Book review: Reimagining Sustainable Cities: Strategies for Designing Greener, Healthier, More Equitable Communities

reviewed by Keith Pezzoli

30 Mar 2023, 12:44 p.m.

Reimagining Sustainable Cities book cover

Stephen M Wheeler and Christina D Rosan, Reimagining Sustainable Cities: Strategies for Designing Greener, Healthier, More Equitable Communities, Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2021; 344 pp.: ISBN: 9780520381216, £23.00 (hbk), ISBN: 9780520381209, £23.00 (eBook)


Reimagining Sustainable Cities by Stephen M Wheeler and Christina D Rosan provides a much needed, holistically integrative, overview of sustainability strategies for designing greener, more just, resilient, adaptable and climate friendly communities. Their critically constructive overview is theoretically framed by social ecology – an ethical and analytical approach to understanding/improving the human condition that goes beyond stuck binary and siloed ways of thinking and doing. Accordingly, Wheeler and Rosan identify and discuss the strengths and limitations of sustainability strategies from a transdisciplinary, intersectional perspective. Their book effectively connects the dots across subjects and scales (local, regional, global), drawing attention to the cumulatively compounding impacts that unsustainable development is having on people and the planet.

The book has a humility about it, written in an accessible way for diverse readers, aimed primarily at ‘academics and professionals who design and plan urban areas as well as to students who study them and people who live in, work in, and care about them’ (p. 2). The authors include detailed footnotes, insightful anecdotes and examples (mostly from North America and Europe, but also from other places worldwide providing helpful comparative context). Each chapter has a concise table summarising the strategies discussed in that part of the book, a resource especially useful for students. Indeed, I use some of those tables in a class about cities and the urban world system that I teach in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of California, San Diego.

Reimagining Sustainable Cities elucidates a range of problem-solving, solutions-oriented strategies that can be used by people, communities and institutions who are struggling to deal with the 21st-century’s perfect storm. That is, the unhealthy mixture of wicked problems emerging at the intersection of climate disruption; land and ecological degradation; rising disparities in the resilience and regenerative capacity of human settlements and working lands/waters; and the globalisation of chronic and infectious disease types and vectors. Wheeler and Rosan are quick to note how these problems are exacerbated by racism and other forms of oppression.

Modernity’s unsustainable, extractive mode of industrial development is recklessly over-exploiting Earth’s physical and life systems (sources and sinks). This gives rise to the perfect storm now threatening all of humanity in the form of mounting risks, vulnerabilities and impacts. Of course, people around the world contribute to and experience this perfect storm very differently. This raises serious concerns about ethics and justice. These concerns clearly underpin what Wheeler and Rosan chose to highlight as key strategies for designing greener, healthier, more equitable communities. The co-authors emphasise the importance of community development through the coupling of human–nature relationships in design, participatory planning, leadership and social change activism.

The pitch for social ecology in Reimagining Sustainable Cities calls for changing Business as Usual (BAU). As social ecology advocates, the co-authors call for more democratic and just forms of local, regional and globalising forms of urbanisation. They do not offer one size fits all technocratic or economic restructuring solutions. Instead, the book is arranged as a menu of mini manifestos of sorts, providing readers with multiple lists of actionable strategies. The authors’ ideological stance is revealed in their argument that entrenched neoliberalism generates manifold and intersecting problems, the resolution of which will require deep structural changes. This position is insightfully articulated by Brown (2015) in her excellent book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Zone Books).

Neoliberalism is the socio-cultural, political economy scaffolding underpinning capitalism’s hypermobile, recklessly extractive, resource intensive industrialism that is perilously unsustainable. Neoliberalism has tendencies that favour corporate, market-driven profit seeking. This dynamic is relentlessly commodifying much of contemporary life and living. One result can be seen in the demise of support for mutual aid and communitarianism, and another result is the private sector enclosure of public commons. The deficit in values to sustain more of a caring economy coupled with the loss of public access to trusted knowledge commons degrades society’s collective action capability necessary to enable social learning and trustworthy communication for the sustainability transition. Yet social learning coupled with reliable, accurate, diverse and inclusive communication is required for governance, planning and decision making to be justly sustainable. This conundrum, in my estimation, is the most significant challenge addressed in Reimagining Sustainable Cities.

We need an educated democracy to eradicate the root causes of modernity’s perfect storm, and the existential threat it presents to humans and countless other life forms. In this spirit, Wheeler and Rosan include a figure in Chapter 3: ‘How Might We Create More Sustainable Economies?’ The figure proclaims in its tagline: ‘Sustainable cities will almost certainly need a political economy paradigm that provides an alternative to recent neoliberal capitalism’ (Figure 5, p. 58). The figure spells out three possibilities: reformed capitalism, social democracy and democratic socialism. Of course, there are no guarantees that a societal turn away from neoliberalism will move human civilisation in the direction of more just and sustainable alternatives. The authors are quick to emphasise this point – drawing attention to the prospect of dystopian possibilities in the form of authoritarian populism and fascism gaining ascendance.

My sense in reading Wheeler and Rosan’s book is that the authors prefer a path to social democracy on the way to democratic socialism. They do not go as far to say, ‘It’s ok to be angry about capitalism’, the evocative title US Senator Sanders (2023) gave to his new book on the subject. Nor is Reimagining Sustainable Cities as strident as Senator Sanders’ take down of neoliberalism’s uber-capitalism. Sanders blasts the ‘billionaire class and speaks blunt truths about our country’s failure to address the destructive nature of a system that is fuelled by uncontrolled greed and rigidly committed to prioritizing corporate profits over the needs of ordinary Americans’ (Random House blub announcing Sanders’ book). Wheeler and Rosan are decidedly less strident in their narrative given their intent to lay out an open terrain of prospects for countervailing reimagination– to be shaped according to one’s interests, capabilities, opportunities, constraints and other contextual realities within which the pertinent lives and living take place.

