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Sustainability and resilience for transformation in the urban century

Nature Sustainabilityvolume 2pages267273 (2019) | Download Citation


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.

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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.

Author information


  1. Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden

    • Thomas Elmqvist
    • , Erik Andersson
    • , Timon McPhearson
    • , Per Olsson
    • , Owen Gaffney
    •  & Carl Folke
  2. North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa

    • Erik Andersson
  3. Dutch Research Institute For Transitions, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

    • Niki Frantzeskaki
  4. Urban Systems Lab, The New School, New York, NY, USA

    • Timon McPhearson
  5. Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Millbrook, NY, USA

    • Timon McPhearson
  6. Integrated Research System for Sustainability Science, The University of Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan

    • Kazuhiko Takeuchi
  7. Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, Kanagawa, Japan

    • Kazuhiko Takeuchi
  8. Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm, Sweden

    • Carl Folke


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T.E., E.A. T.M. and N.F. conceived the main idea in the paper, all authors wrote and commented on the manuscript.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Correspondence to Thomas Elmqvist.

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