In This Issue
Spring Issue of The Bridge on Urban Sustainability
March 18, 2011 Volume 41 Issue 1

Emerging Patterns of Urban Sustainability in Asia

Monday, March 28, 2011

Author: Xuemei Bai

We urgently need a comprehensive, systematic analysis based on a large number of in-depth case studies.

More than half of the world population lives in cities—centers of economic growth, resource use, environmental impacts, and innovation. Thus, cities are the centers of technological invention and progress, as well as the way we address sustainability issues and navigate our way forward (Grimm et al., 2008).

Most of the world’s megacities, and the largest urban population in the world, are in Asia, where the number and size of cities are increasing rapidly, often coupled with rapid economic development. Recent studies have explored the importance of innovative practices in transitions toward sustainability and alternative development pathways for Asia and Asian cities (Bai, 2003; Berkhout et al., 2009, 2010).

The environmental and sustainability challenges (and opportunities) facing Asian cities are more complex than for cities in developed countries (Bai and Imura, 2000). As they struggle to meet these challenges, some cities have discovered and adopted innovative strategies and became front runners in improving sustainability. 

City planners and administrators seem to learn from each other much more than from the scientific literature (Campbell, 2009). To facilitate such learning, it is important that we understand why some cities adopt innovative practices, how they do it, and how we can extract transferable knowledge from their successes and lessons learned.

Cross-Case Analysis

Many good practices have been documented for addressing various aspects of urban sustainability. The documentations can mostly be found in two types of sources: (1) case studies published as scholarly articles (Dimitriou, 2006; Ng and Hills, 2003; Roberts and Kanaley, 2006; Schwela et al., 2006) and (2) best-practices databases (e.g., UN-Habitat Best Practices and Local Leadership Program).

However, neither type is sufficient for building transferable knowledge and facilitating cross-city learning.   Because case studies are often context specific, the extent to which the findings can be generalized or applied in other contexts can be inferred, at best. In addition, learning based on single cases is often treated as anecdotal evidence in academic debate and thus does not receive much attention.

International, agency-driven, best-practices databases often include only brief information and do not provide clear conceptual designs specifying the information to be collected. Thus readers often cannot find relevant information. In addition, few, if any, attempts have been made to identify commonalities and patterns among the large number of individual cases.

We urgently need a systematic, comprehensive analysis based on a large number of in-depth case studies that identifies key characteristics and emerging common patterns and extracts transferable knowledge. The development of such an analysis must overcome two challenges. First, a sound conceptual and analytical framework must be developed to conduct cross-case analyses and extract commonalities. Second, an effective methodology must be developed to facilitate the analysis.

A Five-Tier Analytical Framework

For an effective, systematic, comprehensive, cross-case analysis of sustainability experiments, analyses of individual cases must be based on a set of common questions that reveal underlying circumstances, factors, and mechanisms, both within and among cases. The questions must include: (1) what triggered the practice; (2) who the main actors are; (3) what the relationship is between actors and upper or lower levels of government and other stakeholders, including international organizations; (4) what the major barriers are to planning and implementing the experiment; (5) which pathway the experiment followed, whether it has served as an example for and been duplicated by others; (6) what the common pattern of experimentation in the region is in answer to each of these questions; and (7) whether a “formula” for success or pattern can be found in the combination of triggers, actors, linkages, and barriers that leads to certain pathways and outcomes.

Figure 1

Based on these questions, Bai and colleagues (2010) proposed a five-tier analytical framework: (1) triggers; (2) actors; (3) linkages (a network among institutions and actors); (4) barriers; and (5) pathways (Figure 1). Under each tier, a range of possible elements are identified (Table 1).


TABLE 1   Main Items in Each of the Five Tiers


Event Triggers










• natural disaster

• public health issue

• poverty

• employment

• pollution or congestion

• media exposure

• policy change

• community concerns and action

• global concern

• local community

• local government

• state/national governments

• local activists

• international organizations

• international development assistance agencies

• private sector

• media

• local-state governments (vertically integrated)

• cross/inter-agency involvement (horizontally integrated)

• community-based partnerships

• public/private sector partnerships

• networks of program activities/experiments

• international/global linkages

• political

• institutional

• economical/ financial

• technological

• natural/physical

• historical

• cultural

• social

• capacity

• upscaled to regional regimes (mainstreamed)

• multiplied (project duplicated elsewhere)

• experiment to experiment (project expanded locally)

• experiment (down-scaled)

• experiment failure (terminated with no net benefits)

• experiment failure (terminated with net loss of benefits)

Source: Bai et al., 2010.


Triggers are defined as events and factors (e.g., natural disasters, accidents, public health concerns, policy changes, media exposure, etc.) that create a need for action to address a problem or issue. For example, a change in national policy on energy efficiency and climate change can trigger an experiment by a city to adopt an innovative practice that encourages energy efficiency in buildings or improves public transportation. In some cases, there may be multiple triggers or cumulative causal events (Coombs, 2000; Toner, 1999).


