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A transformative turn in urban studies? Three ideas on how research on sustainable cities can contribute to the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda

By Florian Koch, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research UFZ, Leipzig, Germany; Sonia Roitman, The University of Queensland, Australia; and Martin David, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research UFZ, Leipzig, Germany.

Recently adopted global political sustainability agendas such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the New Urban Agenda (NUA) consider cities as ‘powerful actors’ with a role to play in seeking a more sustainable and resilient world. There is agreement on the need to transform existing urban development patterns and on the strategic role of local governments to achieve ambitious sustainability goals.

Yet the impact of these new agendas for research on sustainable cities is blurry and requires further discussion. As a starting point, we present three main suggestions on the relation between urban research and the SDGs and the NUA, based on our work on urban sustainability transformations:

1. Many of the buzzwords mentioned in the recent global political sustainability agendas and in related transformation research already have a long tradition in urban research

New research frameworks such as Future Earth refer to the need to work towards transdisciplinary research through co-production, co-creation and co-design to implement the current sustainability agendas. Many of these ideas have been part of applied urban research for a long time. For example, participatory or advocacy planning approaches and urban governance research highlight the importance of engaging with a variety of stakeholders to achieve urban development, acknowledging the existing different interests and tensions that might exist. Furthermore, in many cases, applied research projects on sustainable urban development include urban design workshops, urban scenario building or other types of methods which are based on mutual cooperation between citizens, private companies, politicians and researchers.

Therefore some forms of ‘transdisciplinary’ involvement of stakeholders, as well as co-production and co-creation elements, are part of the urban research tradition, even though one needs to consider that words like co-production and co-design may have different meanings for different people. Rather than there being a need to apply new transformative research approaches in urban studies, what’s needed is a critical review of the lessons learned in transdisciplinary research on cities. In this way, the experiences of urban research could enrich the discussion on what kind of transdisciplinary science is needed for transformations in line with the ambitions of the SDGs and the NUA.

2. SDGs require a stronger interaction between urban research and other research fields

SDG11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

The seventeen SDGs are deeply interconnected (as are the different commitments under the NUA) and therefore require an integrative perspective. It is impossible to discuss SDG11 on sustainable cities and communities without also considering SDG6 (clean water and sanitation). Researching SDG6 might involve technicians such as chemical engineers and biologists who will have to engage with perspectives of citizens and social scientists.

In this way, urban research needs to interact with a full range of different research areas, especially when analyzing possible interactions and trade-offs from various perspectives. For example, if a city decides to increase its share of locally produced food, it might create pressure on existing land use patterns, which could lead to higher contamination of river catchment areas through the increasing use of fertilizers.

The complexity of sustainable development forces urban research to cooperate with other disciplines. Only in this way can the broader outcomes of place-based definitions of urban sustainability be traced, and a contribution to implementing the global political sustainability agendas be made.

3. Synthesized comparative research, beyond best practices, is needed to identify implementation pathways for the SDGs and the NUA

Photo: Construction of New Songdo City, South Korea, Nicolette Mastrangelo (CC BY-NC-ND).

Even though every urban area is unique and has its specific local conditions, comparing cities based on common denominators is a vital research method of urban studies. Comparative urban research has the potential to provide a vast number of cases of good and bad practices that can be used to learn from existing experiences to put sustainable development into motion. However, current urban research practices point in a different direction and research often focuses on successful case studies rather than failed examples. This methodology is biased towards the context specifics of best practices but underestimates worst practices and, consequently, overly optimistic assumptions on the transferability of successful sustainable urban politics and practices are made.

Rather than focusing only on the few successful cases of urban sustainable development, urban research could benefit from a broader comparative perspective and should also include less successful cities, failed examples for sustainable urban developments and ambiguous cases. This way a realistic synthesis on local obstacles and circumstances and conditions for sustainable urban development can be created. The huge number of cities – and therefore of potential case studies – means an enormous source of knowledge on sustainability implementation already exists. This can enrich the discussions on how today’s ambitious global political sustainability agendas can become a reality.

The discussion about the relationship between the SDGs and the NUA and research on sustainable cities is only the beginning. However, we see several links such as research on the participation of urban population in plan-making processes or on the lessons learnt by the previous local Agenda 21 processes, which have a huge potential to make an important contribution to the SDGs and NUA, as well as to other global policy agendas such as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. This way, we think, transformation to sustainability research can more realistically benefit from the experiences of urban research and vice versa.

To continue with this discussion the authors invite contributions to a session at the XIX ISA World Congress of Sociology 2018 that will critically reflect on the objectives and impacts of global sustainability transformations on urban society and planning.

They are particularly interested in theoretical works, for example on the SDGs or the New Urban Agenda and the underlying understanding of urban governance and planning, as well as empirical research on the local impacts of implementing sustainability transformations.

Call for Abstracts: Session – The Transformative Turn in Urban Studies: The SDGs, the New Urban Agenda and the Paris Agreement and their Impact on Urban Sociology and Planning
(Call open 25 April – 30 September 2017).
XIX ISA World Congress of Sociology, Power, Violence and Justice: Reflections, Responses and Responsibilities, 15-21 July 2018, Toronto, Canada.

Further reading:

Wolfram Mauser, Gernot Klepper, Martin Rice, Bettina Susanne Schmalzbauer, Heide Hackmann, Rik Leemans, Howard Moore. 2013. Transdisciplinary global change research: the co-creation of knowledge for sustainability, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, Volume 5, Issue 3,  420-431.

Susanne C Moser. 2016. Can science on transformation transform science? Lessons from co-design, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, Volume 20, 2016, 106-115.

Susan Parnell. 2016. Defining a Global Urban Development Agenda. World Development Vol. 78, 529–540.

David Satterthwaite. 2016. Editorial: A new urban agenda. Environment and Urbanization 28(1), 3–12.

Vanessa Watson. 2016. Locating planning in the New Urban Agenda of the urban sustainable development goal. Planning Theory, Vol. 15(4), 435-448.


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