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What Does Neighborhood Theory Mean for Ecourbanism? Introduction to the Themed Issue on ‘Ecourbanism Worldwide’

Daniel Sturgeon, Meg Holden and Ana Molina


A growing chorus of planners and designers heralds the neighborhood as the best scale at which to pursue a shift toward low-carbon, “green” living alternatives to the status quo Western lifestyle. Within this, attention to ecourban developments, as a set of planning, design, social and technological arrangements for living better within resource limits, has increased; ecourban neighborhood scale developments, as well as the certification frameworks seeking to imbue them with legitimacy, can be found in different countries worldwide. They hold potential lessons for one another across environmental, design and engineering perspectives while also serving as catalysts and demonstration projects of planning, policy and design for sustainability in their local contexts. They offer new opportunities for learning about living well. This is not to say that the rolling out of ecourban neighborhoods in different contexts around the world does not engender tensions. Models, frameworks and practices of ecourbanism may carry divergent interpretations of sustainability and hence advance, to varying degrees, different priorities. These divergences can be seen, for example, across livability, environmental, social and economic priorities. Similar tensions also occur on the issue of scale, with ecourban developments taking form as urban redevelopment megaprojects, technological innovation demonstration projects, smaller-scale alternative lifestyle projects, and other scales in between. This special issue of Articulo - Journal of Urban Research advances the exploration of current trends in ecourban neighborhood-scale developments, including the tensions that they raise. This introduction to the special issue provides a summary of the literature on ecourbanism and the importance of the ‘neighborhood scale’, a synopsis of the Ecourbanism Worldwide project, and provides a brief introduction to the scholarly work included in this special issue.

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The authors gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Insight Grant #435-2014-0465.

Introducing Ecourbanism

1Ecourbanism, in the words of Manuel Ruano who is credited with coining the term, is defined as “the development of multi-dimensional sustainable human communities within harmonious and balanced built environments” (Ruano 1999). The ecocities movement dates to the early 1980s when contemporary definitions of sustainability were also taking shape; a push for alternative developments began to emerge at this time based upon a growing interest in sustainable urbanism and the pioneering research of Richard Register on the topic of eco-developments (Register 2006, Joss 2015, Lennon and Scott 2016). Moving ahead 20 years, we have seen a rapid increase in the popularity of such initiatives, particularly since the beginning of the 21st century. Along with this, we also see a corresponding global diffusion of initiatives at the city and neighborhood scale that attempt to integrate sustainability principles and ecological design into new developments (Holden et al. 2015, Sharifi 2016, Lennon and Scott 2016). Such sustainable alternative neighborhood scale developments take many names: ecodistricts, écoquartiers, eco-cities, green cities, One Planet Communities, and zero carbon cities, among others. These developments offer a fragmented variety of alternative sustainability-driven developments which respond in unique ways to the global demand for sustainability and the locally-specific demands of their surroundings. While no single example should be considered a global model, these experiments offer a breadth of research opportunities. Recent research has taken up the task of better categorizing and cataloguing such examples and related frameworks of ecourbanism. For example, Joss et al (2011) documented the existence of 178 unique policies related to the advancement of eco-cities; Criterion Planners (n.d.) based in Portland, Oregon documented 63 (and growing) different tools used in 22 countries to assess sustainability features and the performance of built projects. Our own ongoing research project, Ecourbanism Worldwide, discussed below, has catalogued in excess of 420 such projects within existing urban settings around the world.

2Concurrently, we have witnessed a growing body of literature on ecourban-related policies and urban developments expressing integrative goals of sustainability. Just as sustainability is a contested concept, concepts and theories of ecourbanism also lie within a burgeoning but diverse and ill-defined field of research on the spatial, functional and theoretical aspects of eco-developments. While a generally agreed upon defining feature of ecourbanism is the incorporation of ‘green’ technologies and/or the integration of ecological functions, the form, integration, size, political and social contexts vary amongst outcomes and theoretical framings across nations and cultures (Sharifi 2016). This leads to confusion in the labelling and identification of ecourban initiatives. Joss (2015) assigns the ‘eco’ prefix as an umbrella term covering various approaches to sustainable urbanism and not as a uniform concept. What could be considered a ‘reconciling’ of the city with nature, or a ‘re-naturing’ of the city (Lennon and Scott 2016) can also take on a distinctively economic development focus (Holden et al. 2015, Sharifi 2016). This mixture of motivations, and in particular the clash between the drive to maximize what is “green” and what is “growth” in these developments, frequently comes to the fore. On top of this tension, many ecourban developments aspire to offer new forms of social value, including new ways of integrating different social groups and mitigating social impacts and inequalities (Chatterton 2013). Progress in this realm is notoriously difficult to track or ascribe to any given set of policies or actions.

