The Reflections series aims to provide a platform for our partners and guests to share thought-provoking pieces on a wide range of topics related to sustainable urbanism, with authors from academia, policy and practice. If you are interested in contributing, please get in touch via the contact page.



Issue 25: Eco-city or automotive city? Policies and plans for autonomous vehicles by Rick Pruetz

This paper identifies a sometimes over-optimistic trend in thinking about a future with autonomous vehicles (AVs). These are often depicted as robot-chauffeured cars providing low-cost, effortless mobility powered by renewable energy, driving safely down narrow lanes with ample space for cyclists and pedestrians.

There are potential dangers in this uncritical approach: the ease and lower costs associated with AVs may result in an increase in the distance travelled by low-occupancy vehicles, exacerbating urban sprawl, encouraging further car-dependence, crowding out public transport, cycling and walking and potentially even increasing emissions. Moreover, the widespread benefits of narrow roadways are unlikely to arise until manually controlled cars are phased out – improbable for decades, if ever – and there are complex issues over the transition between these two phases.

In light of these risks, this paper advocates a careful use of planning and public policy. It envisions a more sustainable trajectory through the continued prioritisation of compact, mixed-use and walkable neighbourhoods and the promotion of active and public transport. The role of AVs in this future is characterised by responsible use and ride sharing, which may be achieved through policies such as road user charges, infrastructure restrictions and transportation demand management. Although this paper is written from a US perspective, its fundamental arguments apply to many cities and countries around the world. The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author.

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Issue 24: Could do better – a report card for eco-cities in China by Chiara Luchino

This paper, based on a doctoral research project, scores and ranks fourteen Chinese eco-city initiatives using indicators for progress towards completion, urban morphology and liveability, and air pollution. The results highlight how Chinese eco-cities currently struggle to reconcile a growing need for housing with definitions of sustainability in a wider sense.

There are many factors that contribute to the success of an ecological settlement, and amongst these, urban form is of key importance. Yet, it is not generally included in indicators for Chinese eco-cities, and rather than liveable, human-scale interventions, in many cases these initiatives resemble dystopian architecture, characterised by the reproduction of identical tower blocks placed side by side in excessively close proximity. ‘Urban living’ is, in some cases, so compromised that eco-cities have become true ‘ghost towns’. Can these places, designed with the future in mind, be considered an appropriate response to urban growth?

The study uses five indicators: one for the progress of construction, three indicators for urban morphology with implications for liveability (urban area per capita, floor area ratio and distance between the intersections of the roads) and one for the concentration of air pollution. There was no special focus on energy assessment, which is already largely documented in the existing literature.

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Issue 23: Pathways to sustainable Chinese urbanisation, by John Zacharias

Rapid urbanisation in China, during the first two decades after market reforms, led to many environmental problems that gave reason for the eco-city movement in the 2000-2010 decade. However, most of the important Eco-city ventures were abandoned or reconfigured as conventional developments by 2012, following lack of investor interest, political problems in implementing the schemes and high front-end costs. The first part of the paper is devoted to the reasons for the abandonment of the Eco-city movement. In the present context of a policy gap for sustainable urbanisation, this paper then reviews the more conventional means available to city leaders to retain sustainability objectives, drawing on the recent literature. Those means involve promoting higher densities, the use of more economical building forms, reforming representational planning practices, mixed land use, conserving traditional habitats, and promoting non-motorised transport.

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Issue 22: Indigenous wisdom and the peripheries of calculation – reflections on the 2017 Ecocity World Summit in Melbourne, Australia, by Richard Smith

This report reflects on the outcomes of the 2017 Eco City World Summit in Melbourne Australia, held under the overarching topic of ‘Changing Cities: Resilience and Transformations’. The biennial Ecocity World Summit series has been running since 1990 and is the longest-running conference of its kind. It is hosted by Ecocity Builders, which was founded by Richard Register in 1992 following years of pioneering work on the ecological city. This piece, written by Richard Smith on behalf of Ecocity Builders, highlights four themes from the conference: 1) the central role of indigenous wisdom, 2) paying attention to health and well-being in face of gentrification and disasters; 3) interrogating contradictions of capital and community, and 4) using big data for small neighbourhoods.

