Reconciling urban sustainability tools with equitable development: Does a transdisciplinary approach further these goals?


This blog covers discussions from both March 11th and March 18th, and I feel there are some underlying themes that can tie together the readings, class comments, and ‘grab bag’ solutions. While our class conversation ranged from ‘big picture’ urban sustainability solutions such as supporting policies of compact development and a paradigm shift to adopting the precautionary principle over risk-based management, our discussion over the two days also provided real pathways and opportunities for solutions to the challenge of making urban sustainability a reality. Between the two days of discussion, I saw the following themes emerge, and will be interested to hear how the class views this synthesis of our discussion:

Major discussion threads

  • How do we reconcile innovative urban sustainability tools with goals of equitable development? What tools (policy and design) are needed to assist communities on a path of sustainability and equity? Looking at the scaling of tools and policy. We once again touched upon the question of scale in our discussions, both in how it relates specifically to the policy of compact development and through its application through data systems such as GIS
  • Taking a transdisciplinary approach to sustainable development. What happens when we let problems be drivers of knowledge, rather than relegating sustainability to one discipline? I believe we saw aspects of this discussion in the ‘grab bag’ solutions to my question of how we go from pilot projects to implementation for local urban sustainability projects.

How do we reconcile innovative urban sustainability tools with goals of equitable development? What tools (policy and design) are needed to assist communities on a path of sustainability and equity? How do we properly scale tools and policies?

When discussing the chapter from Wheeler, our class drew out two major policy ‘solutions’ – the adoption of an urban growth boundary (UGB) and the implementation of a land tax (i.e. value capture) to capitalize on the economic gains made when an area begins to densify –that could assist in promoting more compact, transit-oriented development and mitigate the negative effects of suburban sprawl.

The first strategy, the urban growth boundary, was mainly discussed in the context of the political and societal implications of enacting such a policy at the citywide scale. We turned to the case of Portland, Oregon that has had an urban growth boundary since the late 1970s. Several students took issue with the UGB concept, citing that the fact that it continues to be expanded to accommodate additional housing and economic growth that largely seem to be motivated by political reasons (see The Oregonian’s article on the 2011 expansion: Additionally, questions were raised as to how the UGB may cause land and housing values to rise, thus decreasing affordability across Portland and potentially leading to displacement of more vulnerable, low-income populations. A major concern in this second argument is the fact that while denser, compact development has become a priority for many urban areas, the tools to ensure that this development occurs in an equitable manner are not always in place. In the Portland, OR case it was highlighted that the city’s UGB promoted higher density development around transit centers, but possibly at the expense of lower-income populations who were living in existing, historically affordable neighborhoods now feeling pressures to increase density. Charisma cited a study conducted by the Kirwin Institute that highlighted the tensions caused by the UGB and the stressors placed on certain more vulnerable populations who were forced to look elsewhere for affordable housing.

While compact development, and strategies that support such policies such as the UGB, can be a key factor in urban sustainability planning, if additional tools to ensure equitable development and a maintenance of affordability are not in place, certain populations will not necessarily experience the benefits. The City of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability recently commissioned a study on displacement and gentrification occurring within the city, and from the report, incorporated much stronger language to encourage equitable and affordable development within the city to maintain economic, social and racial diversity An additional strategy raised in class to mitigate the potential negative effects of the UGB, was to take on a more regional strategy to urban growth and supporting compact development. Such a strategy would require regions to work together to solve the crisis of affordable housing and maintaining economically diverse populations in urban areas.

When considering the impacts of promoting denser urban cores, we turned to the scenario of New York City and questioned in they had a negative contribution to regional sustainability by exporting all of their waste.   However, it was argued that we might be facing a trade-off between wealth generation and waste generation. If the New York City enacted stronger policies to promote the recycling, composting or other use of wastes within their city limits, would that come at the expense of their economy. And how would this decision affect the regional economy, which profits on accommodating NYC’s waste? Once again we come across the question of scale and the tensions that arise. When it comes to strategies to guide sustainable urban form and policies to promote sustainability, does the regional scale seem to work best? When we look at trade-offs that allows one area to grow and one area to make sacrifices to accommodate that growth, is this ultimately a sustainable regional strategy?

Taking a transdisciplinary approach to sustainable development. What happens when we let problems be drivers of knowledge, rather than relegating sustainability to one discipline? I believe we saw aspects of this discussion in the ‘grab bag’ solutions to my question of how we go from pilot projects to implementation for local urban sustainability projects.

Another line of discussion that served as a bridge between the two days was the conversation around the four types of hybridization – and in this post I would like to propose that as a class we seemed to favor the transdisciplinary approach as the most effective manner of addressing the ‘wicked problems’ of sustainable development. In the current approach to sustainability planning, and much project management in general, our class agreed that an interdisciplinary approach has mainly been utilized, which, while encouraging collaboration, still sets up barriers between disciplines. The transdisciplinary approach could represent the evolution of how we think about urban sustainability policy, as it stresses that problems be the drivers of knowledge rather than disciplines. I believe this train of thought became especially apparent as we presented our ‘grab bag’ ideas for the question of how to move cities beyond pilots and into action.

In response to this ‘grab bag,’ the class provided a range of projects, approaches and case studies to highlight how cities are truly moving past the pilot phase of sustainability projects and onto real, viable action. These concepts very much link up to cities taking a more transdisciplinary approach to solve a sustainability issue. Many of the examples demonstrated how a city or group innovated to approach a problem or push forth a sustainable solution, rather than simply convening a working group to examine ‘best practices’ and conduct yet another pilot. In my frustration around the overreliance of cities on pilot programs rather than actionable items, I believe I was (unknowingly) also speaking to this tension between interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches to sustainability solutions. Cities that look towards a transdiciplinary approach as a driver for urban sustainability policy may ultimately come out with more innovative, long-lasting solutions. It would be great for people to post their grab bag solutions, and respond to where they believe their approach falls on the Hybridization spectrum.


8 thoughts on “Reconciling urban sustainability tools with equitable development: Does a transdisciplinary approach further these goals?

  1. The question about what tools do communities need to implement sustainability measures makes me direct my focus at the local scale. Every segment of the community has different needs and experience a particular socio-economic context. Especially for folks who face poverty and are politically marginalized, I keep thinking how does sustainability become accessible to residents? By accessible, I mean, how does sustainability frameworks, tools, and actions become connected to the everyday life experiences of residents? How does sustainability become relevant to the issues they face? The reason I bring these questions up is because I still feel that much of the awareness and understanding of sustainable development remains within certain groups of people, either within city planning, environmental movement, academics, and environmental justice advocates. I feel that there needs to be greater movement building at the local level with residents who are still disconnected to the issue of sustainable development. By integrating more residents through more inclusive approaches that educate and connect them to other systemic issues they relate to directly, then this would further increase the pressure to gain the political will necessary to implement sustainable development policies and practices.

  2. Great recap of both days’ discussions! As for the grab bag question, my thoughts were more related to the general processes of policy creation and project implementation (versus an example of a successful case study). I found this article that I thought summed up some basic ideas on what it takes to pass and implement successful public policy (it specifically focused on environmental flow policies, however many of the ideas could be applied to any type of policy) —

    The article mentions the following recommendations:

    1. Undertake a phased approach to implementation
    2. Be opportunistic (taking advantage of existing or potential resources)
    3. Don’t exceed available capacity; build capacity into the process

    5. Develop a clear statement of objectives based on an inclusive, transparent and well-communicated process
    6. Develop a clear institutional framework, with independent oversight.
    7. Create sustainable financing mechanisms
    8. Conduct proof-of-concept pilot programs
    9. Allow flexibility for implementation methods

    I just focused on point #8, which talked about how successful pilot programs build not only technical capacity but also political support. As they state, “The engagement of stakeholders in pilot projects ensures buy-in and builds trust that catalyses broader policy reform.”

    Obviously, I tend to perceive a lot of issues through the lenses of advocacy and community organizing — how relationship building and winning more (powerful and influential) people over to your side is crucial for any policy to take hold and be implemented successfully. Public-private partnerships are one way that this can happen. Companies invested in a certain solution and/or CBO’s who have the expertise to carry programs out are both key. After observing different grassroots campaigns, I’ve seen how a broad array of stakeholders can move lawmakers and government bodies into action – having pressure and influence from multiple different camps really helps: from community members, to elected officials, to think tanks, to advocates, to unions, to the private sector. It also works across sectors and industries. For example, gaining union support for an education justice campaign can be powerful (politically) for your campaign – and feasible if you can frame the issue so that investing in a better public education system directly helps unionized workers of a specific local (or a union of unions).