3While some ecourban developments have been praised for democratic inclusion of residents in local governance, carbon emission reductions, leveraging new sources of funding, and more collaborative partnership and governance arrangements, they have equally been criticized for social exclusion, cost, and poor performance on environmental goals. Amidst the variety of different varieties of praise and condemnation, we have little ability to understand the scope of goals that are shared within ecourban practice, which is essential in turn to understand the extent to which they perform. This situation persists both within and across the numerous national contexts in which ecourban developments are found. This special issue demonstrates some of what is at stake in defining and gauging the performance of ecourban developments around the world, and recent research being undertaken to advance this important frontier for cities. We do not presume to be in a position to resolve the tensions surrounding ecourban development but hope to advance practice and research by airing the challenges as well as acknowledging the successes.

Ecourbanism Worldwide Project

4Ecourbanism Worldwide is a five-year research project (2014-2019) based at the Urban Studies Program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The project aims to contribute a better understanding of the kinds and markers of success that ecourban neighborhoods endeavor for, what the motivations for such efforts are, where they are expanding the frontier of urbanism and urban development and also where they fall short. We are particularly interested in gauging the “lived” success of these neighborhoods; their success in opening up new opportunities for those involved to understand and feel at home in the city. The project is designed as an engaged social science research initiative, guided by an advisory group of practitioners in this rapidly-expanding field as well as social science research. Through the development of a framework for understanding ecourbanism across diverse cultural and political contexts, the building of an online compendium of global ecourban projects, the completion and comparison of a number of detailed case studies of eco-urban developments around the world, we hope to generate a new quality of conversation about the prospect of ecourban city building.

Neighborhood Theories and Ecourbanism

5The prospect of neighborhood-scale ecourban developments takes aim at two goals that are independently conceptually muddy. Let’s begin with the neighborhood. In vernacular, ‘neighborhood’ is a term often used interchangeably with ‘district’ and ‘community’, the former principally by urbanists with a more economic development focus and the latter primarily by those with a more social development focus (Meegan and Mitchell 2001). The term is used to refer to a range of scales, whether in reference to social ‘communities’, processes, plans, developments, or physical settings. It is invoked, as in the context of this special journal issue, to refer to a site of planned development, policy experimentation and innovation (Forrest and Kearns 2001). It is also invoked as a site of resistance, local level organizing, and activism in defiance of the dominant policy agenda (Purcell 2001, Robinson 2001, Martin 2003a, Schmidt 2008). Often, it is invoked without a great deal of clarity as to what specifically is being referred to. This conceptual slippage occurs in academic literature as well as in professional contexts. Various attempts to sort through the diversity of referents, identifiers and meanings have produced a significant body of literature in urban studies on the form, function, scale and meaning of neighborhood as it relates to the physical, functional and social and political constructs of cities. ‘Neighborhood’ is at the same time both ubiquitous and undefined.

6Scholars identify numerous understandings and applications of a neighborhood scale analysis. This scale is seen as an appropriate locus for a range of planning and administrative functions (Chaskin 1998) within the context of a broader urban area. The neighborhood is used as a spatial scale for the identification and mobilization of community social identity (Forrest 2000, Martin 2003), as an effective setting for democratic citizen organization (Sorensen and Sagaris 2010), and for the socio-spatial analysis of inequality (Madden 2014) – to provide only a few examples. The ‘neighborhood’ has been a specific basis of urban and social organization and interaction, as well as a physical framework for development and planning, since Clarence Perry’s definition of the “neighbourhood unit” in the early 20th century (Johnson 2002). Ultimately, the neighborhood has also been a site of identity formation, with all of the positive as well as negative implications that this set of activities has had for different neighborhoods at different times. Perry’s neighborhood unit, as an idealistic and prescriptive early 20th century Modernist response to uncoordinated planning efforts ultimately formed the basis of many developments around the world. The myriad conceptualizations of the neighborhood that have arisen since these early efforts have invoked intense controversy over best practices (Mehaffy et al. 2015). The neighborhood, so conceived, has also borne extensive criticism as an exclusive and socially deterministic endeavor (Lawhon 2007).

