Landscape Ecology

, Volume 30, Issue 7, pp 1175–1193 | Cite as

Defining and measuring urban sustainability: a review of indicators

  • Lu Huang
  • Jianguo Wu
  • Lijiao YanEmail author
Review Article



The sustainability of urban areas is essential to the sustainability of regions, nations, and the world as a whole. Urban sustainability indicators (USIs) can play an important role in advancing the science and practice of sustaining urban systems.


We review the key concepts of urban sustainability and commonly used indicators for gauging the state and progress of urban sustainability, and discuss how USIs can be further improved from a landscape ecology perspective.


This review is based primarily on peer-reviewed journal papers, as well as books, and documents published by international organizations, governmental agencies, and research institutions. We systematically examine what USIs actually measure and whether they are adequate for gauging urban sustainability, and then discuss major problems and challenges as well as ways forward in developing and applying USIs.


Numerous USIs have been developed, including single composite indices and indicator sets. This paper focuses on three indicator sets and ten composite indices. Eight of them cover all the three dimensions of sustainability (environment, economy, and society), and five cover two of the three. Five of them measure strong sustainability, and eight only indicate weak sustainability.


Urban sustainability indicators abound, and so do problems with them. These include technical issues of normalization, weighting, and aggregation (upscaling), as well as conceptual issues of indicator selection, boundary delineation, heterogeneity, scale, and strong versus weak sustainability. To overcome these problems, principles and methods in landscape ecology—particularly those of landscape metrics, spatial scaling, and landscape sustainability—have much to offer, and this represents a challenging and fruitful research direction for both landscape and urban scientists in the coming decades.


Urbanization Urban sustainability indicators Indicator frameworks Sustainable cities Landscape sustainability 



We thank three reviewers for their comments and suggestions on an earlier version of this paper. JW’s research in urban ecology and urban sustainability has been supported in part by the U.S. National Science Foundation through Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research (DEB 9714833, DEB-0423704, and BCS-1026865) and the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology through the National Basic Research Program of China (2014CB954303, 2014CB954300).

Supplementary material

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Ecological Planning and Landscape Design, College of Life SciencesZhejiang UniversityHangzhouChina
  2. 2.School of Life Sciences & School of SustainabilityArizona State UniversityTempeUSA
  3. 3.Center for Human-Environment System Sustainability (CHESS), State Key Laboratory of Earth Surface Processes and Resource Ecology (ESPRE)Beijing Normal UniversityBeijingChina

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