How can cities achieve sustainable growth? Sustainability research and co-created knowledge tackles cross-disciplinary global challenges

By engaging with the urban planners and citizens researchers are able to offer visions of a more sustainable future in cities and help to achieve them

How to build the future of cities in a more sustainable manner? The University of Helsinki launches a research theme regarding urban sustainability produced in cooperation by the two institutes Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS) and Helsinki Institute of Urban and Regional Studies (Urbaria). We interviewed the theme leader, HELSUS Professor Christopher Raymond, about the new research theme and the role of the universities in the urban sustainability transformations. 

New research theme to better address the cross-disciplinary global challenges

This year the development process to integrate the strong existing expertise in both urban and sustainability sciences has been one of the main priorities of Urbaria and HELSUS. In an increasingly urbanized world, cities are becoming the hubs growth with over half of the world’s population living in cities and about 60% of global GDP being produced in them but also accounting for over 70 percent of global GHG emissions. Therefore, the question of achieving a more sustainable growth in cities becomes essential. The approach of sustainable urban attempts to break free from the traditional silos of academic disciplines and, instead, aim for an issue based cross-disciplinary approach much like the institutes themselves.

According to Raymond, the core question of the research theme is how cities respond to the climate emergency in a manner that supports low-carbon lifestyles as well as the health and wellbeing of all its citizens. Economic interests usually prevail in urban context. However, in order to reach carbon neutrality we need to develop sustainability pathways that manage the social, economic and environmental impacts of intended and unintended feedbacks between society and ecology, ecology and technology, and technology and society.  

Better decision-making through co-creation of knowledge

Professor Raymond sees the potential for trans-disciplinary and solutions-oriented urban sustainability science where scientists, citizens, policy makers and corporate bodies co-create solutions to societal challenges that address different needs and interests. This type of science requires a shift from unidirectional communication of scientific knowledge towards a system where the city decision-makers, planners and citizens are active stakeholders and participants in the co-creation of knowledge.

Furthermore, he thinks that the focus should be turned from the finalized policies towards the ongoing processes of decision-making and governance and that message should be tailored towards the different needs and stakeholder groups that are presents at these stages. Being aware of the enablers and barriers of a specific context, such as the legislative frameworks, also helps to understand which solutions are possible in different contexts.

Cities as the leaders and promoters of climate neutral lifestyles

Cities are currently the leading institutions in driving ambitious climate agendas. Some cities have demonstrated major commitments to the achievement of sustainability solutions by, for example,making big investments in nature-based solutions and engaging in global partnerships that are based on voluntary commitments to the achievement of United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Cities are working in partnership with initiatives such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, The New Urban Agenda and the Covenant of Mayors and Future Earth’s Urban Knowledge-Action Network. The importance of cities will continue to increase in the future, as cities will have to increasingly deal with the adverse effects of climate change and answer to citizen’s request by showing climate leadership. Christopher Raymond envisions the role of science and institutes such as HELSUS and Urbaria in this all as influencers and supporters of the new agenda. By engaging with the urban planners and citizens, researchers are able to offer visions of a more sustainable future in cities and help to also achieve them.

As probably in all the interviews these days, we also spoke about the coronavirus and its impacts on the lifestyles and urban sustainability. The epidemic has again demonstrated how fragile human life is and how connected the nature is on our health and wellbeing. The situation has offered a possibility for many to reconnect with nature evident by the increased access to and use of natural areas. At the same time, social distancing has demonstrated the importance of social connections in everyday life. At best, we might come out of the crisis with a better social and ecological resilience than before.

Join our Urban sustainability webinar: nature-based solutions in cities the 26th of May to hear more.

For more information contact:


Theme leader Professor Christopher Raymond
+358505560850, +358294157836

Urbaria coordinator Iiris Koivulehto
+358504719810, +358294150056