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Urban sustainability science: prospects for innovations through a system’s perspective, relational and transformations’ approaches

This article belongs to Ambio’s 50th Anniversary Collection. Theme: Urbanization


In this perspective, we present how three initial landmark papers on urban sustainability research contributed to the larger sustainability science scholarship and paved the way for the continued development of urban sustainability research. Based on this, we propose three conceptual innovation pathways to trace the progression of urban sustainability science: First, urban sustainability from a system’s perspective, meaning that urban sustainability requires integrative solutions to work in the tripled social-ecological-technological system setting. Second, urban sustainability from a (people and place) relational perspective, meaning urban sustainability is a contested and dynamic social-ecological contract of cities. As a governance mission, urban sustainability requires evidence from research that can inform coordinated action to bridge people, places, meanings, visions and ecosystems. Third, urban sustainability from a transformative science perspective, meaning that for urban sustainability to be achieved and progressed, deep transformations are required in systems, relations, policies and governance approaches. Our proposal for the future of urban sustainability science centres on emphasizing the relevance and policy applicability of systems’ thinking, value and place thinking and transitions/transformations thinking as fundamental to how knowledge is co-produced by research science, policy and society and becomes actionable.

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Nadja's work was supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF; research project GreenEquityHEALTH, no. 01LN1705A). TM’s participation was supported by the US National Science Foundation (#1444755, #1927167, and #1934933) and the SMARTer Greener Cities project through the Nordforsk Sustainable Urban Development and Smart Cities program.

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Correspondence to Niki Frantzeskaki.

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Frantzeskaki, N., McPhearson, T. & Kabisch, N. Urban sustainability science: prospects for innovations through a system’s perspective, relational and transformations’ approaches. Ambio 50, 1650–1658 (2021).

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  • Cities
  • Nature-based solutions
  • Place
  • Sustainability
  • Systems
  • Transitions
  • Transformations