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Program Objectives

Urban Sustainabilitys

Ever since the United Nations’ Conferences on Human Settlements in Vancouver (1976) and in Istanbul (1996) as well as the establishment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG 2000), while there have been improvements regarding living conditions of millions of urban inhabitants (including people settled in slums and informal settlements), “the persistence of multiple forms of poverty, growing inequalities and environmental degradation remain among the major obstacles to sustainable development worldwide, with social and economic exclusion and spatial segregation often an irrefutable reality in cities and human settlements” (United Nations, 2017: 3; bold added). Thus, sustainability in cities in the context of the developing countries still is a mounting, paramount challenge. Hence, far from overarching, overriding and formulaic solutions, urban sustainability requires strategies that are both joint (emerging from knowledge transfer, exchange and implementation), multidimensional (conflating a variety of disciplines, expertise, methods), context-responsive (highlighting local knowledge and the spatiality of contextual circumstances) and iterative (learning from experience) and that incrementally trigger an evidence-based and low-impact urban development.

Evidence-based and low impact urban development

Appropriate urban policies and design proposals may effectively aid the attainment of alternatives to tackle the challenges of inclusion, resilience and safety in cities, inasmuch as they minimize development impacts and maximize socioeconomic values of urban environments. Both socioeconomic values of urban built environments and development impacts bear a strong relationship with their spatial, social, cultural, economic and environmental characteristics. The configuration or organization of urban space mirrors the manifold ways in which people use, appropriate, (materially and symbolically) modify and identify with it. Thus, local knowledge turns out to be integral to the production of policies and design/planning strategies that are context-sensitive and context-responsive when promoting urban sustainability – and thereby circumvent traps such as “importing and exporting sustainability” (e.g. transfer of pollution or contaminating activities, undervalued purchase of natural resources, among others) (Pearce et al., 1989: 45ff.). To that end, evidence-based policymaking, planning and design should inform low-impact urban development schemes and contribute to the targets of the SDG#11.

The principle of “low impact” has been championed by the discipline of urban design to address issues related to stormwater management (chiefly in North America). In this respect, it also bears a resemblance to Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD), a trend that has expanded throughout postindustrial cities of both the developed countries and developing countries. Over the past ten years, low impact development principles, research frameworks and projects have expanded their scope and range of action – thus embracing the domains of architecture, urban planning, environmental management and others – and have increasingly become more multi- and interdisciplinary. A low impact urban design and development (LIUDD) is an integrated urban design and development process that use nested scales within catchments in both urban and peri-urban environments. Moreover, LIUDD focusses on preventing, at little or no extra cost, a wide range of adverse social, economic, biodiverse, physiochemical and aesthetic side-effects resulting from conventional development. In so doing, LIUDD aims at protecting ecological integrity while allowing for controlled urbanization (van Roon & van Roon, 2009: 1). A strong driver towards such an objective has been the need to further the sustainability of the built environment by integrating diverse approaches to urban design and propelling urban development (as opposed to growth) (Eason et al., 2009, van Roon, 2005).

