There have been more than eight months of studying life in UK. During this period, I also visited several large and small cities for study trip and vacation travel. As a student from Urban Design, the deepest impression I have left on these long or short journey was that, as a European country, UK represents the “sustainable development” strategy and “ecological civilization” concept actively promoted by European countries from the perspectives both urban development and culture. This blog will broadly classify UK cities based on sustainability, and then summarize the main aspects and general process of their sustainable development. Meanwhile, in combination with the analysis on the “stagnation” phenomenon of some certain UK cities, this blog will also look rationally at the real meaning of sustainability.

For the study of urban sustainability, one question should be answered above all, what is sustainability after all? To put it another way, what prospect of sustainability shall we pursue? For the former, back to 1992’s Environmental and Development Congress, “ecological sustainability” was once widely regarded as the main connotation of sustainability. [1] Even the policy agenda document adopted by the governments during the 21st century around the world also contains a strong sense of ecology. Virtually, it is far from easy to clarify the connotation of sustainability theoretically. [2] Looking around the UK, how should we summarize the main aspects of urban sustainability?

Slide34An intuitive blobby diagram of sustainability in cities (from:

Sustainability of British cities could be roughly categorized as an ideal bonding between economy, society, politics, culture, and nature, especially embodied as well-built public management and service system, appropriate level and scale of economy, well-developed tourism and advanced higher education. So how to achieve the sustainability? Generally speaking, it derives from the gradual stabilization or even contraction after large-scale development in cities such as Winchester whose status contracts from a has-been in Middle Ages to a regional center today. As for the industrial background of British throughout centuries, it refers to the gradual liberation from the impacts of modern industry in cities. It appears that the contracting urban economic activities is the culprit of the shrinking city size, essentially, however it is an equilibrium between economy, society and nature. For the benefit of achieving sustainability, radical ecological sociologist Saral Sarkar concluded this kind of urban contraction as “social progress”. [3]

British urban sustainability should be an optimal combination of post-industrialized cities, highly comfortable cities, tourism & leisure cities and university cities. Of course, this is only a rough summary of whole condition and formation tendency. [4] Generally speaking, we could classif’y them as small-scale living cities, large-scale industrialized cities and the transitional one, or to categorize them in a more serious way, sustainable city, industrial and commercial city as well as sustainability-transiting city. Across the UK, Bath, York, Winchester belongs to the first category, while traditional industrialized cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow belongs to the second one, and Edinburgh as well as Cardiff could be viewed as the third.


Sustainable city:Bath (Photograph by the author)


Sustainable city:York (Photograph by the author)


Industrial and commercial city:Glasgow (Photograph by the author` friend Qiu He)


Industrial and commercial city:Sheffield (Photograph by the author)


Sustainability -transiting city:Edinburgh (Photograph by the author)


Sustainability -transiting city:Cardiff (Photograph by the author)

Secondly, for the latter problem mentioned above — What prospect of sustainability shall we pursue? In fact, if we visit any UK city expect London, such as Bermingham and Manchester, the first impression we get may be that, their universality of stagnant and the lack of vitality in terms of economy and society (personally I feel that even can be described by “Depressed“). Especially compared with some cities in developing countries. While if we understand this phenomenon in a different angle, then a quite different conclusion can be drawn. That is to say, for this “stagnation”, we can fully explain that, these cities in UK are increasingly close to a steady state of relatively few growth and expansion. Isn`t it basic characteristic that sustainability is reflected by this kind of phenomenon? Certainly the supporting foundation and objective condition of this kind of sustainability need to be further analyzed, but it shows us the reality existence or possible mode for urban sustainability after all.


Manchester gave me the impression of “Depressed“ (Photograph by the author)

Furthermore, if this sustainability in UK cities is defined as a specific mode in more ecological and more sustainable ways of binding the factors of nature, society, economy and culture in a city after a centuries long process of modernization, then the sustainability of a city is the ability to get rid of the influence and impact brought by the modernization process to a large extent.[5] Although this kind of grey image of a city doesn`t accord with the mainstream taste of current modernization development, it may really reflect the positive side of objective logic of historical development.

Actually, the vision and pursuit of sustainable development in UK cities may provide some different or transpositonal considerations to our developing countries. If we do not want to lose too much in the process of modernization, we should try to see more ‘life green’ of future sense from the ‘grey tone’ of those slightly gloomy cities. Grey is Green!


[1] World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987, p .43.

[2] Andrew Dobson, “Environmental Sustainabilities: An Analysis and a Typology” , Environmental Politics 5/3(1996), p .422.

[3] Saral Sarkar, Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism, London: Zed Books, 1999, pp .231-233.

[4] John Dryzek, The Politics of the

Earth: Environmental Discourses, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, p.236.

[5] Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy, Okaland, CA: AK Press, 2005, p .428.

A video about morden sustainable life in UK: