Natalie Rosales Pérez, El Colegio Mexiquense, Mexico

Often when we start reading an article about urbanization in the 21st century, we are confronted by statistics and statements along the lines of:

“….More than one half of the world population lives now in urban areas, and by 2050, 66 per cent of the world’s population is projected to be urban…..”

“Richer countries and those in Latin America and the Caribbean have already a large proportion of their population residing in urban areas, whereas Africa and Asia, still mostly rural, will urbanize faster than other regions over the coming decades.”

“Cities are important drivers of development and poverty reduction in both urban and rural areas, as they concentrate much of the national economic activity, government, commerce and transportation, and also provide crucial links with rural areas, between cities, and across international borders”

“As the world continues to urbanize, sustainable development challenges will be increasingly concentrated in cities”

As such, there is a renewed interest in urban settings/environments, and the disciplines concerned with the socio-spatial construction of urban space, as well as the ways in which they deal with the entangled processes of environmental deterioration, natural resources unsustainable consumption, multi- cultural and divided societies, socio-spatial segregation inequalities, ecological overshoots, poverty urbanization and informality. Urbanization is now seen as a powerful engine to drive growth and remake the economy within the media and within international and local policy documents. Cities are seen as green and political leaders talk about the importance of urban planning. The importance of urban development is a part of our popular culture. To give a recent example, I attended a musical in Broadway where the storyline was based on the life and misfortunes of an Urban Planner in New York City.

But, does that means that the city has in fact ‘triumphed’ to promote equity, welfare, environmental protection and shared prosperity in an urbanizing world? In my opinion, if the urban environment, with all its opportunities for fulfillment, is to become the habitat of nearly all humanity, it must take a radically different form. Tackling sustainability in an urbanizing era requires rethinking and rebuilding urbanism, because the quality of life in urban regions could, at one end of the spectrum condemn people to deprivation, exclusion and environmental depletion or, on the other end, foster fulfillment of human potential and reestablish our relations with nature – depending on how these regions are planned, managed and governed. But, how urban planning can break boundaries and frame sustainability transitions and transformations?

Over the last few decades, the practice of urban planning has tried to shift from being technocratic, top-down and ‘objective’, to more participatory and collaborative, with room for diversity of opinion. Planning theory perspectives have incorporated the notions of diversity, inclusion, equity, democracy, consensus building, justice, and environmental ethics. One might say that planning has gone from modernism to postmodernism. Whilst this has been successful in terms of some refreshing practices to make general citizens feel more engaged in shaping their cities, and sustainability narratives incorporated into urban perspectives just greening planning, there are a number of challenges that remain to be addressed.

If urbanism takes place at two levels: theory (the way we envision urban life in the future and the different ways of framing categories and methods to respond and solve urban questions) and practice (the art of place-making and the way in which urban practitioners work and shape the interaction of inhabitants of urban areas with the built and natural environment); and sustainability issues are indeed so deeply entrenched in our believes, worldviews, values, attitudes and ways of life, it follows that successful sustainable cities in general can only be achieved by promoting an alternative to mainstream urbanism. This alternative should embrace the ecological dimension of urban development, environmental protection, the satisfaction of human needs and aspirations, changes in the distribution of costs and benefits, and the notions of equity and diversity.

Despite the increasing attention that is currently given to sustainable development, and the fact that culture is regarded as either the fourth pillar, an underpinning concept, or the means of integrating the economic, social, and environmental pillars, existing research and policies do not adequately consider the importance of a culture of sustainability in planning perspectives and its potential to facilitate a culturally embedded transition to possible sustainable urban futures.

A transition towards a sustainable city may be found in alternative forms of managing cities that from reorganise living conditions (e.g. rural Eco villages, eco-municipalities sustainable cities, small-scale urban towns). Alternative forms can reduce environmental impacts by altering the built environment to create and preserve ecosystems and reinforce human wellbeing; change current patterns of land use, livelihoods, everyday life practices from housing to consumption, food systems, mobility; enable participation and empowerment; and most of all restore our relationships with nature in the city.

So, this is the challenge we have to take on: we must build a culture of sustainability through urban planning.

Changing attitudes and behaviours and encouraging sustainable values can be done through education that promote biophilia (a love of living systems) in urban patterns that recognise the connections and interdependence of human and non human life, and make visible the processes that sustain life. Planning then, in its role of managing urbanization processes, regional and inter-regional economic development, cultural changes of building the city, the transformation of nature, as well as politics and the empowerment of citizens (Friedman, 1992), can enable incremental changes that will set the ground for complex transformations.

The more we incorporate cultural aspects and ethics on sustainability into planning theories, research and practice, such strategies can influence individual and social behavior and enable citizens to ‘experience’ nature in a productive, meaningful, and personal way. At the same time, a culture of sustainability could foster social justice and equity at the community level. The more effort we put into building socially and ecologically equitable cities, the more successful our cities will be to create a sustainability citizenship: ‘pro-sustainability behavior (Dobson, 2011).Because as Derrick Jensen said: “We cannot hope to create a sustainable culture with any but sustainable souls.”


Derrick, J. 2006. Endgame, Volume 1: The Problem of Civilization. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Dobson, A. 2011. Sustainability citizenship. United Kingdom: Green House. Available at http://www.greenhousethinktank.org/files/greenhouse/private/Sustainability_Citizenship_inside.pdf

Friedman, J. 1992. “Planeación para el siglo XXI: el desafío del postmodernismo”, Revista EURE 18 (55):128-146.

Author Biography
Foto Natalie RosalesDr Natalie Rosales is a Research Fellow for The Council on Science and Technology of Mexico at El Colegio Mexiquense. Natalie is interested in building an alternative urbanism. She is presently working on advancing urban sustainability through the integration of planning evaluation methodologies. Her work focuses on developing innovative urban planning instruments (contextual and procedural) that can be used to institutionalize sustainability.  Her most recent publication is “Walking the path to urban sustainability: What is still missing in current urban planning models?” in ‘Untamed Urbanisms’, a forthcoming book edited by Allen, Swilling, and Lampis, published by Routledge.



Contact emails: natalie_rp2000@yahoo.com.mx  or  nrosales@cmq.edu.mx




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Dialogues of sustainable urbanisation: Social science research and transitions to urban contexts Copyright © 2015 by Natalie Rosales Pérez, El Colegio Mexiquense, Mexico is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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