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Sustainable Development in an Urban World

The concept of sustainable development has been described as “ubiquitous” (Henderson, 2011) and “vague” (Wilkins, 2008), with multiple definitions (Chasek, 2012; Purvis et al., 2019). The United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development, commonly known as the Brundtland Commission, chaired by Norway’s former Labour prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland (1981, 1986-1989 and 1990-1996), famously defined sustainable development in 1987 as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (United Nations General Assembly, 1987).

While not a universally accepted definition because it lacks a definite time frame (Parris & Kates, 2003) and scientific evidence to set clear global goals (McChesney, 1991), from the Brundtland report emerged three interlinked and equal “pillars": environmental, economic, and social (Lombardi et al., 2011; Boström, 2012; Mensah, 2019; Purvis et al., 2019; Santa, 2022). These “deepening interconnections” (WECD, 1987, quoted in Murphy, 2012, p.19) have defined sustainable development since (Crowther & Siefi, 2022). “Nowhere have we found a theoretically rigorous description of the three pillars," argue Purvis et al. (2019), but even without an original point of reference, the poor understanding in research (Mensch, 2019) means the sustainability pillars continue to be adapted “to meet the objectives of whoever employs it” (Pereira, 2014, p.149).

Figure 1: Gro Harlem Brundtland, Chair of the Brundtland Commission and former Prime Minister of Norway, photographed in 1989 (World Economic Forum, 1989).

“We live in an urban world” is a recurring observation in modern research (Pratschke, 2010; Hall & Barrett, 2012; McHale et al., 2019; Pereira et al., 2024) to describe the 21st-century situation of urban growth and rural decline following “the great acceleration” (Girardet, 2020) of the last century. More than 50% of the global population lives in cities (OECD & European Commission, 2020). By the middle of this century, the United Nations projects that approximately 68%, or two-thirds, of the global population will be urbanised (United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, 2019; United Nations Human Settlements Programme, 2022).

A sustainable, urban environment should adequately provide for its residents without compromising future resource access. Sustainable urban development has grown as a multidisciplinary topic to cover many socioeconomic issues and policies (Song et al., 2022), including the sustainability pillars. Successful sustainable urban development has multiple definitions but is commonly characterised as effectively integrating a city’s economic, environmental, and social assets to provide generational benefits and well-being.

Figure 2: An aerial view of the Mumbai suburb of Ghatkopar in 2023. By 2050, Mumbai, India, is projected to be the world's largest city by population (Karthikndr, 2023).

Although a challenging task (Almusaed & Almssad, 2020), especially in rapidly expanding urban areas, the proper implementation of sustainable development can prevent urban sprawl (Soyinka et al., 2016) and increase social inclusion (thereby decreasing social tension, for example (Mirzoev et al., 2021)), ecological sustainability, and community spirit. Poor urban planning can be disastrous, resulting in urban unrest and inadequate or nonexistent resource management of essentials like energy, food, housing, and health (Koneav, 2019).

Urbanisation is commonly defined as the movement and concentration of the population from rural to urban areas (Anderson, 1959; McGranahan & Satterthwaite, 2014; Kuddus et al., 2020; Menashe-Oren & Bocquier, 2021), but it can also mean the process of industrialising rural areas (Peng et al., 2018). The emergence and growth of megacities - with a population of more than 10 million (Bourdeau-Lepage & Huriot, 2007; Wojciechowska, 2022) - highlights the “megatrend” of urbanisation (United Nations Human Settlements Programme, 2022). This is due to prevailing rural-urban migration patterns, noticeably in China (Chen et al., 2018; Li et al., 2023; Wang et al., 2023), namely by the pull factors of greater economic, educational, and social opportunities commonly associated with city life (Amrevurayire & Oje, 2016; Singh, 2017).

Today, there are roughly 33 megacities worldwide with the majority in Asia and South America (Konaev, 2019; Debnath et al., 2023); a significant rise since the beginning of the 1990s when there were only 10 (United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, 2014). The growth of megacities, as measured by births and migration, is expected to continue, with 43 projected by 2030 (United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, 2019; Khanh et al., 2023).

Figure 3: With roughly 38 million residents, the Greater Tokyo Area of Tokyo, Japan, pictured here in February 2021, is the most populous metropolitan area in the world (NASA, 2021).


To prevent the overconsumption and depletion of the world’s finite natural resources, the environmental pillar of sustainable development recognises the necessity of their preservation and protection. While there is no agreed definition of environmental sustainability (Morelli, 2011; Acosta-Alba et al., 2012), recurring themes in research are the coexistence of humans and nature (Fuller, 2010), quality of life (Mersal, 2016), maintaining an ecological balance (Haque, 2000), and managing natural resources for future generations (Ismail et al., 2023).

At a local level, a definition of a sustainable, “healthy city” is provided by Hancock & Duhl (1986), writing for the World Health Organization (WHO), as “one that is continually creating and improving those physical and social environments and strengthening those community resources that enable people to mutually support each other in performing all the functions of life and achieving their maximum potential” (Hancock & Duhl, 1986, quoted in Hancock, 1993, p.7).

While Hancock (1993) stresses the importance and central role of local government in policy related to urban health issues, in recent literature, successful implementation is identified as the multilevel integration of planning, policy development, and management (Kim, 2021; Lowe et al., 2022) to address the many, complex sectors determining urban health and life outcomes. Efficient governance, therefore, is the “opening up of government” (Palm et al., 2019) with broad interaction between multiple organisations and individuals (Borgström, 2019; Khair, 2020).

