Urban Science

Brief Summary

In 2002, the European Science Foundation launched a series of workshops on urban sciences. The aim was to promote scientific research on urban issues, develop visions and suggest recommendations for cities to draw up urban policy programmes and solve urban problems. In addition to such scientific and research policy goals, the aim was to make urban science better known and recognised as a discipline, especially among those who make decisions concerning research funding.  The Urban Science Forward Look final conference was held in Helsinki, Finland, on 26-28 May 2005. A report gives more details on the activities of and participants in this project.  Download the report (4.0 MB).

This project was a joint activity between all five ESF Standing Committees and ran from 2002-2005. It was managed by the Life, Earth and Environmental Sciences (LEE (formerly LESC)), and Social Sciences (SOC (formerly SCSS)).



Importance of cities and rise of urban centres

The world has entered the urban millennium. Nearly half the world’s people are now city dwellers¹.  The city is everywhere and everything².  Despite over twenty years of state experimentation involving billions of pounds of public expenditure and resulting in an Amazonian jungle of institutions, policies, programs, and acronyms, the “urban problem” is becoming more deeply entrenched³.  Towns and cities are focus of today’s social and ecological problems. Urban activities are the foundation of economic prosperity. Cities are strategic places¹*.  Cities compete. Cities are going through a renaissance²*. 

Statements like these are typical  today in academic treatises, government reports and strategies of cities. They show that cities are once again on the agenda. Cities have always been puzzles and demanded constantly developing knowledge; today the nature of knowledge has also changed calling for the partnerships between academic institutes and cities and removing the boundaries between academic and applied research.

To respond the challenges of urban problems and changed nature of knowledge, urban centres have been founded, programmes launched and conferences arranged all over Europe in recent years: CURDS (Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies) at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne established in 1977; Centre for Urban Studies at University of Bristol (School for Policy Studies established in 1995); Centre for Urban and Regional Studies at Trinity College Dublin established during the 1990s; EURICUR (European Institute for Comparative Urban Research) founded by the mayors of Barcelona and Rotterdam and Erasmus University in 1989; The Amsterdam Study Centre for the Metropolitan Environment (AME) founded in 1993; Urban Research Centre Utrecht at Utrecht University; The Centre for Sustainable Urban and Regional Futures (SURF) within the University of Salford; Planning Studies Centre in Rome; Dutch Urban Expert Centre. The list is not exhaustive; there are many more examples of the new interest in cities. Typical for such new urban centres are that they are interdisciplinary and carry out both theoretical and policy-relevant applied research. 

Universities have started urban studies programmes: Cities Master program at London School of Economics; The City of Lausanne set up the City of Lausenne Honor chair; the University of Helsinki established six urban studies professorships in 1998 and the Helsinki University Technology joined the university-city partnership in 2003 and decided to establish two urban studies professorships.

European Union has initiated Urban Exchanges focussing on deprivation, quality of life, sustainability and democracy. These efforts are expert and knowledge-based. Urban research and information systems are required to draw urban programmes carried out in member states. Examples are City Challenge in UK, Contrat de Ville in France and Urban Program in Finland. European Union with its research programmes also increase the amount of comparable data on European cities.

The popularity of conferences on model cities, sustainable cities, and cities for the future is another indicator of the importance and attractiveness of urban issues.

National research councils have launched urban research programmes. In the United Kingdom, the Economic and Social Science Research Council introduced in 1982 The Inner City Research Programme to examine inner city problems within the broad context of major structural and spatial changes. In 1984, it launched the program of Changing Urban and Regional System (CURS) to study localities and the impact of economic restructuring at national and local levels and to assess the role of central and local government policies. Then, in 1997 the CITIES research programme to analyse the linkages between competitiveness and cohesion was launched. In Finland, the Academy of Finland, in 1997, started an urban studies research programme focussed on globalization of cities, interaction between cities and their neighbourhoods, new use of urban space, risks and possibilities in cities, cities as innovative milieus, new urban economy and urban policies. The Academy of Finland has also begun financing research done in cities, while it previously financed research mostly done in universities.

Cities have increasingly invited urban scholars as consultants and drawn strategies based on scientific research and urban studies. Knowledge and innovative city programmes have gained popularity; an example is Ideopolis program of Helsinki.

Urban centres, urban master and PhD programmes at universities, government’s urban programmes, urban conferences, cities’ knowledge-based policy programs and national urban research programmes are all new institutions aiming at tackling urban issues and acquiring scientific knowledge of cities and show a new importance and currency of knowledge of cities.

