Urban Update 11 September 2015

Download Urban Update 11 September 2015

Main Headlines

  • Prospects for Standardising Urban Sustainability?  Research Report
  • crime reduction core to reducing car dependence
  • Poor diet and high blood pressure now number 1 risk factors for death
  • Urban Street Makeovers – from the eyes of google street view
  • USA Surgeon General Launches “Step it up” campaign to create walkable communities and more active lifestyles


Prospects for Standardising Urban Sustainability?

Simon Joss and Robert Cowley (International Eco-Cities Initiative, University of Westminster)

Built environment policies will never please everybody. But the recent UK High Court judgement overruling an affordable housing policy pronouncement, partly on the grounds of ‘irrationality’, does little to foster faith in governments as the custodians of our urban future. Political opportunism often trumps long-term thinking in policy-making – and this bodes ill for the possibility of developing our cities in a more sustainable way. But perhaps policy-makers sometimes welcome incentives to think beyond the electoral cycle. In the case of sustainable urban development, then, might there be a useful role for some form of internationally accepted ‘standards’?   

The word ‘standard’ is troubling because it carries two rather different meanings: it may either imply ‘guaranteed level of quality’, or point towards the ‘bog standard’. Depending on one’s perspective, standards raise expectations, foster dialogue, and serve the common good; or, alternatively, they function as ‘tick-box’ exercises that stifle innovation.  Various other questions soon arise: Who should get to decide on how they are defined? How should compliance be monitored?  And is it desirable anyway that something as complex as sustainable urban development should be reduced to a series of fixed criteria?

Our research over the last three years suggests that such questions are topical ones: a process of standardisation may already be in its early stages.  Frameworks of urban sustainability indicators and processes, designed to be replicable across different contexts, are flourishing around the world.  We identified 43 such schemes (well-known examples include BREEAM Communities, LEED ND, the World Bank’s Eco2 Cities scheme, and the Reference Framework for European Sustainable Cities). As many as 38 of these had been launched since 2008, with more coming to light since we published our findings.

No one group of actors is in overall charge of this process (and only a minority of schemes are primarily government-led). But if the field remains open for the time being, some consolidation seems likely as some frameworks win out over others in the ‘market place’.  What, then, can we do collectively – as policy-makers, practitioners, and commentators – to ensure that such consolidation better serves the goal of sustainability?

Our report includes some suggestions. In fact, we argue against a policy drive for uniform standardisation at this stage. Little is yet understood about what happens during processes of implementation, and what effects frameworks have in practice.  We therefore advocate encouraging experimentation with a wide variety of approaches, accommodated flexibly in the interest of knowledge innovation and social and policy learning. 

In the ongoing task of evaluating and improving frameworks, better analytical tools may be required.  In particular, there is a need for clearer thinking about their purposes. Frameworks may variously assess performance, work as marketable ‘certification’ schemes, or help with processes of design and planning. Clarity over purpose will also improve the communicative role of frameworks.  For example, the language and concepts required to engage the public may differ significantly from that of more technical specifications aimed at planners or practitioners.

Comparative evaluation of different frameworks should also go beyond what is specified ‘on paper’. Processes of implementation are far from straightforward, often involving complex interactions between multiple groups of actors, and the negotiation of boundaries and conflicts.  The precise ways in which frameworks translate into concrete practices on the ground cannot therefore be taken for granted, and require ongoing close observation. A broad commitment to openness of information will be helpful in this respect. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we shouldn’t lose sight of the need for urban sustainability frameworks (or standards) to encourage meaningful change, rather than simply work as PR tools. There is some risk that truly transformative goals necessarily become diluted as frameworks gain wider acceptance among political and commercial actors.  Frameworks do need to be flexible enough to account for the variety of contexts in which development takes place, but we should still insist that they result in overall outcomes which go beyond ‘business as usual’.

The report is free to download as a pdf at: www.westminster.ac.uk/ecocities-leverhulme

Joss, S., Cowley, R., de Jong, M., Müller, B., Park, B-S., Rees, W., Roseland, M. & Rydin, Y. (2015). Tomorrow’s City Today: Prospects for Standardising Sustainable Urban Development. London: University of Westminster. ISBN: 978-0-9570527-6-5