The very first paragraph of Reimagining Sustainable Cities entices the reader to imagine what some might view as utopian: the first sentence says: ‘Imagine a city where housing is affordable, where each home produces more energy than it uses, and where people from different classes, race, and ethnic groups live nearby and enjoy each other’s company’ (Introduction, p. 1). The remainder of the first paragraph paints a prospective socio-ecological imaginary of a new urbanism that is verdant; biodiverse, pedestrian friendly, socio-culturally inclusive, safe and equitable; with progressive businesses and democratic leadership working together creating health and well-being for all. Yes, this is utopian! It is also use-inspired actionable fruit of ‘Reimagining’.

Imagination is one of humanity’s most wondrous abilities. Much has been written about the power of imagination and the essential role it plays in creativity, innovation and social change (both for good and bad). Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Imaginary is probably western political philosophy’s most sophisticated psychological interpretation of what makes up the imagination. Sartre and Williams (1962) argue that ‘imagination is not an empirical power added to consciousness, but it is the whole of consciousness as it realizes its freedom’ (p. 186). Sartre’s definition of imagination, and the radical freedom that it affords humanity, resonates in Reimagining Sustainable Cities. Wheeler and Rosan argue that the power of reimagining generates actionable vision, stories and social learning that can open pathways for transformational change. No doubt this is what motivated the two co-authors to include the following choice morsel of a quote on the books first page: ‘We live in capitalism; its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. – Ursula K Le Guin’.

With respect to the power of imagination and the articulation of countervailing stories, there is one aspect I would have liked to have seen more of in Reimagining Sustainable Cities. That is, a bioregional perspective that fleshes out more robustly urban–rural linkages in the fate of city-region development. The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat, 2017) published a report worth noting; it documents ways to implement the UN’s ‘New Urban Agenda’ by strengthening urban–rural linkages.

Wheeler and Rosan do touch on urban–rural linkages in Chapter 7: ‘How do we manage land more sustainably?’ The chapter is very good, highlighting strategies including: ‘Expand collective ownership and management of land’; and ‘Revive the commons through institutions and incentives for common-pool management; use land banks to expand public ownership of land; establish co-ops and community land trusts’ (p. 148). So, it may not be reasonable for me to be asking for more about urban–rural linkages. Perhaps the co-authors can examine this dimension more extensively in a second edition of the book. I only note it here given the sharp rise in efforts to get beyond metrocentric bias in urban planning and design by connecting more strongly the urban prospect to the fate of rural settlements, working lands/waters, wildlands and ecosystems at a bioregional scale.

Some very good bioregional scholarship explains the importance of understanding and improving urban–rural relationships. I will just list one, suggesting how it adds a useful countervailing narrative that supports the strategies articulated by Wheeler and Rosan. Thayer (2020), a bioregional theorist/philosopher/practitioner, sees a deeply problematic urban/rural rift in the USA. He argues that we live in ‘a nation that divides its rural citizens philosophically and politically from its urban population’, this is unsustainable socially and ecologically, and this sour arrangement ‘will eventually collapse upon itself’ (p. 26). Thayer argues that what the USA needs to heal this urban/rural rift is a ‘Bioregional Bridge Across the Urban–Rural Divide’. This strikes me as a crucial feature of the urban prospect right now. Blue Metros extract from Red Working lands with disregard for rural cultural heritage, soil and ecosystem integrity. This negatively impacts the health and wellbeing of people living in rural areas, as well as Indigenous people living in sovereign native nations. No wonder there is such conflict dividing urban and rural people in the USA right now. This is more reason to pay heed to the UN’s New Urban Agenda designed to meet Goal 11 of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 11 is ‘the urban goal’; it aims to ‘make cities and human settlements more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’.

As part of a midterm exam I gave to undergraduate students at UC San Diego in February 2023, I asked the students to answer the following essay question: how do Wheeler and Rosan explain managing land more sustainably and how can sustainable land management lead to a more functional democracy? In preparing the students to answer such a question I alerted them to the work emerging on urban–rural linkages, in particular the UN Habitat 2017 publication noted above. Authors of the Implementing the New Urban Agenda report argue that the ‘the discourse on urbanization must depart from the traditional and outdated dichotomy of urban and rural; in order for urban and rural areas to be sustainable they must develop in tandem, inequalities must be reduced, and the development gap bridged’ (UN-Habitat, 2017: 6). The bioregion provides a useful territorial framework that recognises the significance of the urban–rural continuum, linkages and interdependencies. The bioregional framework adds story power that can help justify the potentially potent kinds of strategies spelled out in Reimagining Sustainable Cities (Pezzoli, 2014, 2023).



Brown W (2015) Undoing the Demos, Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Crossref Google Scholar

Sanders B (2023) It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism. Manhattan, NY: Random House. Google Scholar

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Pezzoli K, Kozo J, Ferran K, Wooten W, Gomez Gudelia R, Al-Delaimy WK (2014) One Bioregion/One Health: An Integrative Narrative for Transboundary Planning along the US–Mexico Border. Global Society 28(4): 419–440. Google Scholar

Pezzoli K (2023) Foreword. In Kanaani M The Routledge companion to ecological design thinking : healthful ecotopian visions for architecture and urbanism. New York, NY: Routledge. Google Scholar

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