7This special issue does not intend to re-conceptualize or re-theorize the neighborhood in order to provide closure to these ongoing debates. Extensive literature on the challenges of defining the neighborhood (Jenks and Dempsey 2007), exploring the multiple conflated meanings implicit in the term (Galster 2001), the social boundaries of place (Minnery et al. 2009), their administrative function and form (Park and Rogers 2014), and many other relevant analyses already exist. Our particular purpose in drawing upon the extensive “neighbourhood debates” here is to bring these debates to bear on the more specific, and yet even more contested, challenge of creating and sustaining ecourban neighborhoods. By providing sufficient background on the multiple theories of the neighborhood, as they relate to formation, structure, function, size, social identity, interaction and sustainability, we hope to draw these discussions into relevance with the rise of ecourban neighborhood research such as that offered in this special issue. The research assembled here, which is by no means exhaustive, is testament to the continuing fascination with the neighborhood in terms of its practicalities, risks and prospects, and to the growing interest in the development of ecourban type neighborhoods worldwide (Holden et al. 2015, Sharifi 2016).

The Definition and Use of the Neighborhood

8Madden (2014: 478) captures much contemporary thinking within planning and urban studies about the neighborhood when he claims that we are witness to a “return to the neighborhood era” in our present day. At the same time, the contemporary use of the neighborhood as a spatial reference draws upon widespread assumptions that are seldom explored or understood. Jenks and Dempsey (2007) suggest that “the importance given to the concept of neighbourhood in policy and practice arguably exceeds the understanding of its definition and meaning” (p. 154), and Madden (2014) asserts that, despite its popularization, the neighborhood concept remains under-theorized. Galster (2001) aptly suggests that neighborhood is “a term that is hard to define precisely, but everyone knows it when they see it” (p. 211). The neighborhood has been invoked to make claims relating to the essential nature of economic development trends from the local to the global (Teitz 1999, Webster 2001) as well as trends in lifestyle, social interactions, and public policy (Kearns and Parkson 2001). Jane Jacobs (1961: 146), in her inimitable sardonicism, suggested that this state of affairs should not suggest the value of neighborhood thinking but instead the loose sentimentality of planners. She stated that “neighbourhood” serves as no more than a nostalgic “valentine” for planners who ought to be spending their time on more practical matters. Indeed, Jacobs (1961: 146) went on from this analogy to specify: “As a sentimental concept, neighborhood is harmful to city planning. [….] Sentimentality plays with sweet intentions in place of good sense.”

9Galster (2001), Chaskin (1998), Madden (2014) and Park and Rogers (2015), amongst others referenced here, provide comprehensive but by no means exhaustive lists of the many conceptualizations of the neighborhood. At the very least, the neighborhood has contributed to an ongoing debate about ideals of urban living. What does neighborhood mean for the city, and vice versa? What is the contribution of the neighborhood to the broader city? What is the ideal neighborhood size, in space or population or economic product, if such an ideal exists? How are the boundaries drawn, and who determines them? When is the neighborhood the most appropriate scale of analysis?

10Returning back to the origins of neighborhood thinking in urban planning to grapple with these questions, many have pointed to the arrangement of ‘wards’ within Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities. During Howard’s time, city planning was considered an exercise in public health (Choguill 2007, Sharifi 2016). The ward provided a manageable scale at which to attack communicable disease. Building upon this concept, Clarence Perry developed the neighborhood ‘ideal’ in the late 1920’s by organizing 160-acre residential ‘building blocks’ of cities away from arterial roads to encourage walkability. These blocks were ordered around an elementary school – considered to be the local institution of focus – and other amenities creating a 5000-9000 inhabitant neighborhood ‘unit’ within a 1/2 mile (800 meter) radius of the school (Johnson 2002). Perry’s theoretical motivations were based upon physical land use as much as attempts at social organization, as means to improve the physical form of cities and to bring order to the unregulated growth of the time (Choguill 2008, Sharifi 2016). Reflections of the identical mode of thinking about the value and necessity of the neighborhood can be found in contemporary moves to create the “20 minute city” in Plan Melbourne and other Australian planning contexts (State of Victoria 2014), the “5 minute city” promised in the new district of Nordhavn, Copenhagen (Copenhagen City & Port Development 2012) and the City of Barcelona’s “superblock” concept as part of its smart city strategy (Barcelona n.d.). In Canada, the preferred term is “complete communities” (Ontario 2006) and generally implies a mixture of land uses and five to ten-minute walking distance to amenities (WCEL n.d.).