    One thing that some campaigns do well is to bring in “non-traditional allies” — people who you normally think wouldn’t support your cause. The example I gave was the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights that passed in NYC. One of the biggest lessons learned was that they outreached to people of all different backgrounds to see if they could join the campaign. Wealthy families who benefit from the under-the-table work and low wages of domestic workers (made up of mostly immigrant women) may not always be the opponents to such a bill. In this case, the coalition contacted synagogue families who employed domestic workers, with the framing that more justice for domestic workers means better care for their families. Some families took up the fight and did not organizing in their own synagogues, but also advocacy in the state legislature.

  3. lrudis

    Thanks, Hannah! There’s so much to dive into after break!

    How do we get past piloting and testing? I think this was a great question for the grab bag because it made us synthesize our previous discussions around hybridization, scalability of actions, and justainability all at once. I found it very interesting that many of the examples brought to the table were public-private partnerships. My own example was the partnership between Google and Kansas City, MO to create large-scale, gigabit speed municipal internet provision. In this pilot program, if enough residents of a certain area sign up for Google internet, Google will pay for the infrastructure improvements necessary to provide that area with free basic internet access and faster internet and tv for a fee. This project seems like it could leverage the willingness and ability of large corporations to take larger financial risks than municipalities into programs for the municipal good- in this case, a project that may help to bridge the digital divide.

    I wonder, however, whether these sorts of projects actually embody a transdisciplinary philosophy. Historically, a major problem with PPPs is that they do not provide adequate space for public participation. Can we think of ourselves as working in a transdisciplinary way if there are groups that inherently have less of an understanding of a particular discipline? I think this also ties into Amir’s point about GIS serving as a wonderful platform for public participation, once the interface is friendly enough to accommodate most of the public. In order for transdiscipline work to really work, we have to make sure that all participants (if we consider previous discussions of justainability, we believe that all people have the right to participate) are brought into this level of thinking.

  4. Thanks for tying together our discussions so concisely and insightfully, Hannah. I think this is a great post, and records our complex conversations in a useful way.

    The idea I brought to the grab bag discussion focused on two themes: first, the importance of understanding “sustainability” from a life-cycle point of view; and second, the potential held by ancient or existing technologies as viable sustainability strategies. I was thinking about the importance of creating indicators to measure the success (or failure) of pilot programs, and about how these indicators often incentivize using new technologies to move toward sustainability. For example, LEED criteria supports triple-glazed windows as “green” technology, but the embodied energy in triple-glazing is higher. Moreover, although even from a life-cycle analysis perspective, new “green” technologies often are less energy intensive than traditional modern technologies, the resources, time, and energy invested in researching and creating these new technologies are a significant barrier. Looking to ancient technologies for retention/protection from heat and cold, energy production, water systems, etc., which have already undergone thousands of years of testing, may prove to be more effective (and less pilot-y) strategies.

    In terms of the question about where this idea falls on the hybridization spectrum, this approach adds a third dimension of “hybridity” or “transcendence” to the discussion in breaking down temporal silos. Looking to the past goes against the teleological understandings of progress to which modern (or at least Western) society generally subscribes, and so supports our class’ seeming preference for transdisciplinary approaches.

  5. Very Thorough Summary. Thank you.

    • Using GIS seem to be spreading with time but the level of data complexity and the sophistication of the tools still makes it limited to professionals who master it. The future of using GIS in planning seem to be related to developing advanced tools in a very customized and friendly interface for the users/residents/citizens to use in the public participation sessions and online feedback through web-based GIS.

    • I agree that compact development can be discussed is a solution, but in application related to developing countries, it is important to be aware of the value of the public space and the remaining un built areas. The densification and compacting shall be to serve the people who are part of the process and not just compacting them to eat more of their remaining spaces by other capitalist. In other words, the environmental consideration and equity shall be fully taken in consideration when applying compact development as a solution.