Cities and urban areas affect all aspects of human cultural, economic, and social development and activity (Scott, 1997; Yeoh, 2005) and expose society’s health, well-being, and quality of life inequalities (Snyder et al., 2011; Kuddus et al., 2020). The physical expansion of cities, averaging a 16-fold increase by 2011 (Angel et al., 2011), places huge pressures on biodiversity, land use, and natural resources. In modern planning, sustainable development incorporates initiatives such as access to green spaces such as parks and gardens (Mersal, 2016), clean air and water, renewable energy (Omole et al., 2024), and sustainable housing (Tosics, 2004) to enhance city existence.

Figure 4: Left, typical representation of sustainability as three intersecting circles. Right, alternative depictions: literal "pillars" and a concentric circles approach (Purvis et al., 2019, p.682).

To address the multiple economic, social, and environmental challenges—referred to as the “triple bottom line” in corporate management (Kuhlman & Farrington, 2010; Purvis et al., 2019)—of urban problems such as poor infrastructure (Soyinka et al., 2016), traffic pollution (Barton et al., 2009), and sanitation management (Andersson et al., 2016), the centralised government of top-down decision making has been replaced by a decentralised structure (Khan et al., 2020; Kanuri et al., 2016) of “multi-actor practices . . . more communicative and inclusive” (Cowley, 2015, quoted in Aina et al., 2019, p.273). This inclusivity involves engagement in the decision-making process, providing environmental education, and community action (Kardos, 2012; Borawska, 2017; Hawkins & Wang, 2012).


The economic pillar concerns growth without jeopardising living standards (Ghimire, 2023). However, economic growth in the current capitalist system has been criticised as “irreconcilable” (Tiwari, 2010, p.439) with the common spirit of the Brundtland Commission, which called for “a new era of economic growth . . . socially and environmentally sustainable” (United Nations General Assembly, 1987, quoted in Purvis et al., 2019).

Economic sustainability calls for balanced development with ecological protection. While the 1987 Brundtland Commission identified poverty as the main cause of environmental degradation, it has been criticised for relying on the same capitalist system to implement sustainable development to alleviate the world’s poorest (Castro, 2004). Consequently, the main tenets of the global economic structure would largely remain untouched (Dernbach & Cheever 2015).

Viderman (1994, p.5) recognises and advocates the human aspect of sustainability, especially for society’s worst off (“people of color, the poor”), believing it to be “what a society values, not in the technical economic sense of valuation, but in the sense of human concerns.” The goals of this societal economic sustainability are to reduce consumption (Ghaffar & El Aziz, 2021), create jobs (Ragheb et al., 2022) and drive technological development (Macke et al., 2019, quoted in Santa et al., 2022).

The involvement and actions of people are central to a sustainable urban “circular economy” (OECD, 2020), an alternative model of production and consumption that reduces waste and promotes the renewal of raw materials and resources (Geisendorf & Pietrulla, 2017): a closed-loop system (Kara et al., 2022). In contrast, the “linear economy” of take-make-dispose has been the dominant system for centuries (Aggeri, 2021), with its characteristic of high consumption exhausting the planet’s finite resources and creating polluting landfills.

Figure 5: The closed-loop system of the circular economy model (European Parliament Research Service, 2023).

Cities are major centres of diverse production and consumption. For example, roughly 80% of the food produced globally is consumed in urban areas (Alves & Oliveira, 2022). With the world’s urban population projected to be 7 billion by 2050 (Oyeyemi et al., 2023), adopting a circular economy based on recycling, refurbishment, and sharing offers sustainable solutions for addressing the modern, multifaceted challenges of land use, consumption, pollution, and waste.


While equity, inclusivity, and the well-being of people are the primary focus of the social sustainability pillar (Cuthill, 2009; Nilsson et al., 2024), like the concept of sustainable development, it has a contested definition: “people must constantly elaborate what they actually mean when they address social sustainability” (Boström, 2012). Furthermore, limited research and analysis (Vallance et al., 2011; Kalfaoglu, 2023; Razia & Ah, 2023) means social sustainability, although considered the most important pillar for societal and organisational growth, will continue to be misunderstood and neglected.

In urban environments, “centers of knowledge and sources of growth and innovation” (Almusaed & Almssad, 2018), social barriers such as unemployment, limited housing access, and racial discrimination are identified in recent literature as hindering the implementation of social inclusion and interaction (Sharif, 2023; Whelan et al., 2024). Social sustainability “revolves around the human factor as a crucial prerequisite for a sustainable city and a sustainable society” (Almusaed & Almssad, 2020), but the future challenges of megacities, rural-urban migration, and climate change—with the lack of governance, functioning institutions, and political will—risk increasing the isolation, poverty, and vulnerability of inhabitants.

Figure 6: Social sustainability aims to create an environment in which human rights and engagement can thrive (Freepik, 2024).

Equity is the major principle of the social pillar, as it relates directly to people and how they interact. It aims to create an environment in which human rights and engagement can thrive. Accessibility, or equal access, to institutions and amenities is fundamental for equity to develop in an urban environment, especially for the disadvantaged and isolated (Dempsey et al., 2011, quoted in Ly & Cope, 2023; Heerden et al., 2022).

Similarly, social inclusion supports groups and individuals to participate in civil society. While a sense of connectedness creates resilient societies, the poorest and most vulnerable groups are most at risk of further marginalisation. “[S]ocial exclusion is one of the risks that a sustainable society needs to fight” (Ly & Cope, 2023).

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