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Focus Project “Cities under Pressure (CuP): Sustainable Urban Growth Management in Europe”
Client:In-house Research Project
Time frame:01/2018 – 12/2020

Urban growth management (UGM) – comprising a set of services, measures and strategies that seek to guide, manage and regulate urban land use to counteract probable negative impacts of urban sprawl, also referred to as smart growth – has a long-standing tradition in the US and European cities and is inextricably linked to the idea of sustainable development in cities and regions. However, UGM is only one topic under the semantic umbrella of sustainability next to other approaches such as mobility management or climate adaptation. Thus, after three decades of societal and political debate, sustainable development is still facing severe constraints when it comes to regional conceptualization and local implementation from a spatial perspective. The concepts’ many contesting interpretations, such as the smart city concept or the new urbanism movement, “conceptions of the concept” (Connelly 2007) and its implementation are still mostly unexplored. Recent debates concerning SDG 11, Habitat III and the New Urban Agenda as decisive frameworks for the future development of sustainable cities across the world show that their implementation will face multiple problems ranging from conceptual and methodological clarification to possibilities of integrating spatial planning and problems of indicator-based measurement of sustainability.

Correspondingly, the institutional and societal influences on UGM have rarely been considered. Conflicts in UGM may arise from competitive land use, e. g. concerning affordable housing vs. urban green infrastructure. Thus, UGM integrates and weights conflicting targets. However, decisions mostly are not made in a consistent framework relating to clear aims and measurable indicators but result from stakeholders’ interests and power to assert and negotiate as well as from collective institutional frames and individual cultural values. The latter argument implicates a more contextualized analysis of the discourses, strategies and practices of UGM, as they relate to a huge diversity of territorial contexts that need to be considered in comparative spatial research. This is the focus of the project, that deals with the “relational complexity” (Healey 2006) of spatial strategy making for sustainability and will contribute to a better understanding of the diverse mechanisms of UGM in different spatio-temporal contexts.

Recent research has shown that not only the basic drivers for urban sprawl vary but also that UGM policies and strategies have different impacts concerning their efficacy and effectiveness. “Further knowledge of the context is necessary to evaluate the influence of the growth management policies” (Fertner et al. 2016, p. 11). There is the need for diversified approaches and innovative policies concerning growth management in cities. As Haughton and Counsell (2004) rightly put it, “rather than focus on searching for a definitive meaning of ‘sustainable development’ it is necessary to recognize the multiplicity of sustainabilities and to analyze the ways in which these are shaped and mobilized in political discourse”.


The ambiguous concept of sustainable development is to be perceived as a travelling idea in spatial planning and “meta-consensual policy term” (Rosol et al. 2017). As global narrative, it might unfold hegemonic power but still is bound to local circumstances and unique filtering mechanisms when it comes to its enactment and local implementation. Within the project, we critically ask for the specific mechanisms and logics of sustainability transitions in overall growing cities and regions with a high need for effective UGM strategies. Thus, the main aim of the project is to analyze and compare the different pathways, strategies and cultures of UGM in densely populated cities and regions, focusing especially on the importance of urban and regional sustainability thinking under such conditions.

Main research questions are: (1) How is the ambiguous concept of sustainability framed, operationalized and transferred into policy and planning with regard to urban growth? (2) Which actors are responsible for agenda setting, which interests and motivations are decisive, and how are conflicts of interest negotiated? (3) How are capable governance regimes for sustainability put into place? (4) How is governance for sustainability embedded into socio-cultural contexts and what are the crucial differences between countries and cities and (5) How do (effective) UGM strategies shape urban design in urban and suburban areas?

The project will contribute to the conceptual, methodological and empirical enhancement of planning cultural discussions, hence strengthening the term concerning its place in current theoretical debates. Therefore, the project is meant to generate progress in planning theory by presenting and testing an analytical framework that helps to explain UGM practices across different contexts.


Project leader:
  • Dr. Mario Reimer

Project team:
  • Andrea Berndgen-Kaiser
  • Dr.-Ing. Olivia Kummel
  • Dr. Karsten Rusche

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