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What's in a name?

If you live in or near a city, do you pay attention to how it is described? The findings of a 30-year study by a Glasgow academic has revealed that the labels that cities adopt for themselves, and those given to them by others, do matter. So much so, that the study’s findings are helping to inform policymakers and urban planners in the debate around urban sustainability.

Simon Joss is Professor of Urban Futures in the School of Social & Political Sciences and carried out the research with colleagues at two Dutch universities. He explains that they were motivated by the question of whether it actually makes a difference which words become used as labels for cities. “Our findings show conclusively that this is the case,” he says. “By ‘harvesting’ over 11,000 articles of academic literature, we identified 35 of these terms given to cities over the past 30 years. We were quite surprised by the variety of terms being used.”

The study showed that cities using labels to describe themselves has exploded in prevalence, a sign that they are recognising their position at the centre of global efforts to achieve more sustainable development worldwide.

The frontrunners
Among the city labels that the study uncovered, terms such as “post-carbon”, “resilient” and “green” were joined by more unusual labels like “playful”, “circular” and “biophilic”. The researchers found “sustainable” to be the label that has been applied to cities most frequently since 1990 – well recognised due to international development policy. However, “smart” is now taking over in prevalence, largely due to our experience of incorporating more and more technology into our urban lives, and now constitutes almost half (46%) of the total number of citations.

Although “smart” didn’t appear as a label in the first time period studied, 1990–94, its frequency across the full 30 years is almost three times higher than “sustainable”. Terms with an increasing or consistent usage over the period include “compact”, “digital” and “creative”, while “playful”, “sharing” and “biophilic” began as less popular labels and have remained so.

“If I was a government launching a ‘smart cities’ programme,” says Simon, “I’d probably want to emphasise the technological or innovation aspect of urban development more than if I chose ‘eco cities’, where the environmental aspect would be more important.” He remarks that “eco cities” has been a popular term in France, where over 600 towns and cities have joined in with their own “Écoquartier”/ “eco neighbourhood” projects.

In the run-up to the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow this November, the role of cities in tackling climate change is entering the spotlight and Simon’s research, aligned with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations, is reinforcing this. “From a policy perspective,” he says, “we think that analysing the 35 labels really helps inform the debate about how SDG 11 – Sustainable Cities & Communities – is interlinked with the other 16 SDGs.”

Predicting the future
Simon’s research has calculated how the labels will develop over the next 50 years, using so-called logistic growth modelling, a robust method of forecasting future trends. He expects that greater focus will be placed on social aspects of urban development. A label like “inclusive” has shown modest growth so far, but is beginning to increase in frequency, along with “liveable”, “open” and “safe”. “A more socially oriented cluster of city terms are emerging,” he says. “and although until now, the focus has been on environmental aspects of urban development due to climate change, the expectation is that the social, individual and community wellbeing aspects are waiting in the wings.” 

This article was first published April 2021. 

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