Urban Sustainability in the 21st Century

“Inequalities in the physical health and social fabric of cities constitute a threat to urban sustainability and call into question the ability of cities to collectively respond to environmental challenges” writes BARI Co-Director Robert J. Sampson, in a newly published paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS).

In the paper, titled “Urban sustainability in an age of enduring inequalities: Advancing theory and ecometrics for the 21st-century city,” Sampson argues that while cities have taken strides to address urban environmental challenges, there has been a lack of study on the role that social sustainability plays in achieving urban sustainability goals. Ultimately, the processes of social sustainability and environmental sustainability are inextricably intertwined, and cities need analytic tools to understand them as such.

Thanks to newly emerging data sources and the development of “ecometrics,” the metrics of social ecology, researchers and policymakers can better measure and understand the factors of social sustainability, from civic engagement to economic deprivation to physical infrastructure. One example of this, Sampson notes, is BARI’s work with Boston’s “311” data, which lead to the development of the ecometrics engagement and custodianship—being aware of and willing to use the system, and the likelihood of reporting an issue once a user.

While ecometrics such as these will not solve the social inequalities they may uncover, they offer a city a more in-depth look at the social processes occurring across its neighborhoods. As Sampson concludes, “Like living in harmony with the environment, living in harmony socially is a major challenge. The frontier for urban sustainability is therefore not only to integrate environmental and social sustainability, but also to work out equitable principles and policies for urban governance in an otherwise unequal world.”


Robert J. Sampson, Department of Sociology and Boston Area Research Initiative, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138

Published On: January 11, 2017 |
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