Since the late 1980s, the notion of ‘sustainable development’ has transcended beyond the eminent United Nations report titled Our Common Future, to mainstream dialogue throughout the globe at all scales within government and public spheres. This form of development seeks to balance current environmental, social and economic needs of the population, “without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, 43). Used interchangeably with ‘sustainability’ (Seghezzo, 2009), the concept has been fastened to a plethora of themes, including that of cities where ‘urban sustainability’ speaks to negligent urban expansion and resource depletion. However, as the idea of urban sustainability has begun percolating into widespread discussions, so to have the obstacles and conflicts surrounding sustainable development. The following sections will examine these complexities, beginning with the ambiguity of sustainable development, followed by interpretations of urban sustainability, and finally, the political ecology of sustainable development in an urban environment.
Sustainable Cities or Cities that Contribute to Sustainable Development
Critique of the term ‘sustainable development’ has primarily surrounded its wide scope of interpretation, which is regarded as both a strength, in its ability to foster multi-stakeholder cooperation, and a weakness, in that anybody can claim they are contributing to sustainability goals (Dale, 2001; Robinson, 2009). Satterthwaite’s article entitled “Sustainable Cities or Cities that Contribute to Sustainable Development” (1997), alludes to the ambiguity of the term and explores the predicament rather than benefit this creates for achieving a city that harmonizes the environmental, economic, and social needs described in Our Common Future.
As the wordplay in Satterthwaite’s title suggests, the various interpretations of ‘sustainable’ and ‘development’ will dictate a city’s actions, due to the strategic selection of what is being sustained in a sustainable city. For instance, Satterthwaite (1997) suggests that a sustainable city may be construed in an entirely social manner, leading to the sustaining –or rather preservation – of existing social structures within the city. Consequentially, the achievement of the United Nation’s ‘sustainable development’ is compromised, since the economic and environmental aspects are left out of the scenario (Satterthwaite, 1997). This example also exposes the anthropocentrism embedded in ‘sustainability’, as human needs are often emphasized over environmental concerns. However, in this context, the oppression of nature is to be expected since ‘sustainable development’ is ultimately a Western construct designed for human benefit and because of this, will never remedy the ecological crisis society has created (Seghezzo, 2009).
A city contributing to sustainable development invokes a different set...