Urban planners, urban designers and architects (Faludi & Waterhout, 2006; Davoudi, 2006; 2012; 2015) as well as urban policymakers (Cartwright & Hardie, 2012; Campbell, 2010; Krizek et al., 2009) have, for over the past two decades, observed a growing emphasis on evidence-based policy and practice (Davoudi, 2015: 316; see also disP, 2006). In principle, evidence-based policymaking originate out of a design and implementation process based on the examination of relevant evidence. As a result, policies are rendered effective; that is, expected and intended outcomes are obtained. While the “evidentialist turn” in planning has fostered the improvement of the knowledge base in planning, the notion of “evidence” has increasingly been subject of criticism and revision, as “evidence” is often mistaken for undisputable, scientific and veritable “truth” and “evidence-based policies” rest partially on the common assumption that it is wise to implement interventions that have been proven successful elsewhere. To back up such a procedure, often, randomized control trial (RTCs) and other quantitative methods are used as a metric to ensure that a policy has worked and to thereby add a layer of credibility to policies, for their outcomes are “objectively” assessed. Statistical procedures seemingly underpin a dictum of “it worked there, it will work here”. However, the leap from “worked there” to “will work here” is not as simple or intuitive as it seems on first sight. Instead, there are two quintessential elements to make such a “jump”: “facts about the causal role the policy plays and facts about the support factors that must be in place if the policy is to work” (Cartwright & Hardie, 2012: 6). In other words, both causal mechanisms and context are decisive for a pragmatic transition from “there” to “here” (and even the other way around). Yet, as social science methodology has demonstrated, it is almost impossible to construct “objective” data (Baur et al. 2018) and even harder to empirically establish causal relationships (Baur, 2018). Furthermore, epistemological approaches in the tradition of, e.g., constructivism, relativism, postmodernism or postcolonialism stress that empirical findings are strongly influenced by both the researcher’s social position as well as their positioning in the world-system and by the social organization of doing science. That is to say that, should researchers find (dis)similarities between social contexts, it is not clear whether these result from substantial (dis)similarities or rather from diverging theoretical perspectives, research styles, ways of doing methods or various reactions of the field to social science research (Baur et al. 2018). It is thus at issue whether the exact same methods could be universally applied and how to make evidence comparable.

Be that as it may, approaches in the tradition of e.g. positivism or critical radicalism advocate that science permanently upholds the ideals of truth-searching, intersubjectivity and empirical evidence. Moreover, in order to implement evidence-based policies, urban planning requires as much certainty as possible about (dis)similarities between contexts (e.g. in social inequality research). Yet, planning and design practitioners, oddly enough, recurrently regard “robust” and “credible” as “quantitative” and “measurable”; they see “front” as an identifiable moment in time when putting together plans and designs; and consider “loading” as the act of pouring a certain quantity of evidence into a plan-making or design-conception “container” (Davoudi, 2015: 317). Hence, it is essential for urban planning and design to directly tackle and grapple the challenge of, as it were, “making the incomparable comparable” and infusing relevant evidence into their practices. Evidence ought to be considered as enlightening, instead of determining – that is, evidence should inform rather than found (Davoudi, 2015: 317; 2006). The limited approach of solely “gathering evidence” and the instrumental role of knowledge in the practice of urban policymaking, planning and design should also be surpassed. An evidence-based urban development should be fostered by a practice of knowing (conflating knowledge transfer, exchange and implementation) and constitute a process of “articulating knowledge and action recursively interlinked rather than considering the former as a precondition to, or coming before, the latter in a linear causal chain” (Davoudi, 2015: 317-318). Thus, planners, urban designers, architects and policymakers require “an understanding of the complex relationships between knowing what (cognitive/theoretical knowledge), knowing how (skills/technical knowledge), knowing to what end (moral choices) and doing (action/practice)” (ibid). Through the co-production of spatial research methods, as it is proposed in the GCSMUS, knowledge and action could be substantively coupled and favor low-impact development policies, plans and design-projects. Consequently, specialist researchers should “move out of silo thinking – to think beyond the conventional use of their work into wider contexts” of both knowledge and action (van Roon & van Roon, 2009: 2). By the same token, the participation of those ultimately affected by evidence-based and low-impact policies, plans and designs is an integral element. In this regard, community-driven initiatives (as an optimal “implementation scale”) may well benefit from multi-and interdisciplinary inputs, in order to harness expertise and residents’ involvement and therewith start off a cycle of knowledge transfer-exchange-implementation, further the expansion of synergic networks and make goals (more) attainable and outcomes (more) durable.

The question of spatial methods

Addressing both methodological and substantial challenges – promoting urban sustainability by way of evidence-based and low-impact development – is in effect a staggering, multidimensional and multifactorial task. This is even more true, if one takes into account that cities and human settlements are envisaged to eventually,

(a) fulfil their social function, including the social and ecological function of land, a realization of adequate housing, as well as equal access for all to public goods and public services;

(b) be participatory, promote civic engagement, foster social cohesion, inclusion and safety in peaceful and pluralistic societies;

(c) achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls (United Nations, 2017: 5).

