We have entered the urban century and addressing a broad suite of sustainability challenges in urban areas is increasingly key for our chances to transform the entire planet towards sustainability. For example, cities are responsible for 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions and, at the same time, 90% of urban areas are situated on coastlines, making the majority of the world’s population increasingly vulnerable to climate change. While urbanization accelerates, meeting the challenges will require unprecedented transformative solutions for sustainability with a careful consideration of resilience in their implementation. However, global and local policy processes often use vague or narrow definitions of the concepts of ‘urban sustainability’ and ‘urban resilience’, leading to deep confusion, particularly in instances when the two are used interchangeably. Confusion and vagueness slow down needed transformation processes, since resilience can be undesirable and many sustainability goals contrast, or even challenge efforts to improve resilience. Here, we propose a new framework that resolves current contradictions and tensions; a framework that we believe will significantly help urban policy and implementation processes in addressing new challenges and contributing to global sustainability in the urban century.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.25 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2014).
Acuto, M., Parnell, S. & Seto, K. C. Building a global urban science. Nat. Sustain. 1, 2–4 (2018).
Seto, K. C. et al. Urban land teleconnections and sustainability. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 7687–7692 (2012).
Bai, X. et al. Six research priorities for cities and climate change. Nature 555, 23–25 (2018).
Bai, X. et al. in Urban Planet: Knowledge Towards Sustainable Cities (eds Elmqvist, T. et al.) 462–482 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2018).
Bettencourt, L. et al. Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104, 7301–7306 (2007).
Steffen, W. et al. Planetary boundaries: guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347, 1259855 (2015).
From Shared Risk to Shared Value: The Business Case for Disaster Risk Reduction. Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2013).
McPhillips, L. E. et al. Defining extreme events: a cross-disciplinary review. Earth’s Future 6, 441–455 (2018).
Dickson, E., Baker, J. L., Hoornweg, D. & Asmita, T. Urban Risk Assessments: An Approach for Understanding Disaster and Climate Risk in Cities (The World Bank, 2012).
Graham, S. Disrupted Cities: When Infrastructure Fails (Routledge, 2010).
McPhearson, T. et al. Advancing urban ecology toward a science of cities. BioScience 66, 198–212 (2016).
Depietri, Y. & McPhearson, T. Changing urban risk: 140 years of climatic hazards in New York City. Climatic Change 148, 95–108 (2018).
Galaz, V. et al. Finance and the Earth system: exploring the links between financial actors and non-linear changes in the climate system. Global Environ. Change 53, 296–302 (2018).
Neumann, B., Vafeidis, A. T., Zimmermann, J. & Nicholls, R. J. Future coastal population growth and exposure to sea-level rise and coastal flooding: a global assessment. PLoS ONE 10, e0118571 (2015).
Romero-Lankao, P., McPhearson, T. & Davidson, D. J. The food-energy-water nexus and urban complexity. Nat. Clim. Change 7, 233–235 (2017).
McPhearson, T. et al. Scientists must have a say in the future of cities. Nature 538, 165–166 (2016).
Elmqvist, T. et al. (eds) Urban Planet: Knowledge Towards Sustainable Cities (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2018).
Solecki. et al. City transformations in a 1.5 °C warmer world. Nature Climate Change 8, 177–181 (2018).
Alberti, M., McPhearson, T. & Gonzalez, A. in Urban Planet: Knowledge Towards Sustainable Cities (eds Elmqvist, T. et al.) Ch. 2, 45–67 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2018).
Elmqvist, T., McPhearson, T., Gaffney, O. & Andersson, E. Sustainability and resilience differ. Nature 546, 352–352 (2017).
Redman, C. Should sustainability and resilience be combined or remain distinct pursuits? Ecol. Soc. 19, 37 (2014).
Zhang, X. & Li, H. Urban resilience and urban sustainability: what we know and what do not know? Cities 72, 141–148 (2018).
Ahern, J. From fail-safe to safe-to-fail: sustainability and resilience in the new urban world. Landscape Urban Plan. 100, 341–343 (2011).
Chelleri, L., Waters, J. J., Olazabal, M. & Minucci, G. Resilience trade-offs: addressing multiple scales and temporal aspects of urban resilience. Environ. Urban. 27, 181–198 (2015).
Harris, L. M., Chu, E. K. & Ziervogel, G. Negotiated resilience. Resilience 6, 196–214 (2017).
Meerow, S. & Newell, J. P. Urban resilience for whom, what, when, where, and why? Urban Geogr. https://doi.org/10.1080/02723638.2016.1206395 (2016).
