Expand the Frontiers of Urban Sustainability

High Line

New York’s High Line Park

I’m thrilled to announce that today Nature has released a commentary written by myself, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Hillary Angelo. It’s called “Expand the Frontiers of Urban Sustainability” (weblink | PDF), and it argues that the current paradigm of urban sustainability policy is too narrow in both spatial and social terms.

The article’s key argument is as follows:

Although the social, economic and ecological issues behind sustainability are regional or global in scale, urban policy usually addresses single ecological issues in individual urban neighbourhoods. Focusing on dense cities and their affluent areas ignores social movements and their advocacy for quality-of-life issues such as housing and commuting, which have direct ecological consequences. Targeting specific districts ignores the often negative regional and global impacts of local environmental, or ‘greening’, improvements.

One of our motivations for writing this piece was our sense that even sustainability policies with apparently strong evidence for their efficacy turn out to be much more ambiguous in their impacts when they are evaluated in a larger spatial or social context. If green buildings or bike paths lower a neighbourhood’s carbon footprint, that’s a good thing. But if those developments increase the desirability of the neighbourhood and lead to displacement of poorer residents to other, less sustainable areas of the urban region, it’s much harder to celebrate the success. As a result, we conclude:

Many sustainability gains are simply a regressive redistribution of amenities across places.

This commentary arose out of the five paper sessions that Hillary Angelo and I organized at the 2016 AAG annual meeting, on the theme of “Why Does Everyone Think Cities Can Save the Planet?”. Hillary and I are also in the process of editing a special issue in Environment and Planning A with papers drawn from these sessions, and I’ll have more information to share about that in the months to come.

The article is freely available to read at Nature’s website, and can be downloaded from Nature, in the August 25 issue.