11The neighborhood unit, as with its terminological prodigy, has been roundly accused of creating social exclusion and physical determinism (Lawhon 2007), producing homogeneity (Mehaffy et al. 2015), and motivating and justifying suburban sprawl (Filion and Hammond 2001). Nevertheless, the concept of the neighborhood unit retains its influence on both the physical landscape and neighborhood theorizations. Perry’s concept of the spatial ordering of cities has maintained dominance in conventional subdivision design in North America (Filion and Hammond 2003) while also exerting global influence (Byun et al. 2014). It has retained significance not only through its lasting impact on the physical ordering of cities, but also by being adapted to include contemporary planning ideals and features (Farr 2008) such as multi-modal transit and mixed land uses. Some have called for a renaissance of neighborhood as the essential unit of planning work as a means of repairing the social ills of suburbia and building back a sense of community, considered lost (Fraser et al. 2003, MacLeod and Johnstone 2012) while others continue to label the neighborhood form as unit of spatial planning as ‘pervasive’ (Mehaffy et al. 2015).

12What many do agree upon is that a neighborhood is defined at the same time by its physical limits and by those who reside within in it, being bounded by some aspects of common aesthetic character and reinforced by, in the words of Kevin Lynch (1960), ‘edges’ and ‘nodes’. Even in this strictly physical, spatial respect, scholars espouse a range of definitions (Jenks and Dempsey 2007). For example:

13- a population of 5,000, half-mile diameter walking distance (Park and Rogers 2014);

14- a maximum of 500 persons and a 300-yard diameter identified in A Pattern Language (Alexander et al 1977);

15- Jane Jacobs’s assertion that the only useful scale of neighborhoods is at one of the following three levels: the ‘street’ (population undefined), the ‘district’ (population approximately 100,000) or the entire city.

16Others view the neighborhood as without specific size and rather as a frame of reference, specific to a locality and the interpretations offered by its residents (Minnery et al. 2009), or as having multiple simultaneous scales depending on function (Kearns and Parkinson 2001). Similarly, others identify neighborhoods within a hierarchy that, depending on the size, level of cohesion, and services shared, are defined by specific conceptual and operational characteristics (Park and Rogers 2014).

17Jenks and Dempsey (2007: 155) call into question the entire practice of defining a neighborhood based on spatial parameters: “Theorists who state that the ‘neighborhood’ is spatially defined invariably acknowledge that it is heavily dependent on social phenomena. [….] The difficulty of divorcing the spatial from the social raises the question of why spatially or area-based definitions of ‘neighbourhood’ are pursued in the first place.” While Jenks and Dempsey identify both functional and social aspects of neighborhood, they rest on the importance of social phenomena as the defining feature of neighborhood. At the same time, they caution against casting into cement any definition that leans too much in favor of either a social or a physical understanding.

18Lawhon (2009) offers a definition that attempts to mediate between spatial and social determinism. He offers that “the neighbourhood unit, rather than being a socially deterministic endeavor, is more appropriately described as a physical design tool that provides neighbourhood residents opportunities to interact with those within the neighborhood boundaries” (Lawhon 2009: 112). One lesson from this literature is that people and place cannot be separated: a neighborhood is a group of people sharing services and space, perhaps arriving at a sense of cohesion, through inhabiting a geographic place (Park and Rogers 2014). The identification of that place takes on different meanings to different people, as is discussed more below.

The Neighborhood of Relations

19We move from a wide-angle analysis of the neighborhood as a ‘unit’, to close-up analysis of the neighborhood as individual identities and a manifestation of relationships amongst residents and between neighborhoods themselves. Within this literature, we find heavy doses of notions of proximity, place, relationship and community. These distinguishable but arguably unmeasurable components of identity building and social quality have an interactive relationship that, while complementary, are not exclusively cause-and-effect. The sharing and occupation of space – a neighborhood – does not necessarily result in the creation of place or identity; alternatively, the subtle difference between ‘home’ and ‘dwelling in nearness’ suggests that proximity does not lead to a building of community interaction or bonding. ‘Neighboring’ does not equate with ‘neighbors’ in the colloquial sense (Kearns and Parkinson 2001: 2104). This puts a point on the question of whether neighborhoods can be planned in the relational, and not only in the spatial, sense.