Actors are the key stakeholders in projects. Actors’ roles and commitment to projects can range from political, technical, consultative, design, financial, and implementation support.


Actors function in a network of linkages—vertical linkages between local and state governments (i.e., upper or lower levels of government institutions) and horizontal linkages, such as cross/inter-agency involvement, community-based partnerships, public-private sector partnerships, networks of program activities/experiments, and international and global linkages.


Barriers to sustainability experiments can limit or impair their effectiveness. Barriers can include political, institutional, economic and/or financial, and technological factors; natural/physical limits; historical limits; cultural factors; and lack of social acceptance.


In this study, a pathway is defined as the eventual trajectory and outcome of an experiment. An experiment can follow one or a combination of the following pathways: remain an individual experiment; be repeated in similar projects or methodologies in other cities; be upscaled to change regional or national practices; or eventually be downscaled or terminated.

Findings Based on 30 Innovative Practices in Asia

The analytical framework described above has been applied to 30 case studies of best urban sustainability practices in Asia. Drawn from a recent book, Urbanization and Sustainability in Asia: Good Practice Approaches to Urban Region Development in Asian Countries (Roberts and Kanaley, 2006), these case studies come from 12 countries—Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The case studies include examples of infrastructure, environmental, housing, social, and governance projects and programs of different sizes and complexity. The cases are up to date and documented for the purpose of identifying and highlighting good urban practices in the region. More than half of them have won national or international awards for best practices.

In the present study, the initial authors of the 30 cases, all experts on urban issues in the region, were asked to provide input to the analysis by identifying and ranking, on a scale of 1 (most important) to 6 (least important), the elements in each tier. The data were then aggregated and analyzed to identify key features and common patterns of urban sustainability practices (for details of the methodology, see Bai et al., 2010).

Figure 2 shows the distribution pattern of primary triggers, actors, linkages, and barriers for all cases and according to pathway. Figure 3 shows the distribution pattern of cumulative factors (a normalized sum of all factors identified by experts). The figures also include patterns specific to certain pathways. The results below are organized according to the five tiers in the analytical framework and according to pathways.

Figure 2


All Cases

In both the primary and cumulative distributions, the most important triggers were changes in public policy focused on improving the sustainability of urban development. This finding reflects the importance of policy and politics in initiating sustainability practices. The next most important triggers were related to pollution, public health, poverty, and job creation. 

In most case studies, more than one trigger was important. Fourteen indicated that more than three triggers had led to the decision to take action. Both primary and cumulative triggers showed similar distribution patterns.

Pathway-Specific Triggers

Experiments with different pathways have different triggers. Among the nine up-scaled cases, the importance of policy changes was even more prominent than in the cases cited above, indicating that political will is essential for innovative experiments to be mainstreamed.  The second important trigger was job creation. Among experiments that were “multiplied,” alleviating poverty was the most prominent trigger, followed by public-health issues.

Among the 16 cases that were not duplicated or expanded (experiment-to-experiment cases), pollution and congestion were the most prominent triggers, followed by community- and poverty-related concerns. The distribution patterns for primary and cumulative triggers were similar.


All Cases

Local government stands out as the most important primary actor for the 30 cases. Communities, international development assistance, and state/national governments had a much lower level of importance. Local government was the leading actor in more than 12 of the case studies. This result is not unexpected because many projects related to sustainability involve public initiatives to improve local services, infrastructure, and environmental conditions. In all but three projects, government had primary responsibility for the design and implementation framework for the project.

Pathway-Specific Actors

Although local government is the most important actor in these 30 cases, there is an interesting variation in terms of the importance of other actors. For up-scaled experiments, state government seems to have much higher relative significance than in other pathways, indicating the importance of involving state governments in local experiments.

Interestingly, our results indicate that experiments initiated by the international development sector were less likely to be up-scaled, although international organizations can play a supporting role for up-scaling (as indicated in Figure 3).

Figure 3

Among the multiplied experiments, local community seems to have the same level of importance as local government. Again, the distributions of primary and cumulative actors show similar patterns.


All Cases

More than one-third of the projects involved some form of collaboration among actors. Most involved three levels of linkages, interagency and intergovernmental linkages and community partnerships. However, the types of linkages and levels of collaboration varied significantly.

Pathway-Specific Linkages

Among up-scaled cases, vertical linkages between local and state governments and public-private partnerships seem to play more significant roles than in other pathways. This result affirms the importance of vertical and horizontal linkages for local good practices to be up-scaled (Bai et al., 2009).

This result also reinforces the findings in the actors tier, where the importance of upper level government was prominent in up-scaled cases. For cases that are multiplied, or repeated, in other cities, community-based partnerships seem to be slightly more important than they are in the cases overall. The distributions of linkages in experiment-to-experiment (experiments that were not repeated elsewhere) cases are similar to distributions in the overall cases.


All Cases

Four kinds of barriers—policy, economic and financial, institutional, and capacity—had significant impacts on project implementation. These findings are supported in the literature on barriers that affect sustainable urban development projects (Banister, 1998; Steinemann, 2003). Only six cases in the present study identified a single barrier to project implementation and ongoing operations. Most identified multiple barriers through the various stages of project development and implementation.