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Issue 21: The culture behind infrastructure: reflections on nearly a decade of research into cycling culture and policy in the UK, by Dr Rachel Aldred

Dr Aldred was invited to contribute this piece after she was awarded the 2016 ESRC Prize for Outstanding Impact in Public Policy. It provides an introduction to her research, which explores the cultural and ethical dimensions behind cycling infrastructure and policy to understand why so many places have failed to increase cycling, and what can be done to change this.

The first part of the essay discusses her research into the interrelationship between culture and infrastructure, including the introduction of the concept of ‘near misses’ into transport policy thinking. The second part discusses equity issues with cycling, and the problem of communities – such as disabled or low-income cyclists – who often do not have their needs considered.

The final part looks at what is measured to inform policy. Dr Aldred recently helped develop the ‘Propensity to Cycle Tool’, funded by the Department for Transport, based on the idea that cycling potential is really what we need to know about for strategic planning – not current (low and skewed) cycling levels. Other impacts of her work have included prompting the development of cycle design guidance used in London and elsewhere in England, shaping the creation of London’s cycle superhighways, and influencing cycling infrastructure development to make it more child-friendly, such as in Waltham Forest’s ‘mini-Holland’ scheme.

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Issue 20: Smart city-regional governance for sustainability? By Yonn Dierwechter, Tassilo Herrschel and Gerd Lintz

The terminology of ‘smartness’ is pervasive. This includes the concepts of ‘smart growth’, which attempts to reconcile competing social, economic and environmental aspects of sustainability, and that of ‘smart cities’, which has connotations not only of ICT, but of learning, institutional innovation and governance. This essay introduces the concept of ‘smart city-regional governance’, explaining how notions of smartness can be extended to more explicitly deal with the governance process of finding balanced answers to multiple agendas, and to cover the regional scale in which cities operate. We are left with a broad approach to conceptualising and investigating issues of pressing concern for urban areas in a national and international context. The ideas in this piece are based on the forthcoming book, ‘Smart transitions in city regionalism,’ co-authored by Tassilo Herrschel and Yonn Dierwechter, and have been shaped by a recent conference organised by the Regional Studies Research Network on ‘Smart City-Regional Governance for Sustainability’.

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Issue 19: Beyond the compact city: a London case study, by Duncan Bowie

Many urbanists argue that the compact city approach to development of megacities is preferable to urban growth based on spatial expansion at low densities, which is generally given the negative description of ‘urban sprawl’. The argument is often pursued on economic grounds, supported by theories of agglomeration economics, and on environmental grounds, based on assumptions as to efficient land use, countryside preservation and reductions in transport costs, congestion and emissions.

Using London as a case study, this paper critiques the continuing focus on higher density and hyper-density residential development in the city, and argues that development options beyond its core should be given more consideration. It critiques the compact city assumptions incorporated in strategic planning in London from the first London Plan of 2004, and examines how the both the plan and its implementation have failed to deliver the housing needed by Londoners and has led to the displacement of lower income households and an increase in spatial social polarisation. It reviews the alternative development options and argues that the social implications of alternative forms of growth and the role of planning in delivering spatial social justice need to be given much fuller consideration, in both planning policy and the delivery of development, if growth is to be sustainable in social terms and further spatial polarisation is to be avoided.

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Issue 18: Eco-cities and Transferable Development Credits, by Rick Pruetz

Some aspects of what is often considered to be good planning include the protection and promotion of green space and heritage assets, the development of infrastructure that benefits the public, and compact city development. However, balancing these aims with economic development can be challenging. Planners may wish to create a public benefit in one area, for example, whilst developer profits may be generated in another. How can planners encourage developers to contribute to public benefits on the other side of the city, or at the far end of the region? This essay explores ‘Transferable Development Credits’ (TDCs), a tool being used in the US in cases where more traditional approaches may struggle. This market-based planning mechanism is among the best established of its kind, and the paper highlights many lessons that have been learned as a result.