An underlying factor within this projected description of cities is space: In one way or another and to a greater or lesser extent, space has to do with housing, land consumption, access to public goods and services, infrastructure, education, sense of belonging, dynamics of exclusion/inclusion, political participation, gender equity, decent work, etc. To put it differently, urban sustainability has an “interconnecting spatiality” that helps to better integrate the understandings of and possible actions on the issues which cities and communities are dealing with. A possible path to the provision of substantive inputs is precisely through the strengthening of research skills and co-production of research methodswith the aim of delivering a knowledge base that is context-responsive and address the causal mechanisms buttressing the range of thematic challenges of the targets of the SDG#11.

The work of the GCSMUS thus tackles the question of how a methodological-spatial perspective can provide a contribution to foster urban sustainability. Correspondingly, the GCSMUS furthers the transfer, exchange and implementation of knowledge among scholars, practitioners, public servants, NGOs and CBOs, members of development organizations from the developing and developed countries. In so doing, the GCSMUS stresses the methodological potential the social sciences provide to gain takes on the challenges of urban sustainability. More specifically, the GCSMUS’s methodological strategy revolves around achieving synergic combinations of research methods used in social sciences with research methods used in various other disciplines which have traditionally informed efforts to promote sustainability in cities worldwide (such as urban planning, urban design, architecture, geography, transport planning, environmental planning, engineering). Additionally, the GCSMUS’s unifying base is the aforementioned “interconnecting spatiality” – that is, spatial intersecting points in which research methods converge to provide an enhanced outcome.

Introducing research methods of the social sciences to tackle urban sustainability

The GCSMUS aims at tackling the challenge of both achieving ‘objective’, evidence-based knowledge and taking the local context as well as positionality of researchers seriously, to then promote sustainability in cities. In order to achieve this goal, exchanging contributions among scholars, practitioners, public servants, representatives of development organizations, members of NGOs and CBOs is quintessential. The aim, as previously pointed out, is to make developing and developed countries equal partners and to jointly elaborate spatial research methods. Via the initial goal of improving and reinforcing research capacities, research methods are envisioned to arise out of collaborative exchanges for problem-assessment and implementation of measures. In order to do so, the GCSMUS first has to overcome a dual structural imbalance:

1. Scholars and practitioners from developing countries are often faced with difficulties to further develop their methodological expertise, given a limited access to state-of-the-art advanced methodological training. This is seemingly recurrent among scholars of architecture, urban design and planning in both developing and developed countries, provided that systematic methodological training for research is either rather basic or not part of teaching curricula and only partially encouraged within research projects. This results in a two-fold problem: 

(a) complications while conducting research and making it suitable for, as well as responsive to, local contextual conditions and

(b) hurdles to disseminate work and ideas, due to, among other things, the methodological standards with which research has to comply with to for example be presented in conferences and/or published in scientific journals.

2. At the same time, scholars and practitioners from developed countries face a lack of knowledge about developing countries, resulting in a paradoxical challenge: While it is essential for most research questions in sociology, architecture, urban design and planning to have a global scope, and thus (ideally) to encompass case studies from all latitudes, both research and theory-building have been markedly focusing on and formulated from, contexts of developed countries. This has led to an “oxymoronic research dilemma”: Within the spatial disciplines, the impossibility to transfer models “one-to-one” from globalizing (developed countries) to globalized (developing countries) contexts has been repeatedly shown. This predicament has also been subject of theoretical, methodological and empirical discussion within TU Berlin’s Collaborative Research Center “The Re-figuration of Spaces” (CRC 1265, Sfb 1265), with which the GCSMUS cooperates. Such dilemmas do not only apply to research topics and field research, but also to the methods used in social research: In the international methodological community (for example, in the ISA RC33 and ESA RN21), scholars from the developed countries predominantly – though not exclusively – participate in steering debates.