Vale, L. J. The politics of resilient cities: whose resilience and whose city? Build. Res. Inf. 42, 37–41 (2014).
Anderies, J. M., Folke, C., Walker, B. & Ostrom, E. Aligning key concepts for global change policy: robustness, resilience, and sustainability. Ecol. Soc. 18, 8 (2013).
Meerow, S., Newell, J. P. & Stults, M. Defining urban resilience: a review. Landscape Urban Plan. 147, 38–49 (2016).
Wolfram, M. & Frantzeskaki, N. Cities and systemic change for sustainability: prevailing epistemologies and an emerging research agenda. Sustainability 8, 144 (2016).
Wolfram, M., Frantzeskaki, N. & Maschmeyer, S. Cities, Systems and sustainability: status and perspective of research on urban transformations. COSUST 22, 18–25 (2016).
New Urban Agenda (UN, 2017).
Elmqvist, T. Urban resilience thinking. Solutions 5, 26–30 (2014).
Frantzeskaki, N. & Tilie, N. The dynamics of urban ecosystem governance in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. AMBIO 43, 542–555 (2014).
Folke, C. Resilience (republished). Ecol. Soc. 21, 44 (2016).
Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future (UN, 1987).
Folke, C. et al. Reconnecting to the biosphere. AMBIO 40, 719–738 (2011).
Griggs, D. et al. Sustainable development goals for people and the planet. Nature 495, 305–307 (2013).
Ely, A. et al. Innovation politics post-Rio+20: hybrid pathways to sustainability? Environ. Plan. C Govt Pol. 31, 1063–1081 (2013).
Folke, C., Jansson, Å., Larsson, J. & Costanza, R. Ecosystem appropriation by cities. AMBIO 26, 167–172 (1997).
Carpenter, S., Walker, B., Anderies, J. M. & Abel, N. From metaphor to measurement: resilience of what to what? Ecosystems 4, 765–781 (2001).
Walker, B., Holling, C. S., Carpenter, S. R. & Kinzig, A. Resilience, adaptability and transformability in social–ecological systems. Ecol. Soc. 9, 5 (2004).
Pickett, S. T. A., Cadenasso, M. L. & Grove, J. M. Resilient cities: meaning, models, and metaphor for integrating the ecological, socio-economic, and planning realms. Landscape Urban Plan. 69, 369–384 (2004).
Pelling, M. & Manuel-Navarrete, D. From resilience to transformation: the adaptive cycle in two Mexican urban centers. Ecol. Soc. 16, 11 (2011).
Gunderson, L. H. & Holling, C. S. (eds) Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems (Island, 2002).
Olsson, P. et al. Shooting the rapids: navigating transitions to adaptive governance of social-ecological systems. Ecol. Soc. 11, 18 (2006).
Folke, C. Resilience thinking: integrating resilience, adaptability and transformability. Ecol. Soc. 15, 20 (2010).
Biggs, R. M. et al. (eds) Principles for Building Resilience: Sustaining Ecosystem Services in Social-Ecological Systems (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015).
Westley, F. et al. Tipping towards sustainability: emerging pathways of transformation. AMBIO 40, 762–780 (2011).
McPhearson, T., Andersson, E., Elmqvist, T. & Frantzeskaki, N. Resilience of and through urban ecosystem services. Ecosyst. Serv. 12, 152–156 (2015).
Elmqvist, T. et al. (eds) Urbanization, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: Challenges and Opportunities: A Global Assessment (Springer, 2013).
Marcotullio, P. & McGranahan, G. Scaling the Urban Environmental Transition, from Local to Global and Back (Earthscan, 2007).
Seitzinger, S. et al. Planetary stewardship in an urbanizing world: beyond city limits. AMBIO 41, 787–794 (2012).
Bai, X. et al. Defining and advancing a systems approach in cities. COSUST 23, 69–78 (2017).
Olsson, P., Galaz, V. & Boonstra, W. J. Sustainability transformations: a resilience perspective. Ecol. Soc. 19, 1 (2014).
Levin, S. A. Ecosystems and the biosphere as complex adaptive systems. Ecosystems 1, 431–436 (1998).
McPhearson, T. Urban futures: transforming cities for resilience and sustainability. In 11th Annual Forum of Urbanism Congress 2018 (URNet, UN-Habitat, 2018).
Leach, M., Stirling, A. C. & Scoones, I. Dynamic Sustainabilities: Technology, Environment, Social Justice (Routledge, 2010).