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Issue 17: How stupid can smart be? By Jean-Paul Close

This essay begins by reflecting on the fact that the city of Eindhoven has been declared the ‘smartest city in the world’ at a time when, paradoxically, it was suffering from major problems, including crime and air pollution. What could be lacking from such a model so that it has the potential to overlook important issues and become almost – paradoxically – ‘stupid’? How can we go beyond such an approach? This essay proposes a new model, coined ‘Sustainocracy’, based around core values, citizen science and community engagement. This model was developed out of the AiREAS project, which has improved awareness and facilitated action on air pollution in Eindhoven and other cities in Europe.

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Issue 16: Cambridge Retrofit: mobilising a community, by Douglas Crawford-Brown

Energy efficiency represents a win-win for the environment and energy bill payers. With older or inefficient buildings representing a large proportion of UK building stock, it will be impossible to raise levels of energy efficiency without retrofitting. However, with fragmented ownership and other challenges, this is a difficult task. Against this backdrop, the ambitious Cambridge Retrofit project aims to be “a landmark community-scale energy efficiency initiative to retrofit 65,000+ buildings over the next 30 years, helping make the Cambridge area the first to reach national carbon reduction targets”. This essay, written by project director and Emeritus professor Douglas Crawford-Brown, provides insights into this inspiring and ambitious energy efficiency initiative.

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Issue 15: ‘Smart city’: a regressive agenda? By Simon Joss

While concepts related to the ‘sustainable’ city have dominated urban planning for most of recent decades, in the past few years the ‘smart’ theme has enjoyed a meteoric rise to prominence. The smart concept, in its various usages, seems to offer the possibility of harnessing digital innovations for economic growth and governance reform, as well as improved sustainability and resource management.

However, this paper identifies ways in which the ‘smart’ agenda could be potentially regressive. It explores the relationship between the ‘smart’ concept and others, such as ‘eco’, ‘green’, ‘low-carbon’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘digital’. The analysis suggests that the shift towards digital innovation has been accompanied by a relative retreat from the previous over-arching theme of sustainability. Moreover, an analysis of the recent ‘smart city’ standard published by the British Standards Institute finds an underlying return to a positivist, linear, rational approach to urban planning and governance.

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Issue 14: Science fiction and the smart-eco city, by Rob Cowley

How could science fiction have affected the collective imagination about the city, having real impacts on the development of cities today? This paper starts from the observation that there is a clear science fictional aesthetic in the way that many urban initiatives are promoted, particularly those following the recent ‘smart’ theme. Their utopian presentation, however, is at odds with the often dystopian vision found in science fiction. Critics may even argue that the revolutionary connotations of science fiction may misrepresent the reality of smart-city initiatives, which have the potential to reinforce an unsustainable business as usual. However, there is arguably a value in this form of storytelling about the city: it has been successful in mobilising groups of actors and using narratives in this way may be a useful and legitimate approach to planning in a postmodern context.

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Issue 13: Reinventing the world through urban experiments, by Rob Raven, James Evans and Andrew Karvonen

How can we envision the process of transitioning towards liveable, prosperous and sustainable cities? One way is as ‘experimentation’, seeing cities as a test bed for innovative and creative solutions, and the potential transfer and scaling-up of these ideas to other contexts. This short essay is based on a new book, entitled ‘The Experimental City’, which draws together insights from 32 researchers on social and urban issues across the world to address central questions, including: how are urban experiments conceived and enacted? Who instigates these experiments and who benefits from them? And how can the lessons from experiments be applied in other places?

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Issue 12: Sustainable urban and infrastructure development in China – why intergovernmental relations are the key, by Martin de Jong

In the context of rapid industrialisation, growth, urbanisation, and ecological pressures, what efforts have been made to shift towards a cleaner path of urban development in China, and how can we understand the underlying institutions and policy processes? In response to such questions, this paper, reproduced from an inaugural professorial lecture at TU Delft, examines a series of major Chinese policy initiatives, including metro networks, high-speed rail, eco-industrial parks and eco-cities. Finding that outcomes of these have been mixed, it then looks at the unique institutional backdrop that has given rise to them, such as the challenges of horizontal coordination between government departments on projects that cut across sectors. Finally it points to new directions in research that have the potential to provide a more nuanced understanding of public policy and the implementation of eco-initiatives.