20Accordingly, the physical limits of the neighborhood can be defined uniquely and differently by residents who live in them. Perceptions of boundaries will differ, as will the association between space and place, due to the connections between people, buildings, and community. The people who make the most use of the neighborhood are the ones who ascribe meaning to its form and function (Seltzer et al. 2010). Space and place are intertwined with social qualities. At the extreme, residents may not agree upon the spatial limits of their own neighborhood, adding complexity to establishing any connection between the physical and the social for the purpose of planning and/or development.

21Looking at the “neighborhood effects” considered to accrue in poverty-stricken neighborhoods is another way in which “the neighborhood” has been asserted by urbanists to have value as an analytical lens. That is, the neighborhood can serve as a lens by which to assess the cumulative effects of poverty concentrated at this scale (Docherty et al. 2001, Bauder 2002, Sampson et al. 2002). Concentrated poverty has been on the rise for the past decade, particularly in the United States, where it disproportionately affects poor Black households. In a setting where 40% or more of households live below the poverty line, a cycle of poverty is propelled, with disinvestment, further impoverishment, lack of opportunities, and increases in crimes of hopelessness the result. Regions that simply build new middle and upper class neighborhoods in the suburbs only skirt around the problems of concentrated poverty, entrenching an “architecture of segregation” (Covert 2015). It is not only the family in which one is born that is crucial to one’s future life but also the neighborhood in which one lives, as it dictates the quality of one’s education, exposure and contact with people with diverse careers and life histories, which increases access to opportunities in life. Conversely, gentrifying and formerly poor neighborhoods can be carved away through a process of identification and mapping to create a new ‘neighborhood’ label based upon an incoming social or demographic cohort, resulting in a new socio-spatial segregation and dichotomy of income, status, and identity between two neighborhoods that were shortly before considered as one.

22Government and policy makers have conversely used neighborhood identity to make sense of the positionality and relationality of neighborhoods. The federal Neighborhood Housing Services program in the US created a form of community-based governance when it absorbed groups that had originally formed to resist changes to their neighborhoods, turning the NIMBY claim on its head (Holcomb and Beauregard 1981). This type of Community Development Corporation funded neighborhood organization now exists particularly in poor communities throughout the US, helping residents address poor neighborhood conditions particularly in infrastructure. The City of Seattle (2016) created the Department of Neighborhoods to provide opportunities for citizen engagement and civic participation through a variety of programs and services offered to the 13 ‘neighborhood districts’ across the city. Each has a neighborhood council and a corresponding paid staff liaison at the City. Cities like New York have established community districts with funded community boards responsible for managing service delivery in each. Other such groups are associated with “defensive localism.” To take one famous example, in Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s, approximately 200 such associations formed to keep their neighborhoods unwelcoming of Black residents (Sugrue 1996).

23With the emergence of demands for exchange and involvement coming from both the formal planners of neighborhoods and residents themselves, neighborhoods represent a scale of action frequently turned to for the innovation of better means of public and citizen engagement (Meegan and Mitchell 2001, Martin 2003). To the challenge of making meaning out of such engagement, neighborhoods offer a manageable scale, a sense of limited diversity of context and social qualities, identity-based connections to place, and an ability to obtain visible results. Historically, voluntary as well as government organizations have located within neighborhoods in order to help newcomers, often immigrants, integrate into their new adopted cities. Often the neighborhood provides the right mix of qualities for effective activist and other grassroots energies to coalesce and initiatives to take root (Polletta and Jasper 2001, Nicholls 2008, Rutland 2013). This is, however, a contested practice (Cooke and Kothari 2001, Boudreau 2003, Dierwechter and Coffey 2010, Holden 2011). Further, not all neighborhoods offer equal opportunities or potential audiences for participation; organizing from within the neighborhood, seeking help from beyond the neighborhood, and pursuing a mix of strategies all make sense in different neighborhood contexts (Lake and Newman 2002, Lepofsky and Fraser 2003).

