BSRS Module 8: Sustainability metrics and the urban scale (Siddharth Sareen)

Introduction video:

Main objective

Urban sustainability transformations are a desirable form of urban development. Like any other form of change, these transformations rely on metrics such as targets and indicators. Metrics for urban sustainability transformations must have many characteristics if they are to succeed. They must be ambitious yet feasible. They must be rapid yet inclusive. They must capture complex changes accurately yet have wide coverage. These are challenging tasks!

This module will address sustainability metrics and the urban scale. It includes texts about different kinds of metrics: on social vulnerability mitigation (through energy poverty alleviation), on urban low-carbon transitions (through concretising urban targets). It will also engage with some geographical concepts. These can help us think about change and its drivers and effects in a socio-spatial manner, and problematise claims about the nature of urban infrastructural change.

In the hands-on workshop, we will work with some of the most prominent metrics for urban sustainability transformation that have ever existed. These are the targets and indicators linked with Sustainable Development Goal 11: ‘Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’. Are these metrics up to the task? Let’s see what we think!

The video for the day will focus on a concrete example of urban transformation over time. Timothy Moss will give us insight into how Berlin’s energy infrastructure is tightly woven into its urban fabric and has changed over time. Did metrics matter in this urban development?


Sareen, S., Thomson, H., Herrero, S. T., Gouveia, J. P., Lippert, I., & Lis, A. (2020). European energy poverty metrics: Scales, prospects and limits. Global Transitions, 2, 26-36. (Links to an external site.)

Sareen, S., & Grandin, J. (2020). European green capitals: Branding, spatial dislocation or catalysts for change?Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography, 102(1), 101-117. (Links to an external site.)

Bridge, G., Bouzarovski, S., Bradshaw, M., & Eyre, N. (2013). Geographies of energy transition: Space, place and the low-carbon economy. Energy Policy, 53, 331-340. (Links to an external site.)

Bulkeley, H., McGuirk, P. M., & Dowling, R. (2016). Making a smart city for the smart grid? The urban material politics of actualising smart electricity networks. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 48(9), 1709-1726.





Consider the targets and indicators linked with SDG 11. Study the table below carefully and consider the nature of these urban metrics.

How can you simplify these indicators to improve global monitoring?

How can you improve the coverage of some of the above targets?

Through what process did these SDG 11 metrics come about?

What sort of governance are the SDG 11 metrics an example of?

More details are available here: (Links to an external site.)

11.1  11.1.1
By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums Proportion of urban population living in slums, informal settlements or inadequate housing
11.2  11.2.1
By 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons Proportion of population that has convenient access to public transport, by sex, age and persons with disabilities
11.3  11.3.1, 11.3.2
By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries Ratio of land consumption rate to population growth rate

Proportion of cities with a direct participation structure of civil society in urban planning and management that operate regularly and democratically

11.4  11.4.1
Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage Total expenditure (public and private) per capita spent on the preservation, protection and conservation of all cultural and natural heritage, by type of heritage (cultural, natural, mixed and World Heritage Centre designation), level of government (national, regional and local/municipal), type of expenditure (operating expenditure/investment) and type of private funding (donations in kind, private non-profit sector and sponsorship)
11.5  11.5.1, 11.5.2
By 2030, significantly reduce the number of deaths and the number of people affected and substantially decrease the direct economic losses relative to global gross domestic product caused by disasters, including water-related disasters, with a focus on protecting the poor and people in vulnerable situations Number of deaths, missing persons and persons affected by disaster per 100,000 people

Direct disaster economic loss in relation to global GDP, including disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services

11.6  11.6.1, 11.6.2
By 2030, reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management Proportion of urban solid waste regularly collected and with adequate final discharge out of total urban solid waste generated, by cities

Annual mean levels of fine particulate matter (e.g. PM2.5 and PM10) in cities (population weighted)

11.7  11.7.1, 11.7.2
By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities Average share of the built-up area of cities that is open space for public use for all, by sex, age and persons with disabilities

Proportion of persons victim of physical or sexual harassment, by sex, age, disability status and place of occurrence, in the previous 12 months

11.A 11.A.1
Support positive economic, social and environmental links between urban, peri-urban and rural areas by strengthening national and regional development planning Proportion of population living in cities that implement urban and regional development plans integrating population projections and resource needs, by size of city
11.B 11.B.1, 11.B.2
By 2020, substantially increase the number of cities and human settlements adopting and implementing integrated policies and plans towards inclusion, resource efficiency, mitigation and adaptation to climate change, resilience to disasters, and develop and implement, in line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, holistic disaster risk management at all levels Proportion of local governments that adopt and implement local disaster risk reduction strategies in line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030

Number of countries with national and local disaster risk reduction strategies

11.C 11.C.1
Support least developed countries, including through financial and technical assistance, in building sustainable and resilient buildings utilizing local materials Proportion of financial support to the least developed countries that is allocated to the construction and retrofitting of sustainable, resilient and resource-efficient buildings utilizing local materials



Videos to watch for discussion:

Timothy Moss:

Episode 1: Invisible Berlin (Links to an external site.)