    • Transdisciplinary is a very interesting approach and very appropriate when addressing issues related to sustainability. As a very complex and wicked problem, sustainability needs to be addressed as a problem that combine multi factors and different stakeholders but aiming towards one scientific goal. That makes it more realistic process and brings better solutions than addressing it as a single discipline challenge. In fact, and according to discussion in class, addressing sustainability as a transdisciplinary issue is not any more an option or luxury but a must to provide full understanding of our current problems.

  6. skonala254

    I was, unfortunately, unable to be in class on March 18th, so I’m looking forward to seeing all the strategies and examples that everyone came up with in reference to Hannah’s “grab bag” question. When I think of pilot projects in transportation sustainability, I immediately think of the recent trend in implementing bicyclist and pedestrian pilot projects in major cities in the US. Some well-known examples include the Greenlight for Midtown Project in New York (, the Folsom Complete Street Pilot Project in San Francisco (,and the Latham Square Pilot Project in Oakland ( These types of transportation pilot projects that look at improving bicyclist and pedestrian facilities tend to be largely successful because they are originally set up as temporary projects with a minimal cost. The pilot projects allow engineers and planners to show the improvements that the changes can have on quality of life and can convince the general public of the feasibility of making the change permanent.

    The Greenlight for Midtown Pilot Project is a well- known project that created pedestrian areas on Broadway Ave in Times Square. Traffic engineers studied the site and determined that changing a section of Broadway to pedestrian only would improve traffic flows and increase pedestrian safety. There was much criticism of the plan before it was implemented, mostly from opponents who believed that traffic congestion would become worse. The project was set up as a temporary pilot project and the travel speeds overall increased even though a few streets saw a slight decline in speeds. However, the improvements in safety have been phenomenal as injuries to motorists and passengers in the area decreased by 63%. Because of the success of the pilot project, there is a plan in place to make the changes permanent. I believe that this case study shows the strength of pilot projects in showing the general public that there is value in implementing the project in a large scale.

    In terms of the institutions involved this seemed to be an interdisciplinary solution with the state DOT taking the lead but working with local businesses and city officials to make the idea into a reality. However, the fact that the driving force behind the project was to address a specific traffic and safety issue in Times Square makes the solution more transdisciplinary.

  7. teowickland

    I appreciated our discussion around sustainability policy tools. I think that the cases of both Portland and New York City showed that we cannot decouple questions of environmental, social and economic justice. (Most likely we as a class already believed this; yet this reality is certainly not reflected in most policy actions today.) In Portland, the UGB attempts to promote environmental sustainability, yet undermines social justice and is undone by normative paradigms around the primacy of ‘economic growth’. In New York, the logic of economic growth at all costs (in other words, the financial valuation of production coupled with the non-valuation or under-valuation of the environment and people) means that the question of reducing waste is seen as an economic cost, whereas it is in fact beneficial to the well-being of people (now and in the future). Thanks for putting ‘solutions’ in scare-quotes; these policies are not solutions, but rather move problems around.

    Regarding the grab-bag activity, I presented two case studies related to reorienting cities away from the automobile:

    1) Hamburg’s Grünes Netz plan to create wholly walkable/bikeable networks to render cars redundant in the city within 20 years. This would encourage justice and sustainability holistically, across environmental (emissions reduction), social (public health, civic engagement, affordability) and economic (energy/waste reduction, agglomeration density) dimensions.
    (Note this project has been reported elsewhere as a plan to eliminate cars within 20 years, but that is not an explicit part of the policy. The project foresees retaining reduced quantities of auto traffic lanes and on-street parking.)

    2) China’s Great City project, which envisions a car-free city of 80,000 people. The masterplan foresees all 80,000 residents living within walking distance of a single rail station, so that transportation within the city would be largely on foot. The extensive green space (and commuter-friendly design) recalls Ebenezer Howard’s garden cities. The city is currently under construction and is expected to be replicated elsewhere in China, if successful. As with all masterplanned communities, questions of social justice and social sustainability are difficult to answer before people move in. That said, to my eye, the city does not imply any radical social realignment, other than an abandonment of the auto (which of course we had extensive cultural experience with prior to 1920 or so). I believe it may imply a society and culture derived more directly from nature and less directly from particular conceptions or theories of modernity or wealth. Such questions aside, the environmental, social and economic benefits that apply to the Grünes Netz plan would likely apply here as well.

    I believe these projects are rather transdisciplinary, as they incorporate architectural, urbanist, environmental, economic and social goals into unified visions.

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