In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Urban Metabolism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Intellectual Foundations
  • Early Urban Metabolism Studies
  • Recent Industrial Ecology Case Studies
  • Advances in Material Flow Analysis
  • Expanding Quantification and Methodological Tools
  • Meta-Analyses and Multi-City Comparisons
  • Metabolism in Urban Ecology
  • Marxist Interpretation of Metabolism and Beyond
  • Recent Urban Political Ecology Case Studies

Urban Studies Urban Metabolism
Kristian Saguin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0063


Urban metabolism broadly refers to the sum of material resource transformation and processes in cities, often measured through flows within an urban system. As a boundary metaphor, research paradigm, and methodological tool, urban metabolism has been employed in a variety of fields in diverse ways. Industrial ecology contains the most mainstream and largest body of work so far. It approaches urban metabolism from a systems-based perspective and accounting of flows, stocks, inputs, and outputs, with the goal of planning and optimizing material throughput for urban sustainability. A subfield within industrial ecology called the Vienna school incorporates ecological economic principles through the concept of socioeconomic metabolism to link socioeconomic transitions with material throughput shifts within and beyond the urban context. Mass-balance accounting using material and substance flow analysis continues to be the most common quantification methodology for urban metabolism case studies of cities and urban regions around the world. However, other emerging tools such as the emergy synthesis, life cycle analysis, ecological footprint, network analysis, and increasingly complex modeling have been developed, refined, and expanded over the past few decades. The field of urban ecology presents a similar systems-based perspective on urban resource transformation but finds the industrial ecology’s input-output framing and metabolism’s organicist metaphor less appropriate within a cities-as-complex-ecosystems framework. Finally, critical social sciences draw from the Marxist theory of metabolism to frame socionatural circulation, exchange, and transformations associated with capitalist production. In cities, urban political ecologists mobilize urban metabolism as a metaphor to capture the hybrid socionatural, uneven, and power-laden processes of the urban production of nature. Despite urban metabolism’s heterogeneous definitions and diverging intellectual histories, recent works have attempted to build on the strengths of each of these fields while transcending individual limitations. Conceptual and methodological integration of urban metabolism approaches is necessary to enable an interdisciplinary outlook on urban sustainability challenges.

General Overviews

Urban metabolism is a concept used both broadly by disciplines in the natural and social sciences and specifically in fields such as industrial ecology, which has developed a fuller and more sustained engagement with the term from a systems-oriented framework. General overviews that trace the development of the concept therefore fall into two categories. The first includes reviews that focus specifically on industrial ecology’s use of the concept, emphasizing the evolution of urban metabolism as a measure of material and energy exchange within a system. Barles 2010; Ferrão and Fernández 2013; Kennedy, et al. 2011; Zhang 2013; and Zhang, et al. 2015 provide accessible and brief summaries of urban metabolism’s evolution in this field both conceptually and methodologically. The second category covers similar ground as the first but expands to consider urban metabolism as understood in other fields, including drawing from theories in critical social sciences. Comprehensive reviews such as Castán Broto, et al. 2012; Dijst, et al. 2018; Newell and Cousins 2015; Pincetl, et al. 2012; and Wachsmuth 2012 attempt to cover both the history of quantification of material and energy fluxes as well as their social and political contexts, while presenting points for interdisciplinary collaboration.

  • Barles, Sabine. “Society, Energy and Materials: The Contribution of Urban Metabolism Studies to Sustainable Urban Development Issues.” Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 53.4 (2010): 439–455.

    DOI: 10.1080/09640561003703772

    A succinct review of urban metabolism research that surveys its conceptual origins and describes key methodological instruments used in industrial ecology studies.

  • Castán Broto, Vanesa, Adriana Allen, and Elizabeth Rapoport. “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Urban Metabolism.” Journal of Industrial Ecology 16.6 (2012): 851–861.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1530-9290.2012.00556.x

    A comprehensive and interdisciplinary overview of urban metabolism organized around a comparison of six themes, their key questions, and topical emphasis across various fields of urban research. One of the earlier reviews that covers explicitly political framings and themes of the term beyond mainstream industrial ecology.

  • Dijst, Martin, Ernst Worrell, Lars Böcker, et al. “Exploring Urban Metabolism—Towards an Interdisciplinary Perspective.” Resources, Conservation & Recycling 132 (2018): 190–203.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.resconrec.2017.09.014

    The most recently published overview on urban metabolism. An agenda-setting editorial that introduces a special issue on interdisciplinary perspectives on urban metabolism.

  • Ferrão, Paulo, and John E. Fernández. Sustainable Urban Metabolism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/8617.001.0001

    An accessible introductory volume that offers a systems-oriented approach to the urban metabolism concept, research, methods, cases, and policy implications for urban sustainability.

  • Kennedy, Christopher, Stephanie Pincetl, and Paul Bunje. “The Study of Urban Metabolism and Its Applications to Urban Planning and Design.” Environmental Pollution 159.8–9 (2011): 1965–1973.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.envpol.2010.10.022

    A brief historical review of the development of the urban metabolism concept, with an emphasis on the divergence of two schools of methodological approaches in industrial ecology. Lists significant urban metabolism studies from 1965 to 2009 and their key contributions.

  • Newell, Joshua P., and Joshua J. Cousins. “The Boundaries of Urban Metabolism: Towards a Political-Industrial Ecology.” Progress in Human Geography 39.6 (2015): 702–728.

    DOI: 10.1177/0309132514558442

    A comprehensive review of three schools of urban metabolism research (industrial, urban, and Marxist ecologies), presenting a comparison of their theoretical foundations, emphases, language, methods, and limitations. Especially useful for its bibliometric analysis of citations and mapping of linkages among key urban metabolism studies.

  • Pincetl, Stephanie, Paul Bunje, and Tisha Holmes. “An Expanded Urban Metabolism Method: Toward a Systems Approach for Assessing Urban Energy Processes and Causes.” Landscape and Urban Planning 107.3 (2012): 193–202.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.landurbplan.2012.06.006

    An overview of urban metabolism conceptual history that also proposes an expanded, interdisciplinary systems approach to analysis designed for policymakers. Includes explicit incorporation of political-economic and political-ecological approaches within a complex urban systems framework.

  • Wachsmuth, David. “Three Ecologies: Urban Metabolism and the Society-Nature Opposition.” Sociological Quarterly 53.4 (2012): 506–523.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1533-8525.2012.01247.x

    Traces the intellectual history of the three ecologies of urban metabolism research in sociology and the social sciences—human, industrial, and urban political ecologies—and probes the changing understanding of city-countryside and nature-society binaries through the concept.

  • Zhang, Yan. “Urban Metabolism: A Review of Research Methodologies.” Environmental Pollution 178 (2013): 463–473.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.envpol.2013.03.052

    An extensive survey of the development of methodologies and models used in urban metabolism research, including an assessment of their merits and drawbacks.

  • Zhang, Yan, Zhifeng Yang, and Xiangyi Yu. “Urban Metabolism: A Review of Current Knowledge and Directions for Future Study.” Environmental Science & Technology 49.19 (2015): 11247–11263.

    DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.5b03060

    A more recent overview of the concept, methodologies, and the field of research. Suggests practical future directions for research and policy decision-making.

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