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Issue 11: The context for thinking about eco-city initiatives, by William Rees

The ultimate goal of eco-cities is to achieve full ecological – as well as social and economic – sustainability. But can these cities really do the job their advocates claim they will? Is urban sustainability possible? This piece is a summary of a presentation given by Bill Rees, the originator and co-developer of the ‘ecological footprint’ concept. He argues that ‘unsustainability’ is an inevitable property of the interaction between urban-industrial society, as presently conceived, and the ecosphere. No society is sustainable if its maintenance and growth are being financed by the depletion of natural capital. To avoid ‘sleep walking’ into disaster, society must create truly sustainable cities that achieve ‘one planet living’ based on a smaller, materially efficient, more equitable ‘steady-state’ global economy. This will require unprecedented levels of cooperation at all spatial scales.

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Issue 10: Eco-cities vs. ökostädte: similarities and differences, by Teresa Damm

This essay locates the German ökostadt movement within the broader history of the ‘eco-city’, and identifies some of its distinctive characteristics. By comparing examples of the former with global examples of the latter, it identifies the broad overlaps, as well as some key differences in emphasis. It finds that ökostadt initiatives place a greater emphasis on air and water quality, less of an emphasis on transport and no emphasis on wider economic and social goals. These differences can be partially explained by differing priorities amongst actors, but also by the fact that ökostadt initiatives tend to exist at smaller scales. This all serves as a reminder that real-world urban sustainability initiatives come about in varied, particular local contexts.

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Issue 9: Smart cities: from concept to practice, by Simon Joss

The term ‘smart city’ has enjoyed a rapid rise in popularity since the late 2000s. This essay reviews the use of the term and its conceptual dimensions – describing how smart city initiatives attempt to reconcile economic, environmental and social objectives through interconnected governance and coordination, using information and communication technology and infrastructure. It then considers recent moves towards the standardisation of the ‘smart’ city by the British Standards Institution (BSI), including guidance on vocabulary, strategy and data interoperability. Finally, it summarises some of the key challenges lying ahead: the inclusion of citizens; the governance of data; and assessing whether ‘smart’ initiatives really do result in improved environmental performance and more enabling services.

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Issue 8: Eco-cities in the making? The transformation of industrial parks In China, by Chang Yu

This essay summarises the findings of research into the development of ‘Eco-Industrial Parks’ in China, many of which have taken on increasingly urban characteristics as workers have settled nearby. It argues that policies in future need not only to be adjusted to ensure better environmental performance within the parks themselves, but also to encompass their relationship with the wider urban setting that they often generate. While China’s industrial parks have traditionally been associated with high levels of pollution, policy adjustments in future may realise their potential for playing a key catalytic role in the furtherment of sustainable urban development.

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Issue 7: ‘The most sustainable urban community developments in the world’… in theory, by Marcella Whitfield

There is an ongoing debate about how ‘success’ in the field of sustainable community development should be prescriptively defined and framed at different scales. This essay provides a summary of research that attempted to turn this (often rather theoretical) debate on its head. Rather than taking the diverse intentions and goals of development projects as the starting point, it aimed to directly compare the actual performance of different developments in the real world, using whatever data was available, in the hope that this would reveal the most sustainable communities and practices. However, in the process, this research revealed a new insight: across most communities, there is a distinct lack of post occupancy monitoring, meaning that it is difficult or impossible to know how sustainable many of these communities actually are.

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Issue 6: Notes from Sejong city, by Robert Cowley

The brand new city of Sejong in South Korea has so far received little academic attention internationally. This is surprising, given the scale of the undertaking; when complete, it will accommodate up to half a million residents, with the national government footing the bill. This short essay provides reflections on a fieldwork trip to Sejong. It discusses the nature of the lessons that might be learnt from new-build eco-cities of this type, given that their emergence depends on very context-specific favourable conditions, and suggests that it may be unhelpful when plans to build whole new cities are dismissed as problematically utopian.

