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Section: Overall Objectives

Sustainable development: issues and research opportunities

Sustainable development is often formulated in terms of a required balance between the environmental, economic and social dimensions, but public policies addressing sustainability are in practice dominantly oriented towards environmental issues in Western countries. However, the numerous and interrelated pressures exerted by human activity on the environment make the identification of sustainable development pathways arduous in a context of complex and sometimes conflicting stakeholders and socio-ecological interactions.

The sustainability of urban areas is one of the key issues of this century. As focal points of human activity, urban areas concentrate and amplify environmental pressures in a direct or indirect way. Urbanization is a global process, with more than half the human population living in cities, an ever-increasing trend. Furthermore, urban sprawl is a ubiquitous phenomenon showing no sign of slackening yet, even in countries where rural depopulation has long been stabilized. Urban sprawl in industrialized countries is largely driven by residential peri-urban growth. This phenomenon has both social and environmental consequences, like an increased vulnerability of some population categories or a fragmentation of ecological habitat. Controlling urban sprawl is therefore a key sustainability issue.

The issues just described require a panel of policy measures at all institutional levels, as they illustrate the existence of both local-local and local-global feedback loops. The regional (sub-national) and more local levels are of particular importance for the transition to sustainability, especially in a “think global/act local” approach that is up to now mostly oriented towards local climate and territorial energy plans. In this context, more local decision levels have real political and economic leverage, and are more and more proactive on sustainability issues, either independently or in coordination through nationwide or European networks.

STEEP, with its strong background in various areas of applied mathematics and modeling, can be a game changer in three connected key domains: urban economy, and related transportation and land use issues; material flow analysis and ecological accounting; and ecosystem services modeling. The group potential on these fronts relies on its capabilities to strongly improve existing integrated activity / land use / transportation models at the urban level on the one hand, and on the other, to build new and comprehensive decision-help tools for sustainability policies at the local and regional levels, in particular through the analysis of strategic social–environmental trade-offs between various policy options.