Sustainable Urban Development in the UK: Rhetoric or Reality?

Article excerpt


The concept of sustainable urban development represents a major challenge for governments throughout the contemporary world. Despite the rhetoric of sustainable development over the past two decades, the gap between public declarations of principle and implementation of concrete measures remains significant in most cities. This article first examines the complex concept of sustainable urban development then charts the emergence of a sustainable development philosophy within UK urban policy. The theoretical and structural level analysis is complemented by consideration of current strategies aimed at sustainable development in part of the Thames Gateway. Finally, a number of conclusions are presented on the prospects for sustainable urban development in the UK.


The majority of the world population now lives in urban areas, and it is estimated that, if current trends continue, 65% of the population will be urban dwellers by the year 2025. Urbanisation and urban growth on this unprecedented scale pose fundamental questions as to whether this magnitude of urban development can be sustained. Consequently, the pursuit of sustainable urban development (SUD) has emerged as a major challenge for governments throughout the contemporary world. The concept of sustainable development, in general terms, aims to meet 'the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs' (World Commission on Sustainable Development, 1987). Essentially, in seeking to realise the goal of sustainable urban change, societies must aim to achieve a balance between economic, social and environmental priorities.

The ideal world envisaged at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 was one in which the objectives of sustainable development would be fulfilled at all levels of spatial organisation (Figure 1). Agenda 21 of the Summit focused particular attention on the challenge of sustainable development at the urban scale. In 1994 the Global Forum on Cities and Sustainable Development considered 50 cities' reports on progress being made towards sustainable development (Mitlin and Satterthwaite, 1994), and in 1996 the UN City Summit (Habitat II) monitored the progress of cities across the globe on achieving sustainability (UN Centre for Human Settlements, 1996). Following the 2002 Rio+10 Earth Summit, numerous international agencies and governments embraced sustainable urban development as a goal, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (1996; 2001), the European Community (1999; 2001), and the World Bank (1995) now all have sustainable cities programmes. In contrast to the level of attention directed to the principles of sustainable development, however, implementation of policies to achieve SUD 'on the ground' is less widespread. As the EC's Expert Group on the Urban Environment-Sustainable Cities Project (1994) concluded: 'the gap between public declarations and concepts on the one hand, and concrete measures taken on the other hand, remains large in most cities'. This article examines the extent of the gap between the rhetoric and reality of SUD in the UK

The disjuncture between theory and praxis in SUD reflects the influence of a number of contemporary society's key characteristics. First, the rhetoric of sustainable development can, on occasion, obscure the reality that, in the short-medium term at least, cities will continue to be net consumers of resources and producers of waste products simply because of the relative intensity of social and economic activity in urban places. second, the idealism attached to SUD should not be permitted to cloud the fact that most people will not voluntarily relinquish a cherished lifestyle (such as, for example, an urban workplace and rural residence). Third, though embraced in principle by governments, the goal of sustainability is not an integral element of market capitalism and will inevitably encounter opposition from entrenched interests. …