Interestingly, technology, identified as a primary barrier in only two cases, seems not to be as significant as other factors. One reason for this may be that the technologies used in the examined cases might have already been proven, in which case the project risk assessment procedure would effectively have removed technological barriers.

Similarly, cultural and historical factors seem to be negligible as barriers. A possible explanation may be that effective community engagement and consultation might have lowered cultural and historical barriers. However, we do not have enough evidence to resolve these questions definitively.

Pathway-Specific Barriers

Among up-scaled cases, institutional and capacity barriers were identified as slightly more important than policy and economic barriers, which were identified in the general pattern. For both experiment-multiplied cases and experiment-to-experiment cases, economic and capacity barriers seem to be the most prominent factors. 

Pathways of Experiments

Some of the experiments examined are ongoing, which means their pathways may be evolving, so this discussion is based on current results. At this point, 22 projects have developed single pathways, and eight have developed multiple pathways. Taking the latter into account, the aggregated results shows that, among the 30 cases, 9 are up-scaled cases, 13 are experiment-multiplied cases, and 6 are experiment-to-experiment cases.

The majority of projects, some of which are going through an evaluation and expansion phase, involve the experiment-to-experiment pathway. Several projects involve community-based initiatives, in which responsibility for ongoing operations and maintenance has or will be handed over to a non-governmental organization or community-based organization.


Although the number of studies analyzing individual sustainability experiments is increasing, the context-specific nature of many practices means experiences are often not directly transferable. Evidence based on numerous individual cases seems to suggest that identifying a particular good practice is very much an “art” rather than a “science.” Thus it requires significant trial and error, which in turn requires a commitment to ongoing learning. Nevertheless, exploring ways to facilitate multiplication of experiments and eventually up-scaling a good practice into a system change is essential to sustainability transition.

It is also important to benchmark sustainable development practices. This has not been attempted very often but is important to supporting ongoing learning and knowledge dissemination related to good-practice sustainable urban development (World Bank, 2001). We will need substantial, in-depth research to draw more general insights from individual cases and enhance those insights into scientific knowledge.

The analysis of 30 cases described above has revealed good urban practices in the region: (1) the importance of policy change and the cumulative effect on triggers; (2) the importance of local government, community, and international agencies as main actors; (3) the wide range of size and complexity in linkages and networks in different projects; and (4) the prominence of political and institutional barriers, followed by financial and local capacity issues.

In terms of pathways, at the time of this evaluation about half of the experiments had either been mainstreamed or duplicated elsewhere, indicating a strong potential for overall sustainability transition in Asia. However, about half of the experiments remain as individual, unduplicated experiments. Two reasons might contribute to this outcome: (1) some experiments may not have fully evolved beyond the single-case pathway, which suggests a need for continuous monitoring and evaluation; and (2) evolving a successful pathway is a process that involves not only the supply side of lessons and insights (e.g., the city that carried out the experiment), but also the capacity and willingness to learn on the demand side (e.g., other cities or upper level government agencies).

Can we extract a “formula for success” or a “winning pattern” from these cases? The initial results of the analysis show some distinctive patterns that have important theoretical and practical implications.

First, cases that are up-scaled often have strong vertical linkages with state or national government, whereas initiatives by international development agencies tend to remain as experiment-to-experiment or multiplied projects and are seldom up-scaled. Although the specific reason for this emerging pattern is not clear, it might imply that for international development agencies to leverage sustainability outcomes beyond specific urban projects, they might have to pay more attention to vertical linkages and engage more closely with upper level governments. The pattern provides empirical sup-port for a proposition by Campbell (2009) suggesting that a radical departure from customary policy by donor institutions might be necessary.

Second, among all cases, and particularly among cases with more successful pathways, the importance of political factors was manifested repeatedly (e.g., policy changes as triggers, local governments as main actors, the importance of state government support, and the prominence of institutional factors as major barriers). In practice, this suggests that political will and support are essential to the success of urban sustainability experiments in terms of sustainability transition.

Third, technological factors do not play a prominent role in urban sustainability practices in the cases we analyzed. This may be another indication that technical assistance projects by international development agencies should be designed based on social-technical systems, rather than technology per se.

Although innovative cities have identified cross-city learning as the most important vector for knowledge transfer, cross-city learning is not simple, and innovative practices have yet to reach the majority of cities. Lessons from individual cases provide invaluable insights, but they are often context specific. Thus, without systematic, comprehensive analysis, it is often difficult to transfer these lessons to other contexts.

The emerging patterns discussed above are based on cross-case analysis and therefore provide transferable knowledge that reflects, but is not dependent on, the local context. Thus, this knowledge can be used for designing and navigating urban sustainability experiments and managing overall sustainability transition. To be successful, however, international agencies that construct and maintain large databases on innovative or best practices for sustainable cities must pay more attention to and facilitate systematic comparative analysis.


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About the Author:Xuemei Bai is Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences, Canberra, Australia.