Published 09 April 2015

Sustainable urban development

–An overview of current initiatives

All over the world, there is growing interest in sustainable urban development. Growth Analysis (Swedish Agency for Growth Policy Analysis) has investigated the situation in the countries where the agency has overseas offices. In Sweden, the government has set up a platform for sustainable urban development, comprising the following five agencies: National Board of Housing, Building and Planning (Boverket), Swedish Energy Agency (Energimyndigheten), Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (Naturvårdsverket), Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth (Tillväxtverket) and Swedish Transport Administration (Trafikverket). One of the aims of this platform is to increase cooperation, coordination and sharing of experiences among players in different sectors and at different levels. This summary report concentrates primarily on issues linked to the four focus areas identified by the national platform. The country reports also include other approaches.

From an international perspective, there are a number of trends in sustainable urban develop­ment. Towns and cities are a driving force with regard to reducing climate impact. There are several networks linking towns and cities that have undertaken to reduce green­house gas emissions. In many places, smart cities are a prioritized issue, with interopera­bility between information and communication technology, large and open databases, and sustainable development. Resilience is becoming increasingly important as a strategic goal. Cities like San Francisco are appointing officials responsible for this matter. Large invest­ments are also being made in sustainable mobility (for more information, see Growth Analysis’ report Hänt i Världen Transporter och Infrastruktur våren 2015). Attention is being paid to gender issues. In many places, biological diversity is being emphasized.

Economic conditions, like the funding of investments, are of great significance. Innovative models are being tested but there have been mixed reactions to, for instance, public-private partnerships (for more information, see Growth Analysis’ report Hänt i världen Trans­porter och Infrastruktur, Svar direkt 2014:14). There is growing interest in Green Bonds. Crowd-funding is being used in Vienna for municipal solar panels. China is investing huge amounts of government funding in technology and methods to make towns and cities sustainable. South Korea is making strategic and long-term public investments without having to limit them because of state aid rules like those in force in the EU. In many places, e.g. the USA, the economic benefits of attractive and sustainable urban environ­ments are emphasised. Vienna and Austin, Texas, have taken a forward-looking stance, with the public procurement of new systems solutions.

Analyses and evaluations are contributing to the development of knowledge. Classification systems like STAR in the USA is a tool whereby the progress of towns and cities is measured on an objective scale using specific criteria. A centre of excellence close to the city’s governance facilitates the work being done in Vienna. Public awareness is utilized in Amsterdam’s Citizen Data Lab. EU collaboration disseminates lessons learned among the 28 member states. The USA, Germany and Brazil are examples of countries where national platforms have been set up. Japan, China and South Korea have national initiatives for pilot projects for sustainable towns and cities.

Leadership is of great importance when it comes to cooperation and governance. Political explicitness and courage are seen as being success factors. Inclusive goals and work methods increase the effectiveness of efforts to promote sustainable towns and cities. It is also important to take an intersectoral approach and to be coordinated with regular decision-making structures. Vienna is an example of a city where sustainability is managed at a high level and the urban planning director also coordinates efforts to achieve the vision of a smart city. In order for processes of change to be plausible, decision-makers must really listen to the views of citizens. Towns and cities need to be flexible to cope with rapid changes in the world around (like the low electricity prices on the European electri­city market after the dramatic expansion of wind and solar energy, which affects the profitability of the cities' CHP plants).

“Putting people first” means different things depending on the preconditions of towns, cities and countries. In the USA, there is growing interest in modern inner cities that attract young, well-educated people but at the same time there is social inequality with housing segregation and large differences in income. Vienna is trying to bring about social sustaina­bility through, for instance, a housing policy that makes new areas like Aspern Seestadt accessible for people from lower income brackets. Several countries, cities and towns are endeavouring to bridge digital gaps which, if not addressed, will impede the development of smart cities. Escaping from poverty is a central issue for India’s politicians while in China, the conditions for 100 million migrant workers are being discussed.

Innovation and sustainable urban development go together. The city of Vienna has set up the goal of becoming a leader of innovation. South Korea wants to combine sustainability with an IT-based creative economy. In the USA, the rate of innovation in areas like sustainable and IT-based mobility is high and all major car manufacturers are now estab­lished in Silicon Valley too. China sees electric vehicles and renewable energy as strategic industries. Japan, South Korea and China are making major government investments in demonstrating ways of making towns and cities sustainable. Trade and industry play a central role in Japan’s and South Korea’s pilot cities.

[1] The country reports are accessible at under the Publications tab.

Sustainable urban development –An overview of current initiatives

Serial number
Direct response 2015:07

Reference number

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