20 February 2014

PennIUR: Expert Voices

The following was submitted to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design as part of the Sustainable Cities elective in Spring 2014.

2014 marks PennIUR's 10th anniversary.

To mark their tenth anniversary the Penn Institute for Urban Research (Penn IUR) has asked a number of “urban experts” to reflect upon the role of the city in shaping the remainder of the twenty-first century, with particular focus on “sustainable growth”. (1)  Penn IUR is “dedicated to advancing cross-disciplinary urban-focused research” (2) and this is reflected in the diverse background of the eighteen invited ‘experts’. That such a wide range of disciplines are represented, from a range of organizations, (3)  is illustrative of the fact that urban issues require collaboration between not only architects, urban planners or government officials but a variety of professionals and, most importantly, ordinary citizens themselves. (4) The nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be characterised by the increasing disconnect between these various ‘stakeholders’ however urban dwelling has always been an amalgamation of multi-variable problems, and is reassuring to see that the silos between disciplines are finally being broken down to provide multi-variable solutions.

This ‘new’ expanded field of urban study aims to bring a “holistic” approach to issues of human habitation in the built environment and is one which Eugénie Birch identifies as having been missed from earlier discourse. Alongside this language of holism a series of interrelated themes—resilience, social justice, inequality, inclusivity, public goods, infrastructure, scale, and environmental justice—are threaded through each opinion piece so that central ideas are repeated, albeit with each different voice bringing something new to the discussion, describing a future that is recognisable in outline but blurred in detail. The majority of the authors are optimistic about this future; the city is seen as a creative force for good, full of opportunity, and the only viable solution to the threats facing mankind. Some authors though are more sceptical, and caution against placing too much faith in all cities and urban centres, including David Hsu, who states: “Some cities will help, some cities will hurt, and we need to know the difference.”

Another commonality among the pieces is the emergence of cities as complex entities that have moved beyond the traditional confines of national frameworks and instead now sit within complex global networks; echoing Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley in The Metropolitan Revolution. (5) These new ‘city-states’, with their ‘activist mayors’, are seen as being more responsive to rapidly changing global situations and better positioned to deliver the public infrastructure required to ensure a more socially equitable future for all. This represents a paradigm shift in how long standing challenges of equity might be dealt with however, given that these challenges have been so long standing and that cities have always been portrayed as creative incubators of human innovation, one must question why, so far, they have been unable to meet this challenge.

In the absence of a concrete definition for “sustainability” readers are left to infer their own interpretation of what it means to be “sustainable” from powerful statements and one-liners. (6) For example, to Richard Weller it implies redesigning a problem at its source, while for Mark Alan Hughes it involves “a resilient use of resources”. The boundary of the discussion is never firmly set. Furthermore, little attempt is made to question whether or not the concept of “growth” is indeed appropriate going forward. The idea of urbanity is firmly tethered to the idea of progress, and by extension growth, but if we are indeed entering a new paradigm even this age-old relationship must be challenged.


The following was submitted to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design as part of the Sustainable Cities elective in Spring 2014.

1. Penn IUR, ‘Expert Voices 2014: Penn IUR Celebrates 10 Years’ [Online] No date. Available at: [Accessed: 22nd January 2014]
2. Penn IUR, ‘About Penn IUR’ [Online] No date. Available at: [Accessed: 28th January 2014]
3. There is a slight bias, perhaps understandably, towards the University of Pennsylvania and other institutions from the North East of the United States. Other institutions represented include the World Bank, University of Pretoria and University of Southern California.
4. That Charles Branas, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania, is a contributor, perhaps best illustrates this. It is is something easily forgotten in design school where often only the views of the architect or city planner would seem to matter.
5. Bradley, J. & Katz, B., The Metropolitan Revolution (2013), Brookings Institution Press.
6. Given the diversity of the voices I would challenge anyone to not find a line or statement that resonated with them.