Program Outcomes

One of the main obstacles for overcoming this twofold challenge is the lack of “meeting points” between scholars from the developed and developing countries for triggering, more effectively, substantive deliberation. Surmounting this handicap turns out to be essential, provided that

(a) research methods cannot be universally applied and

(b) a considerable part of social science methodology as well as methods and tools of planning and design (e.g. Software: CAD, BIM, GIS) have been constructed in developed countries

As a result, spatial research is creating systematic blind spots: In the world regions where knowledge is most needed (because there the biggest social challenges are unfolding) chances for knowledge transfer, exchange and implementation are, at best, scarce.

The GCSMUS’s overarching goal is connecting knowledge transfer, exchange, co-production and implementation to support policymaking and design in urban sustainability research. This is done by combining research methods of the social sciences with research methods deployed in design and policymaking. As a result, spatial research methods are to be co-produced, which informs evidence-based and low-impact urban development schemes that, in turn, contribute to the achievement of the various targets of the SDG#11. To reach this goal, the following objectives are pursued:

1. Developing methodological skills of scholars at all career stages from both developing and developed countries through knowledge transfer and education.

2. Furthering contact and collaboration between scholars from the developing and developed countries through knowledge exchange. This includes also knowledge exchange within and between developing countries.

3. Contributing to the efforts fostering urban sustainability by the co-production of knowledge and          methods for planning and design practice and research in both developing and developed countries (knowledge co-production).

4. Initiating co joint, praxis-oriented and context responsive empirical research and implementations on urban sustainability issues (knowledge implementation).


Baur, N. (2018). Kausalität und Interpretativität. In Akremi, L., Baur, N., Knoblauch, H. & Traue, B. (Eds.), Handbuch Interpretativ Forschen (pp. 306-360). Weinheim: Beltz Juventa.

Baur, N., Knoblauch, H., Akremi, L. & Traue, B. (2018). Qualitativ – quantitativ – interpretativ. In Akremi, L., Baur, N., Knoblauch, H. & Traue, B. (Eds.), Handbuch Interpretativ Forschen (pp. 264-284). Weinheim: Beltz Juventa.

Campbell, H. (2010). ‘Evidence-based Policy’. Planning Theory & Practice 4(1), 89-90.

Cartwright, N., & Hardie, J. (2012). Evidence-based policy: A practical guide to doing it better. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davoudi, S. (2006). Evidence-based planning. disP: The Planning Review 165(2), 14-25.

Davoudi, S. (2012). The legacy of positivism and the emergence of interpretive tradition in spatial planning. Regional Studies46(4), 429-441.

Davoudi, S. (2015). Planning as practice of knowing. Planning Theory14(3), 316-331.

disP (2006) Special issue: Evidence-based planning. disP: The Planning Review 165(2), 3-72.

Eason, C., Dixon, J. & van Roon, M. (2009). A transdisciplinary research approach providing a platform for improved urban design, quality of life and biodiverse urban ecosystems. In: McDonnell, M. J., Hahs, A. K. & Breuste, J.H. (Eds.), The Ecology of Cities and Towns: A Comparative Approach (pp. 470-483). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 

Faludi, A., & Waterhout, B. (2006). Introducing evidence-based planning. disP-The Planning Review42(165), 4-13.

Krizek, K., Forysth, A., & Slotterback, C. S. (2009). Is there a role for evidence-based practice in urban planning and policy?. Planning Theory & Practice10(4), 459-478.

Pearce, D., Markandya, A. & Barbier, E.B. (1989) Blueprint for a Green Economy. London: Earthscan.

United Nations (2017). The New Urban Agenda. Quito: Habitat III Secretariat.

Van Roon, M. (2005). Emerging approaches to urban ecosystem management: the potential of low impact urban design and development principles. Journal of Environmental Assessment Policy and Management7(01), 125-148.

van Roon, M. R. & van Roon H. (2009). Low Impact Urban Design and Development. Lincoln: Manaaki Whenua.

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