24The neighborhood can play a central role in developing a spirit of tolerance in a city. It can provide an intermediate realm between the public and the private realm such that people can find security and shared identity as well as have a presence among strangers. Neighborliness, a level of social familiarity without a necessarily deep social relationship, can be infectious. Neighborliness can also be exercised in either an exclusive or an inclusive manner, however – either to expand one’s social ken, or, what is more common, to limit this sphere to a level that is predictable, pre-known, and comfortable. At the extreme, neighborhoods allow for a spatial enforcement of the level of exclusionary practices that the neighbors embrace. Gated communities organize around a common agenda of maintaining a particular middle or upper class character of space, and as part of this to maintain or increase property values or increase perceptions of safety. Sometimes these communities actually build walls with gates and security staff to limit entry (McKenzie 1994). While the city may provide those who seek it a sense of anonymity, the neighborhood scale can at the same time provide familiarity and recognition.

25Finally, challenges in the creation and definition of neighborhood are mixed up within the realm of social sustainability. This is a realm in which ecourban neighborhoods are heavily critiqued. The physical determination of separate neighborhoods has been associated with a lack of social cohesion and class-based separation (Forrest and Kearns 2001). This can often be observed between old and new neighborhoods, or ecourban and business-as-usual. A predominant criticism of neighborhood scale sustainability certification systems is the lack of attention given to social sustainability, along with resultant unaffordability within newly constructed ecourban type developments. Equity within and between neighborhoods falls within the realms of social sustainability and justice. These demands are not entirely separate from physical factors (Dempsey et al 2011); indeed, one common response to the claim that ecourban neighborhoods are unaffordable to many is that this is simply because they are new, and that with the aging of the built environment, more affordability will come. Pierce et al.’s (2011) concept of ‘relational place-making’ at the neighborhood scale provides a three-step process of realization, via deepening participation, that, first, neighborhoods are composed of heterogeneous elements, second, they are places of contestation, and third, they are undergoing continuous change. By engaging at the neighborhood scale, in the physical structures of the neighborhood, citizens are “place-making” in this kind of conflictual, changeable, heterogeneous way.

The Neighborhood within Urban Sustainability

26Many within the sustainability movement have taken an interest in the potential for change at the neighborhood scale (Madanipour 2001, Choguill 2008, Orova and Reith 2014, Sharifi 2016). Neighborhoods are small enough to permit the assumption of a certain level of shared understanding of space and context (Berg and Nycander 1997) and large enough to have a degree of coherence in lifestyle options, built and natural environment components, work, home and mobility options, functioning as individual units and as pieces of the broader city. The shifting interest towards neighborhood scale sustainability infrastructure systems and design approaches, rather than building scale improvements and rating systems, indicates the potential for sustainability planning at the neighborhood scale and suggests the significance that neighborhoods carry for improving sustainability practice. Madanipour (2001) suggests the reignited interest in neighborhood planning is an effect of the drive for a sustainable urban form; this scale can, in the context of ‘green city’ planning, facilitate design that encourages active forms of transportation, lighter footprint lifestyles, while reducing the need for and dependence on the automobile. A growing body of research examines the way in which specific approaches to urban design, sometimes oriented around schools of design thought like place-making, new urbanism or compact cities, can influence the social quality of the neighborhood that results, including dimensions of social sustainability and public life (Karuppannan and Sivam 2011, Project for Public Spaces 2015). In the UK, for example, it is at the neighborhood, rather than the wider city scale, that new conceptual and operational systems of measuring social sustainability are emerging, in partnership with home building companies seeking to create neighborhoods, not just homes (Woodcraft 2012, Bacon et al. 2012). At the same time, when coupled with an understanding of the history of neighborhoods within urban development perpetuating socio-economic and in some cases racial segregation, this move also suggests a risk that all this innovation will lead to exclusive rather than inclusive models (Hodson and Marvin 2010).

