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Sustainable, Smart, Resilient, Low-Carbon, Eco, Knowledge Cities? choose your label carefully

Planning, Housing and Urban Design 27 March 2015

Smart cities, eco cities, sustainable cities, intelligent cities. Researchers from the University of Westminster, Technical University Delft (TU Delft) and Fudan University have found that it makes quite a difference which ‘label’ a metropolitan area chooses.

They have recently reported their findings in the Journal of Cleaner Production in a research paper entitled ‘Sustainable-smart-resilient-low carbon-eco-knowledge cities; making sense of a multitude of concepts promoting sustainable urbanization’.

Over the last couple of decades, metropolitan areas around the world have been engaged in a multitude of initiatives aimed at creating better environmental, social and economic conditions, and enhancing cities’ attractiveness and competitiveness. These efforts have been variously labelled by policy-makers, planners and practitioners: from ‘sustainable city’ to ‘eco city’, from ‘low carbon city’ to ‘resilient city’, and from ‘liveable city’ to ‘smart city’. Often, these concepts appear to be interchangeable. The researchers looked into whether it matters which term is used when engaging in urban policy, development and regeneration.

Professor Simon Joss, Director of the International Eco-Cities Initiative at the University of Westminster, who is co-author of the study, explained “This major study sheds essential new light on the similarities and differences among the twelve most dominant city concepts used to promote sustainable urbanization.”

The research findings are based on a systematic, in-depth bibliometric analysis of over 1,400 academic articles published between 1996 and 2013.

Among the key findings are: 

  • 'Sustainable city’ is by far the most frequently occurring category, followed by ‘smart city’, ‘digital city’, ‘eco city’ and ‘green city’
  • The ‘smart city’ category has a fast growing profile; in recent years it has begun to eclipse more long-standing concepts such as ‘sustainable city’ and ‘eco city’
  • ‘Knowledge city’ and ‘resilient city’ have distinct profiles, but they are used significantly less often than the other examples
  • ‘Liveable city’, ‘intelligent city’, ‘information city’ and ‘ubiquitous city’ have comparatively low and indistinct profiles, occupying marginal positions or being insignificant satellites of ‘sustainable city’ or ‘smart city’

“Apart from their frequency, the twelve city categories analysed also show significant conceptual differences: they address sustainable urbanization from different vantage points. As such, they cannot be considered interchangeable”, said Professor Joss.

“Beyond the theoretical insights, this research also suggests important lessons for policy and practice: the choice of city category matters, as not all categories address the environment—economy—society nexus relating to urban development equally. Consequently, it is not safe to assume that a win-win-win situation is necessarily the logical outcome of urban transformation through the deployment of these various categories of sustainable urbanization.”

For further information contact Professor Simon Joss, Director of the International Eco-Cities Initiative at the University of Westminster, on [email protected].

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