Geography Urban Sustainability
Heejun Chang, Arun Pallathadkha
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0274


Urban sustainability has become increasingly important due to climate change and ongoing urban development. Together with shifting demographics, with more than 50 percent of the population living in urban areas, the combined stressors of global change further necessitate diverse urban stakeholders to engage in dialogues of urban sustainability. Additionally, due to income inequality between the Global South and North and within cities, many urban regions are grappling with achieving urban sustainability; efforts include the boom of local climate action, energy and mobility transitions, and food sovereignty movements. Different dialogues of urban sustainability discussion currently exist. In Western societies, collaborative governance and socioeconomic conditions promote a particular form of urban sustainability, while the roles of class and elite are often emphasized for promoting urban sustainability in developing countries. In general, the field of urban sustainability has evolved from purely ecological aspects of sustainability to coupled social and ecological systems to a social-ecological-technological systems (SETS) approach. The role of infrastructure and its interaction with other social and ecological dimensions (e.g., nature-based solutions) have recently been discussed in urban sustainability. Additionally, there is an increasing interest in addressing justice, diversity, and equity issues for the underserved population as a part of this discussion. The three pillars of urban sustainability—social, ecological, and technological—thus need to be considered together in order to achieve urban sustainability across generations and neighborhoods.

General Overviews

There is no single definition of urban sustainability in the literature. Many different academic disciplines and city practitioners have operationalized the concept of urban sustainability for decades. Vojnovic 2014 reviews the evolution of the concept of urban sustainability as it relates to governance issues. By comparing consumption practices in countries with different income levels, Vojnovic discusses how environmental burdens are geographically located differently in these countries. Additionally, based on indicator analysis, Vojnovic explores potential pathways to achieving sustainability. While rooted in local places, given that the majority of the world population now lives in urban areas and cities are tightly connected in a globalizing world, urban sustainability needs to be examined as a mosaic of networks of cities nested in the global system. While summarizing the progress of sustainability science, Frantzeskaki, et al. 2021 reports three innovative conceptual pathways. First, a systems approach views an urban system as integrated social, ecological, and technological systems (SETS) to identify solutions. This approach examines SETS solutions for achieving urban sustainability and climate adaptation while assessing a broad range of economic, policy, and global urban systems. Second, the coupled dynamic social and ecological systems approach views the city as an interaction between people and place. This approach incorporates diverse views of local people, such as women and children, in examining urban sustainability. Third, a transformative science approach calls for a critical relationship perspective by incorporating such topics as environmental justice, a co-production of knowledge with relevant urban stakeholders, and sustainability transitions and transformation. Krueger, et al. 2022 stresses the need for using urban SETS in addressing sustainable service provision, urban transformations through a bottom-up approach, and the role of governance leading to broader change. Thus this review focuses on urban sustainability using SETS as an organizing theme due to its comprehensive nature and embeds a justice and equity lens when discussing each dimension of SETS.

  • Frantzeskaki, N., T. McPhearson, and Nadja Kabisch. “Urban Sustainability Science: Prospects for Innovations Through a System’s Perspective, Relational and Transformations’ Approaches.” Ambio 50.9 (2021): 1650–1658.

    DOI: 10.1007/s13280-021-01521-1

    This study reviews different conceptual approaches of investigating urban sustainability.

  • Krueger, E. H., S. M. Constantino, M. A. Centeno, T. Elmqvist, E. U. Weber, and S. A. Levin. “Governing Sustainable Transformations of Urban Social-Ecological-Technological Systems.” npj Urban Sustainability 2.1 (2022): 10.

    DOI: 10.1038/s42949-022-00053-1

    This study explores urban transformations and governance through an interdependent SETS lens.

  • Vojnovic, I. “Urban Sustainability: Research, Politics, Policy and Practice.” Cities 41 (2014): S30–S44.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.cities.2014.06.002

    This study presents a commentary on the state of progress in urban sustainability, with a deep dive on challenges and opportunities.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.