27Despite the growing popularity of neighborhood sustainability, formal definitions and measurements within this realm are just beginning to gain interest and spread. Within the sustainability movement we have seen the development of neighborhood scale certification systems, such as LEED ND, BREEAM, the Living Community Challenge, Ecoquartiers and EcoDistricts, amongst others, throughout the world. Across the board, however, no cross-cultural, transdisciplinary, comprehensive set of sustainability principles for ecourban environments exists (Luederitz et al. 2013). We are left with a limited understanding of the impacts of this practice, although a burgeoning field of academic literature cross-comparing these systems and evaluating their relative merits promises more (Sharifi 2016, Luederitz 2014, Reith and Orova 2014). The ongoing work within the Ecourbanism Worldwide project to create a global compendium of such developments (whether certified, labelled, categorized or not) includes developments varying in size from a ‘neighborhood’ of two buildings, through to entire cities or portions of cities comprising hundreds of hectares. Forthcoming detailed case studies, as part of this same project, will reveal a more nuanced understanding of the implications, impacts, livability and relative sustainability successes of these developments alongside place-specific understandings of neighborhood. However, as no neighborhood scale sustainability certification system has been applied in enough cases or for enough time to enable an evidence-based assessment of its efficacy, further evolution of the field as well as further research into the relative merits and impacts of certification frameworks in place is an outstanding need in this emergent area of urban studies.

Presenting the Special Issue on Ecourbanism Worldwide

28The articles collected in this special issue of Articulo – Journal of Urban Research explore some of the current interpretations of ecourban practice across multiple contexts worldwide and illustrate examples of challenges that have been discussed herein.

29Lisa Westerhoff (2016) investigates how narratives of sustainable living are created, translated into practice, and how they play out in the lives of residents of the Olympic Village neighborhood of Vancouver, Canada. This sustainable urban neighborhood is renowned for its achievements in advancing a comprehensive approach to sustainability in the city and in the field of sustainable urban practice more broadly. The author reveals insights about the qualitative and experiential dimensions of living in sustainable ecourban neighborhoods, distilling lessons with relevance for the design, construction and management of future sustainable neighborhoods. She hones in on the experiential dimensions of living in sustainable neighborhoods from the perspective of the occupants, uncovering how certain sustainability interventions play out in practice and intersect with occupants’ daily lives. The author makes a case for the integration of a narrative-social practice approach into the assessment of neighborhood performance, which can help fill some of the gaps in achieving and evaluating actual sustainable neighborhood performance.

30Nicola Szibbo (2016) explores what ‘livability’ means to residents in four distinct neighborhoods in North America, and the implications for sustainability and ecourbanism on a broader level. She analyses two LEED®ND and two control suburban New Urbanist cases to discover differences ‘between the type of metrics addressed in the sustainable neighborhood rating system and the primary factors that comprise residents’ perceptions and evaluations of their own neighborhoods’. Her findings suggest that while LEED®ND excels at measuring ‘environmental sustainability’ through its stringent performance criteria, this framework presents significant gaps in addressing important livability factors, specifically socio-cultural and economic factors. The author proposes various recommendations to enhance the LEED-ND rating system and other sustainable neighborhood rating systems, so neighborhoods designed for sustainability embody the qualities and components that make a place ‘livable’.

31Yizhao Yang and Jie Hu (2016) investigate the Shan-Shui City (山水城市), a form of traditional Chinese urbanism, and the environmental values and attitudes underlying the Shan-Shui concept, as an increasingly appealing and effective sustainable urban development approach in China. The authors explore how traditional values of Chinese urbanism, including balance and harmonious human-nature relationships, can be mobilized to create ‘places that can balance the needs for economic growth and environmental protection’. They point to a concern of identity loss in many Chinese cities as a result of the dissemination of global city planning and city building ideas and practices, emphasizing the need for ecourban development to remain sensitive to the Chinese context. Yizhao Yang and Hu demonstrate that increasingly in China, a move toward ecologically sustainable urban development can also be ‘quintessentially Chinese’ and ecourban while conforming to traditional Chinese Shan-Shui City form and principles. In their view, Shan-Shui cities and eco-city developments associated with sustainability principles may well serve as catalysts for political and social will toward strong environmental policies and attempts to integrate functions, aesthetics and culture in place-making.

32Yoshiki Yamagata, Daisuke Murakami and Hajime Seya (2016) immerse readers in the Japanese urban planning context, examining the potential of a ‘wise-shrink’ approach to climate change adaptation in Tokyo’s metropolitan area and its relevance to ecourbanism. A ‘wise-shrink’ approach entails both ‘city compaction’ (higher density) and disaster risk reduction. Using a newly developed spatially-explicit urban-land use model (SLUM), the authors posit that a ‘wise-shrink’ approach may be conducive to achieving disaster risk mitigation, resilience and ecourban visions of more sustainable forms of urban living. They contend, however, that the SLUM scenario model, as well as other models, would benefit from better integration of local properties related to livability and human wellbeing.