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Issue 5: Theorising urban sustainability through a cultural lens, by Njogu Morgan

Behaviour change is a key component of the transition to urban sustainability; this is particularly the case for sustainable transport.  Policymakers and scholars are increasingly taking an interest in the role of culture in these transitions – how social meanings, beliefs, values, attitudes and perceptions influence behaviour. This essay provides an introduction to research into bicycle usage and attitudes to cycling; for example, the impact of positive or negative societal perceptions of cycling on its modal share. It concludes by outlining the development of a new framework for analysing the various dimensions of ‘cycling culture’, so as to understand better how and why changes may occur over time in a particular place.

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Issue 4: Urban resilience in action? The case of Tottenham (London, UK), by Martin Stumpler

This essay considers how resilience might best be understood from a socio-political perspective, using a neo-institutional framework. It is informed by a case study of Tottenham, London, where the English riots of 2011 originated, and reflects on Tottenham’s recovery process to date: the return, to some sort of normality in social relations, the restoration of economic activity, as well as the rebuilding of destroyed urban fabric and infrastructure.

However, considering Tottenham to be a model of urban resilience risks overlooking a number of factors – the problems of deprivation that gave rise to the riots in the first place; persisting social inequalities; power dynamics and imbalances; and cultural habits and norms that shape the path towards urban resilience. One way of addressing these shortcomings may be to pay closer attention to the role of institutions – formal rules and regulations, as well as informal routines and practices – in enabling or constraining political processes such as recovery from riots and initiatives in resilience building. The case study was conducted as part of a doctoral research project on urban resilience.

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Issue 3: Defining the eco-city: a discursive approach, by Elizabeth Rapoport and Anne-Lorene Vernay

This paper discusses six contemporary eco-city initiatives using discourse analysis. The aim of the research was to uncover the diversity underneath the various uses of the term eco-city, and to determine the extent of convergence or divergence in the way projects conceive of what an eco-city should be. The authors suggest that there is a great deal of diversity among projects labelled as eco-cities; therefore, it may be useful to consider the eco-city as an ambition or objective which there will be multiple ways to achieve. The paper was originally presented at the 2011 Management and Innovation for Sustainable Built Environment conference in Amsterdam, and is published here with the authors’ permission.

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Issue 2: Smart cities: reflections on efforts to standardize a new concept, by Simon Joss

In the UK, as elsewhere, policy-makers are keen to promote ‘smart city’ policies in an effort to encourage national innovation and boost international competitiveness. Like the ‘eco-city’, the concept of the ‘smart city’ requires definition, even standardisation, if it is to be of practical value to policy-makers, planners and developers. To this effect, the UK government commissioned the British Standards Institution (BSI) to define smart cities through a series of Publicly Available Specifications (PAS). Simon Joss was invited to contribute to this work by joining the Steering Group in charge of drafting and reviewing PAS 180. In this essay, he reflects on his involvement in this process.

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Issue 1: Eco-cities: can they work? By Art Molella

While eco-cities were proposed as early as the 1970s, plans for their realisation have only been made over the last decade or so. Hundreds of initiatives are now underway or about to be launched worldwide. But can they really do the job their advocates claim they will? The International Eco-Cities Initiative (IEI) Leverhulme International Network has been collaborating over a new study of eco-city frameworks, indicators and standards; instruments that attempt to put these new cities to the test. This has culminated in the latest Bellagio conference report.

In this piece, IEI co-founder Art Molella interviews the report’s editor, Simon Joss of the University of Westminster, who shares his thoughts on the following questions: (1) What are eco-cities and why are they important? (2) Where is the major action today in building eco-cities? (3) Why should we care about ‘standards’ and ‘indicators’, what are they and what problems are they supposed to address? (4) What is and should be the role of technological and other sorts of innovation in the development of eco-cities?

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