Episode 5: Berlin’s got gas (Links to an external site.).

Discussion prompts:

  • What methodological challenges and advantages do energy historians encounter when they study urban development?
  • How is this different for researchers who focus on current urban developments?
  • How do the factors that drive urban energy transitions today differ from the past?
  • How do/can you bring a temporal perspective into your work on urban transitions?

Class discussion:

Written response from WG 4 (Marie Thorsen, Patricia Oviedo Toral, Yahia Gamalaldin, Katinka Wågsæther, Mahir Yazar):

What methodological challenges and advantages do energy historians encounter when they study urban development?

The methodological challenges and advantages both lie within the temporality of energy infrastructure in a unique conundrum. On the one hand, the infrastructures’ physical nature allows historians to design their methodologies to observe a physical object and make conclusions. On the other hand, the temporal changes that this physical infrastructure undergo pose methodological challenges on how to expose the meaning of such change. This is apparent in the video’s example where a facility has been used as a gas production station, a hospital and an electric energy station. While the physical nature of this built infrastructure clearly shows how it has been revitalized to fit different functions, it is harder for historians to methodologically trace the politically complex environment that generated such functional shifts. Historical sources and documents may be hard to trace or have gotten lost. Further to this, the potentially biased nature of how history was recorded, or explicitly hidden, may result in a partial picture of the lived experience of urban infrastructure as well as of the social, political and economic forces that shaped it.


How is this different for researchers who focus on current urban developments?

In general, the researcher needs to understand and explain the situation and the needs of the present. This can be more difficult than looking back and explain a situation of the past. This implies that one does not know exactly how the infrastructure will change and develop in the future. One should be able to visualize the needs, wishes and politics of the present in order to understand how urban development can be shaped in the present and the future.

Furthermore, one needs to speak to a diversity of people, and to ensure that all voices and perspectives are included. This is not the case for past urban infrastructure, where the decision makers were free to make decisions without interference from the public.

The methodologies of today needs to incorporate the sustainable development goals and indicators, which was not an issue of the past.


How do the factors that drive urban energy transitions today differ from the past?

The current focus is on strategies that promote and enhance sustainability, for example, recycling used materials whereas in the past the lack of consciousness on finite resources had more environmental impacts. The creation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) as worldwide guidelines to rule human activities and repercussions on future generations is a big step that creates awareness to a common agreed goal. Such path of action was absent in the past.

The factors driving energy transitions are fundamentally both political and scientific. This is common between the past and the present; however, they manifest differently because of (1) the different epistemological and ontological scientific perspectives and (2) the different political environment. From the scientific perspective, the positivist approach and the engineering approach to energy based infrastructures led to systemic transitions to a more technologically efficient energy transition. Yet, now with a shift towards a complexity and networks based views, the energy transitions shift to include the social and the collective environmental effect. From the political environment perspective, the infrastructure systems were, and are still, viewed to serve a political purpose in a lot of cases. In that sense, the energy transitions were a manifestation of the power relations in the past political conflicts, such as the world war 2 where technological developments determined the standings of nations.


How do/ can you bring a temporal perspective into your work on urban transitions?

‘Transitions’ in itself is a temporal change large enough in magnitude to shift from one state to another. In that sense, urban transitions are embedded within the temporal dimension as well; this can be brought up within two perspectives, namely the future scenario based perspective and the past previous knowledge one. On the one hand, the scenario based perspective identifies the future trajectories based on our current action, and in some sense, informs us on how current changes can lead to future urban transitions. On the other hand, the previous knowledge informs us on how previous actions have led to our current situation; and in some sense, informs out future trajectories and scenarios. These perspectives are interchangeably used for an informative view of future urban transitions, with methodologies.


Siddharth Sareen is a human geographer at the University of Bergen, where he works at the Department of Geography and the Centre for Climate and Energy Transformation. His training is in development research and political ecology. He studies the governance of energy transitions and leads a project on solar energy in Portugal. He has worked in seven countries and established an international, interdisciplinary research profile on resource and energy governance. He is interested in multi-scalar aspects of sectoral change and is advancing an analysis of sustainability transitions in terms of accountability relations.