33Finally, Meg Holden, Charling Li, Ana Molina and Daniel Sturgeon (2016) consider the potential that sits within two ‘second generation’ neighborhood sustainability certification systems to guide stronger local governance and better integration of sustainability principles into ecourban neighborhoods. They examine two new, highly aspirational, voluntary certification systems, the Living Community Challenge and the EcoDistricts Protocol. In considering the components and emphases of both of these frameworks, and comparing them against seven theoretically-derived principles of ecourbanism, this article tracks emerging best practice in ecourban development in North America. This analysis also includes an examination of the governance demands of making use of one of these frameworks, and the role that each introduces for intermediary organizations between developers and local government, in the interest of greater innovation and impact.

34From the discussion above, and the research compiled here, we can see that the study of ecourbanism has a breadth reflective of that within theoretical approaches to neighborhood sustainability. The argument we pose for consideration of readers of this special issue of Articulo – Journal of Urban Research is that a localised lens of neighborhood – despite and in light of its uncertain definition – provides a useful frame in which to analyze ecourban development. Through our review, it has become clear that the study of ecourbanism requires a frame of reference to effect a useful analysis. While at the same time as this points to the need for an understanding of the impact of ecourban developments beyond their physical scope, it also points to the need to work within the enigma of neighborhood boundaries. In the context of a holistic and integrated approach to urban sustainability, ecourban developments cannot be designed and built in ignorance of their impacts on the broader city, socially, environmentally and economically. This is especially important given the challenges associated with inward-looking sustainability-driven certification metrics towards broader sustainability pursuits (Wangel et al. 2016). Recognizing that neighborhood scale measurement and certification programs, while operating within a defined space, also have the potential to reach beyond physical neighborhood limits (Seltzer et al. 2010) through functional and social externalities, further justifies this frame of understanding.

35The role for local governments is also clear. Cities must take responsibility for planning ‘at the edge’ in order to ensure neighborhood integration into the urban fabric, accounting for the broader cumulative impacts of sustainability over multiple neighborhoods. Conditions of permeability at the edge of a neighborhood, its integration or embedding into the broader city, and the implications of ‘leakage’ – socially and functionally – require a better understanding within the scope of neighborhood scale ecourban development. Similarly, integrating neighborhood scale sustainability pursuits within broader city pursuits of sustainability may serve both units more effectively, embedding new pieces of city into the overall fabric of the city (Sharifi and Murayama 2013). The lack of consensus on neighborhood boundaries reminds us not to lose sight of the broader goals of sustainable development; rather, it encourages existing efforts to understand how ecourban developments integrate into the city, functionally and socially, both within, outside, and between neighborhood(s).

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Electronic reference

Daniel Sturgeon, Meg Holden and Ana Molina, What Does Neighborhood Theory Mean for Ecourbanism? Introduction to the Themed Issue on ‘Ecourbanism Worldwide’Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 14 | 2016, Online since 08 October 2016, connection on 01 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Daniel Sturgeon

Daniel Sturgeon is currently a Research Assistant with the Ecourbanism Worldwide project based out of the Urban Studies Program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he is also a student and Master’s candidate. Daniel has a Canadian Institute of Planners accredited undergraduate degree in Environmental Planning from the University of Northern British Columbia and a professional working background in municipal planning. Daniel is currently conducting case study research into ecourban neighborhoods in Europe and North America alongside thesis research into urban sustainability governance structures within a small municipality in the Metro Vancouver region. Email:

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Meg Holden

Meg Holden (PhD, New School for Social Research) is a social scientist whose research investigates the promises and results of sustainability planning in cities around the world. She is an Associate Professor of urban studies and geography at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. Dr. Holden’s published research crosses urban, social and environmental domains, with a pragmatist bent that entails a focus on action research and policy and planning engagement. Dr. Holden works in the service of more sustainable and just cities, in Canada and around the world. Email:

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Ana Molina

Ana Molina is a graduate student in the School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University. Her graduate research work focuses on investigating ways in which municipal governments can enable and support child care. Her work as part of the Ecourbanism Worldwide research project investigates the growth of ecourbanism with an interest in social sustainability and social justice. Ana completed undergraduate studies at Simon Fraser University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Geography, Extended Minor in Economics and Minor in Business. E-mail:

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