Beyond the ‘sustainable city-region’ – prospects for urban intelligence

Joe Ravetz reviews experience from ‘CURE-1’ (Centre for Urban & Regional Ecology), and the prospects for ‘CURE-2’ – Centre for Urban Resilience & Energy.

The text is based on an editorial for the Special Issue on ‘Urban Ecology and Resilience’, Town and Country Planning, October 2013. The Special Issue can be found here.

The first generation CURE – Centre for Urban & Regional Ecology – was set up in 2001 at the University of Manchester to work on ‘sustainable city-regions’: as promoted by the TCPA2: and explored in the large-scale case study City-Region 20203. Since then, models for urban planning and environmental policy have come and gone; but the state of the art in knowledge has made (we think) some progress. As CURE continues to evolve, from ‘urban ecology’ towards the wider agenda for ‘urban resilience’, we are keen to continue the debate.

From urban ecology to urban resilience

The sustainable city-region concept is based on ecological principles, applied to the complex tangle of human and natural systems which self-organise and evolve. In this way, urban/regional ecology shows at least three distinct levels:

  • ecology in the city-region – ecosystems, habitats, biodiversity within cities and urbanized areas;
  • ecology of the physical urban system – flows of energy and materials through the city-region, and/or patterns of land and landscape change; and
  • human ecology of a whole urban system – wider cross-cutting human-environmental interactions:  such as political ecology, industrial ecology, social ecology, ecological design, ecosystem services, eco-psychology, and so on.

This multi-level approach was the basis of a wide-ranging research agenda:  climate change mitigation and adaptation, resource flows, peri-urban development, landscape planning and assessment, green economics, ecological democracy and cultural capital. Working this through, some fundamental themes began to show, in particular, the themes of ‘resilience’ and ‘transition’ – as seen wherever ecological systems meet human systems. For example, if a community is vulnerable to flooding (as many are), we need to analyse the problem in terms of water, ecosystems, landuse, climate change, policies etc.  And then the agenda shifts to the question of ‘so what?’….  We need to think about improvements to the community’s technical resilience to extreme water hazards: its social resilience for working together in emergencies: and its economic resilience for investment before / after the event. Then we find that many communities in this age of austerity, are vulnerable not only to flooding, but to a whole combination of physical, social, cultural, economic, health and demographic problems.  So we have to look not just at problems and solutions one by one, but wider system-wide risks and vulnerabilities, and the response in resilience of various kindsThen we can look at the potential for system-wide changes through transitions, at the scale of city-regions or other viable social, economic or ecological units.

From resilience to shared intelligence

There are now libraries full of research on climate change, environmental science, resource/waste flows, sustainable consumption, landscape and ecological design … all of which are interconnected parts of a larger whole.  But to understand and work with this ‘whole’, seems to go against the grain, of ‘silo’ governance, ‘competitive’ business, and the ‘disciplinary excellence’ of academics.  The emerging policy/research programme of CURE on the shared intelligence of city-regions and communities at every scale, is one response.4

Framed as the ‘synergistic’ city-region, this takes a dynamic angle to the sustainability concept: focusing on the capacity for thinking ahead, creative innovation, responsive adaptation, value creation, and turning problems into opportunities. While there is urgent need for cities to be adaptive and innovative, in reality they are often rigid and short-sighted: for example ‘smart cities’ are now very topical – but it’s clear that ‘smart’ technology means little if the underlying governance and market systems are ‘stupid’.  So the policy-research agenda focuses on the crucial qualities of resilience, and how to build it through shared intelligence – a combination of social learning, deliberation, evaluation, innovating, collaborating and strategic decision-making.  The contrast between the ‘sustainable’ city-region and the emerging ‘synergistic’ way of thinking, can be visualized as in Figure 1 – a very rough picture of a thinking process and landscape of knowledge-into-policy.

Figure 1: From sustainable city-regions to synergistic systems

This is the guiding principle for the next generation of CURE research-policy activity as a ‘Centre for Urban Resilience and Energy’.  We see resilience as ‘ecology in motion’, and energy-climate as the fulcrum point for human-environment relations.  We see research as not only for internal academic disciplines, but also a wider ‘co-production’ and ‘co-evolution’ of multi-lateral shared intelligence: all for a more synergistic kind of governance and enterprise, for the urban century. We are lucky to live in such interesting times.


  1. see the paper in this issue: ‘Urban futures – what will we need to know and how?’
  2. A. Blowers (Ed.): Planning for a Sustainable Environment. TCPA. Earthscan, 1993
  3. J. Ravetz: City-Region 2020: Integrated Planning for a Sustainable Environment. Earthscan, with the Town and Country Planning Association, 2000 (There is a Chinese language version, translated by J.-C. Lin and T.-T. Hu, published by Chan’s Publishing Co. (Taiwan))
  4. J. Ravetz: Urban 3.0: Creative Synergy and Shared Intelligence for the One Planet Century: London, Earthscan, 2014 (forthcoming)
  5. P. Roberts, J. Ravetz and C. George: Environment and City: Critical Perspectives on the Urban Environment around the World. Routledge/Taylor & Francis, 2009

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