Sustainable City Framework

Author: Julian Hart

Derivation of the Framework

The Framework has been designed to model the manner, in which healthy and successful cities evolve. In stark contrast to many other projects on Sustainable Cities, which most often address those factors which inhibit the development of cities, the Framework identifies those criteria which a city must achieve in order to be healthy, successful and, ultimately, sustainable. For this Framework, a city is taken to be the built environment and the resident population considered as a combined whole and functioning as a coherent (living) system (analogous to, yet different from, other living systems such as ecosystems and organisms).

The Framework comprises five rows and three columns (see below). The five rows have been identified through a combination of considering the generic survival requirements of a city, when treated as a coherent living system, and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs (at the individual level). The latter are: physiological needs, security needs, socialising needs, self-esteem and self-actualisation. The three columns have been identified from Popper’s Three Worlds Theorem within his Objective Theory of Knowledge. Popper’s three worlds relate to the physical environment, the individual mind of a single human being and society (the social world). Using Giddens’ Structuration Theory and Weber’s ideas on community, an argument can be constructed that each of these three worlds interact. The process of interaction gives the three columns of the Framework. ‘City’ represents the interface between the whole city and the physical and ecological environments within and without. ‘Culture’ represents the interaction between the individual and wider society: the social environment of the city, in which they live out their lives. And ‘Population’ relates to the statistical aggregate relationship between individual human beings in a city and their own physical and biological environments (for example, personal hygiene). The last interaction differs from the City process because the City, as a system, represents more than the ‘sum of the parts’, where the parts are individual human beings.

Combining the rows and columns leads to a table containing fifteen cells, which could be used to develop or frame indicators of health and/or sustainability for cities. In creating this Framework, the City and Population columns were identified first and then the nature of the cells in the Culture column were deduced through analysis of Popper’s, Giddens’ and Weber’s ideas.

Level 5 Creativity and Innovation to advance cultural, technological and economic development SOCIAL MOBILITY
‘making it possible for individuals to follow their own ambitions and succeed’
Self-fulfilment Needs
Level 4 Flexibility and Adaptability of the city’s structure and economy
‘communicating freely to generate opportunities for individuals and businesses’
Egotistical Needs
self-esteem and self-confidence
Level 3 Regeneration of the physical, built and natural environments within the city and of the population
‘generating social capital and improving the environment through communal activity’
Social Needs
affection and community support
Level 2 Safety of the city from the forces of nature and from attach from other cities
‘creating the social structure for society and facilitating economic activity’
Security Needs
shelter and safety from other people in the city and the elements
Level 1 Energy and material flows through the city, which are fundamental to the survival of any living system
‘breaking down cultural barriers and enabling free thinking’
Physiological Needs
food, water and warmth
The names given to the identified Cultural Traits are those labels currently used in our language for various social principles; these appear to most closely correlate with the processes found within the Framework.

Understanding the Framework

Maslow proposed that, in relation to his Hierarchy of Human Needs, a healthy human being would attribute increasing importance to the higher levels of the Hierarchy as he/she grows and develops. A baby is exclusively interested in satisfying its physiological needs (food, water and warmth). As infant grows into toddler, then personal security needs gain in importance and so on. At the stage of the mature adult all needs will, on average, be treated with equal importance, giving precedence to specific needs as circumstances dictate.

It is proposed that the Sustainable City Framework be considered in a similar manner. Starting from tens of thousands of years ago, as human groupings and latterly cities develop and evolve, they progress up the Framework from the base level. Incrementally, over generations, the Culture of the society in a healthy city matures and places greater emphasis on fulfilling the Cultural Traits that lie higher up the Framework. Cultures in history, and others present today, can be seen to have faltered at different levels of the Framework and been unable to progress. For example, through heavy reliance on slavery, Ancient Greek culture failed to achieve inter alia Social Mobility. For various reasons, Roman culture failed to embrace Sustainability.

At each Level of the Framework, positive feedbacks exist, such that achievement of a cultural trait (and the other associated factors, under City and Population) reinforce each other to continually improve performance in each column at that Level. It is proposed that there are, however, also negative feedback mechanisms that can erode performance at a particular level and can ultimately lead to pathological behaviour of a city society.

Analysing our modern cultures in cities of the Western world, it can be seen that we have partially achieved all levels of the Framework. However, there is clearly room for improvement in order to ensure that our cultures fully embrace the higher levels of the Framework, enabling individuals within our populations to achieve their own human aspirations. Other modern Cultures are clearly still struggling to embrace Critical Thinking and Justice, leave alone the higher levels. The caste system in India is a good example of hindered development.

Explanation of the Cultural Traits

The value of this Framework is that it shows the importance that Culture has on the progress of development of cities. This is a factor which has heretofore been largely ignored within studies of the sustainability of cities, but which is nowadays being taken seriously by businesses and corporations in terms of their own success. The Framework identifies distinct cultural traits and provides a means to define much more clearly what (for example) Sustainability, as a cultural trait or social principle, represents.

Critical Thinking

According to the ideas of Jane Jacobs, cities were originally trading centres. Through this they have always been the centres of economic, technological and cultural development within society. She identified that a defining feature of cities is their role as cultural mixing pots, bringing together through trade peoples from diverse cultures and geographical locations. The first hint, and eventually the full revolution, of Giddens’ Modernity became evident within cities, because of their ability to break down cultural barriers and emancipate individuals to achieve freedom of thought. The manifestation of this is Science.


A good example of the generation of Justice arose from the need of mediaeval European cities to build city walls for their own protection. The process of constructing a city wall required social organisation, which in turn necessitated the implementation of a basic legal system. The outcome of the whole process was a city wall, which protected all the inhabitants of the city. Social organisation requires justice, based on some form of legal system. In turn this enables economic activity and social structures to exist and grow.


Sustainability has been loosely described as the balancing of social, economic and environmental aspirations (the Triple Bottom Line); the Framework does not conflict with this definition. It infers that Sustainability is a process where individuals working together, or in close proximity, to improve the quality of the environment, develop closer and stronger communities. Hence social capital and environmental quality are linked and mutually reinforce. The outcome of the actions at the individual and community level is regeneration of the wider city. In contrast, social and environmental decay can be seen frequently to go hand-in-hand.

Freedom of Information

Level 4 of the Framework addresses the flow of information through society. At the individual level, access to information enables people to become educated and find out about the opportunities in the economy and society which may be available to them. At the business level, this allows companies to access markets and is particularly beneficial for small enterprises. The outcome of this is a thriving and continually diversifying economy and individuals are able to access employment, which gives them self-esteem and self-confidence.

Social Mobility

While Freedom of Information will enable people and businesses to become aware of opportunities, they may not be able to take advantage of them unless the culture in the society allows them. In highly hierarchic societies (such as the Indian caste system) large proportions of the population are excluded from being able to succeed and advance themselves because of their birth. Embracing Social Mobility breaks down the social hierarchy and allows everyone to follow their own ambitions and aspirations. In this way the whole of society can participate in the adventure of creativity, innovation and exploration, enabling society to advance socially, environmentally, technologically and economically.

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