transition cities in Europe (Nottingham, Stuttgart) as our empirical focus, we will explore ways of combining environmental and economic modelling with social and cultural ethnographic work to illuminate realistic measures of urban sustainability and options for improving resilience and resource flows.


We will explore ways of combining environmental and economic modelling with social and cultural ethnographic work to illuminate the following themes:

  1. Environmental: realistic measures of urban sustainability and options for improving resilience and resource flows
  2. Social and Cultural: patterns of consumption by different groups and social perspectives on measures and scenarios for improving sustainability
  3. Economic: factors shaping economic activity and migration, and prospects for balancing economic and social capital with environmental capital
  4. Measurement and Data: effective ways of managing the different forms of data from themes 1, 2 and 3 to develop appropriate indicators of sustainability
  5. Modelling and Optimisation: minimising resource demands in response to underlying stimuli and constraints
  6. Policy and Governance the role of public policies and policy-maker perspectives on the indicators and scenarios that we develop

Theme 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)?
  • What social meanings and policy usages do different definitions and labels invoke?


Theme 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?


Theme 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?


Associate Member:

Theme 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?


Theme 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?


Theme 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?



Laboratory for Urban Complexity and Sustainability
Lenton Hurst, University Park
University of Nottingham
Nottingham, NG7 2RB

telephone: +44 (0) 115 748 6316