Interdisciplinary, trans-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary urban studies

Urban studies has been trans-disciplinary since the Chicago School of urban sociology borrowed the models of animal and plant ecology and applied them in analysing cities. Urban studies is also interdisciplinary in the sense that urban scholars use theories, concepts and methods from economics, sociology, geography and political sciences in their studies of urban areas. Recently in Europe, and facilitated by the European Union, urban studies have become multi-disciplinary. Universities, cities and government authorities (like housing authorities) analyse urban issues and in such projects blur the boundaries between research and development. There are also problems that tend to become more urban today. Fore example Roderick Lawrence (2002) uses the term “urban health” and argues that “non-communicable illnesses with multiple causes are the main challenge for public health at the beginning of the twenty-first century”³*.  He calls for comprehensive approach: “today we know that traditional bio-medical and epidemiological perspectives on health are too restrictive. Broader interpretations that integrate the psychological, social, economic, and environmental conditions of urban life are necessary.”¹**

Another example of a complicated problem that is global, urban and planning problem is terrorism. It is well-known that Md. Atta was trained as an urban planner and seemingly the terrorists of the September 11th used urban knowledge in selecting their targets and methods. Therefore, it has been suggested that the New York terrorist attack was an attack against the Western form of urban and that the fighters who fight against urban terrorism should be educated as “urban cops”.

Inter, trans and multi-disciplinary urban studies investigate various questions in cities. The following issues have been popular in European cities in recent years: polarization, new urban poverty, segregation, competition between cities, city marketing, mobility in living and work, city renaissance, urban cultures, sustainable cities, city-regions, regeneration, participation, partnerships, best practices, urban health, urban stress and urban governance. Such a long list of topics shows the thoroughness of the change of our contemporary cities and an increased awareness and interest in cities.

Urban issues are genuinely interdisciplinary by their nature and should be analysed as complex issues. A recent example will illustrate the point. The reason why SARS was not left hidden in Guangzhou, as Ebola was left in the jungle of Africa, was because Guangzhou was connected to the global city of Hong Kong that was connected to Toronto, Singapore and Taipei. The emergence of the global city network is responsible for the spread of SARS. SARS is also a civil engineering problem as is shown in the case of Amoy Garden in Hong Kong where all inhabitants living in one building caught the infection because of the poor construction and property management. The medical problem of SARS thus becomes an urban problem to be analysed from the multiple perspectives of medicine, urban health, global cities, civil engineering and property management.

Forward Look

To bring together all these various institutional, political, national and theoretical developments of urban studies the ESF has taken an initiative of the Urban Science Forward Look. It aims to be an urban science policy program to guide urban research programs in European universities, coordinate European urban studies and research institutes, and produce comparable data on European cities.

The writing of the ESF Urban Science Forward Look programme will proceed through a series of workshops and a summary conference. The conference will involve about 50/60 people meeting over 2 to 3 days in 2005. Participants of this meeting will be urban scholars, policy makers, and representatives of research funding agencies.

There will be five workshops in 2004. The point of these workshops will be to explore and define important urban issues, stimulate novel thinking about urban issues and prepare the agenda for the main conference. The output of each workshop will be an agenda of urban science topics and suggestions for strategies in promoting urban research and studies in research councils of European countries and European Union. Participants of the workshops (15-25) will be urban scholars in different fields of science (sociology, economics, geography, political science, architecture study, history, natural scientists, medicine, and cultural studies), and professionals (like planners, real estate brokers, civil servants, mayors, representatives of government departments). Participants will be leading urban scholars, creative thinkers, urban activists and citizens. The participants will be from various European countries, from the North, South, UK, Continental Europe and Eastern Europe. The Workshop Chairs together with the Steering Group Chair  will define more detailed questions to be discussed in the workshops.

¹Kofi A. Annan Secretary-General, United Nations. Foreword. Cities in Globalizing World. Global Report on Human Settlements 2001. Earthscan. London & Sterling.
²Ash Amin & Nigel Thrift (2002) Cities. Reimagining the Urban. Polity.
³Martin Jones & Kevin Ward (2002) Excavating the logic of British Urban policy: neoliberalism as the ”crisis of crisis-management. In Species of Neoliberalism, ed. Brenner & Theodore
¹*Saskia Sassen (2000) Cities in a World Economy. Pine Forge Press
²*Joel Kotkin (2000) The New Goegraphy. How the Digital Revolution Is Reshaping the American Landscape. Random
³*Roderick J. Lawrence (2002) Inequalities in urban areas: innovative approaches to complex issues. Scand J Public Health
¹**Roderick J.Lawrence (2000) Urban Healtk: A New Agenda? Reviews on Environmental Health