Taking Sustainable Cities Seriously. Economic Development, the Environment, and Quality of Life in American Cities

By Louw, Erik | The Town Planning Review, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Taking Sustainable Cities Seriously. Economic Development, the Environment, and Quality of Life in American Cities


Louw, Erik, The Town Planning Review


Taking Sustainable Cities Seriously. Economic Development, the Environment, and Quality of Life in American Cities, Kent E. Portney, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2003, 284 pp., £43.50 (h/b), £17.50 (p/b)

The dilemma at the core of this book is that, even though it is generally accepted that sustainable development is a serious issue, this does not mean that cities are serious in their pursuit of sustainability. Ascertaining how seriously cities are pursuing sustainability is, however, difficult as the conceptual literature on sustainability is not altogether useful as a foundation for making judgements and because local contexts differ greatly.

Portney defines a sustainable city as one that is working hard to promote some operational version of sustainability. The United States lags somewhat behind Western Europe in implementing sustainable initiatives so such cities are relatively scarce in the USA. The empirical part of the book therefore concentrates on 24 cities which are well known for their sustainable policies. The emphasis is not on the extent to which they have actually achieved particular environmental results but whether issues of sustainability are clearly and unambiguously on the public agenda. To make a judgement, the author looks at the presence of sustainability plans and sustainability indicators. By identifying 34 elements, a 'Taking Sustainable Cities Seriously' index is computed by simply using a Yes when present and a No when absent, although how these judgements are reached is not always clear. In the various chapters in which the sustainable policies and initiatives of the 24 cities are portrayed, no reference to the index is made whatsoever. In some cases it is not easy to understand why a city gets a Yes or No score after reading about a particular initiative, which calls into question how serious the index is.

The initial intention of the author is to not discuss the results, although this resolve weakens when he is portraying the various elements of sustainable initiatives. For instance, when discussing smart growth approaches Portney doubts whether they actually produce or help to produce a sustainable city. As such, whether or not tangible environmental results can be reached or how difficult the process is does not say anything about the seriousness of cities in their pursuit of these results. This highlights a major weakness of the book, namely the way it deals with the implementation of sustainable policies. The efforts and resources cities put into the implementation process are excluded, while on the other hand there is a lot of attention on what Portney calls the 'communitarian foundations of sustainable cities', the participatory process to build the social capital required for the effective pursuit of sustainability. …

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