Enfors, E. Social–ecological traps and transformations in dryland agro-ecosystems: using water system innovations to change the trajectory of development. Global Environ. Change 23, 51–60 (2013).
Bennett, E. M. et al. Bright spots: seeds of a good anthropocene. Front. Ecol. Environ. 14, 441–448 (2016).
McPhearson, T., Iwaniec, D. & Bai., X. Positives visions for guiding transformations toward desirable urban futures. COSUST 22, 33–40 (2017).
Pereira, L. M. et al. in Urban Planet: Knowledge Towards Sustainable Cities (eds Elmqvist, T. et al.) Ch. 16, 327–350 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2018).
Wiek, A. & Iwaniec, D. Quality criteria for visions and visioning in sustainability science. Sustain. Sci. 9, 497–512 (2014).
Frantzeskaki, N. & Rok, A. Co-producing urban sustainability transitions knowledge with community, policy and science. Environ. Innov. Soc. Trans. 29, 47–51 (2018).
Fuenfschilling, L., Frantzeskaki, N. & Coenen, L. Urban experimentation and sustainability transitions. Eur. Plan. Stud. 27, 219–228 (2018).
Pereira, L., Karpouzoglou, T., Frantzeskaki, N. & Olsson, P. Designing transformative spaces for sustainability in social-ecological systems. Ecol. Soc. 23, 32 (2018).
Bai, X., McAllister, R. R. J., Beaty, R. M. & Taylor, B. Urban policy and governance in a global environment: complex systems, scale mismatches and public participation. COSUST 2, 129–135 (2010).
Biermann, F. et al. Earth system governance: a research framework. Int. Environ. Agreements Polit. Law Econ. 10, 277–298 (2010).
Colding, J. & Barthel, S. The potential of ‘Urban Green Commons’ in the resilience building of cities. Ecol. Econ. 86, 156–166 (2013).
Buijs, A. et al. Active citizenship for urban green infrastructure: fostering the diversity and dynamics of citizen contributions through mosaic governance. COSUST 22, 1–6 (2017).
Wilkinson, C. Social-ecological resilience insights and issues for planning theory. Plan. Theory 11, 148–169 (2012).
McPhearson, T., Haase, D., Kabisch, N. & Gren, Å. Advancing understanding of the complex nature of urban systems. Ecol. Ind. 70, 566–573 (2016).
Frantzeskaki, N., Kabisch, N. & McPhearson, T. Advancing urban environmental governance: understanding theories, practices and processes shaping urban sustainability and resilience. Environ. Sci. Pol. 62, 1–6 (2016).
Frantzeskaki, N., Castan-Broto, V., Coenen, L. & Loorbach, D. (eds) Urban Sustainability Transitions (Routledge, 2017).
Ehnert, F. et al. The acceleration of urban sustainability transitions: a comparison of Brighton, Budapest, Dresden, Genk and Stockholm. Sustainability 10, 612 (2018).
Frantzeskaki, N. et al. Elucidating the changing roles of civil society in urban sustainability transitions. COSUST 22, 41–50 (2016).
Elmqvist, T. et al. Urban tinkering. Sustain. Sci. 13, 1549–1564 (2018).
Olsson, P., Moore, M. L., Westley, F. R. & McCarthy, D. D. P. The concept of the Anthropocene as a game-changer: a new context for social innovation and transformations to sustainability. Ecol. Soc. 22, 31 (2017).
Moore, M. L., Olsson, P., Nilsson, W., Rose, L. & Westley, F. R. Navigating emergence and system reflexivity as key transformative capacities: experiences from a Global Fellowship program. Ecol. Soc. 23, 38 (2018).
We wish to thank the Biodiversa-funded URBES project for providing the basis for our arguments in this paper and the research space to explore connections between resilience, sustainability and transformations. N.F. is supported by the Horizon 2020 CONNECTING NATURE Project. T.M. is additionally supported by the Urban Resilience to Extreme Weather-related Events Sustainability Research Network (URExSRN; NSF grant no. SES 1444755). T.E. is grateful to IR3S, University of Tokyo, for generously hosting T.E. during the writing of the paper.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Elmqvist, T., Andersson, E., Frantzeskaki, N. et al. Sustainability and resilience for transformation in the urban century. Nat Sustain 2, 267–273 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0250-1
Urban Transformations (2021)
npj Urban Sustainability (2021)
npj Urban Sustainability (2021)
npj Urban Sustainability (2021)