Operationalising urban sustainability: defining, measuring and modelling.

Purvis, Ben (2020) Operationalising urban sustainability: defining, measuring and modelling. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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Despite its ubiquity urban sustainability is a contested concept with no widely accepted definition of what it is, or what it should look like. This lack of consensus surrounding meaning presents barriers to coherent operationalisation to bring about positive change, leading to the dominance of undertheorised indicator based approaches. Such approaches present various issues including the marginalisation of less quantifiable aspects, and the erasure of holism and interaction between relevant phenomena. This thesis seeks to develop a deeper understanding of urban sustainability, and how it can be operationalised to explore coherent ways of improving upon it.

These issues are explored in three distinct research streams, centred around the descriptors of ‘define, measure, model’. Initially urban sustainability is decomposed into its two constituent terms which are reviewed in isolation, in reference to the ‘fractures’ within the bodies of literature. An integrative review utilising backward snowballing probes the origins of the three pillar paradigm of sustainability with reference to the early literature. A semi-systematic review then explores the disciplinary divide between urban studies and urban science drawing out common themes that emerge across the two.

This literature analysis is followed by an exploration, through physical analytical techniques, of thermodynamic entropy as a ‘physical basis’ for measuring unsustainability. Following this, a prototype urban integrated assessment model is developed through the adaptation of Meadows et al. (2005)’s World3 model. Here the paradigm of system dynamics is investigated as a useful frame for emphasising the interaction and feedback between relevant phenomena. Whilst starting from a post-positivist research frame attempting to ‘define, measure, and model’, an epistemological shift was made within this work to a more interpretivist approach using the language of ‘understanding’; this forms an underlying meta-narrative.

Through this work, the Urban1 model is forwarded as a prototype multi-scale system dynamics model presenting a novel method for both understanding and operationalising urban sustainability. This model is used to explore the relationship between the sustainability of the urban system relative to the wider global context. By emphasising feedback, cascading effects, and unintended consequences, such a modelling framework allows for deeper consideration of coupling mechanisms between subsystems both within the urban system and across the broader global scale. By running several scenarios it is demonstrated that there is no place for urban sustainability in an unsustainable world, and therefore multi-scale models are key for assessing the wider context of policy measures taken across different

hierarchical scales.

Thermodynamic entropy is outlined as a conceptual dead end for further exploration, and its continued popularity is shown to derive from conflation of a rigorously defined physical quantity with a metaphorical understanding. The analysis of the literature fractures underscore the political nature of urban sustainability, and it is argued that it should be viewed as a semantically open concept. A synthesis of these research streams outlines a future path for better practice in operationalisation in the future; emphasising the importance of boundaries, a choice that should be pragmatic but ensure interspatial equity; the need for clear theoretical framing rooted in the literature, stating its assumptions and understanding of terms; the importance of pluralism, both methodological and epistemological, alongside the involvement of marginalised stakeholders. These findings have implications for future endeavours attempting to operationalise urban sustainability, and offer significant considerations for future research in this area.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Mao, Yong
Robinson, Darren
Keywords: Urban sustainability, Entropy, System dynamics, Limits to growth, Pluralism
Subjects: H Social sciences > HC Economic history and conditions
Q Science > QC Physics > QC251 Heat
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Science > School of Physics and Astronomy
Item ID: 63363
Depositing User: Purvis, Benjamin
Date Deposited: 31 Dec 2020 04:40
Last Modified: 31 Dec 2020 04:40
URI: https://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/id/eprint/63363

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