Toward a Sustainable City: The State of Innovation in Urban Sustainability

This report from the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) reviews the current progress in sustainable urban development innovations. USDN is a peer-to-peer network of 120 municipal government sustainability professionals and 400 of their staff members in cities and counties in the U.S. and Canada.  This report describes the emergence and implications of the comprehensive field of urban sustainability across the public, private, nonprofit, and academic sectors, where innovation is a driving force.

The USDN identifies four large-scale patterns in the content, processes, and capacities of innovation for urban sustainability:

1. Innovation in urban sustainability is progressing through several fundamental shifts in focus
2. Local governments are becoming proficient “innovation laboratories” for sustainability - using a set of key approaches to seek impact at scale
3. Local governments and partners have built a pipeline containing hundreds of sustainability innovations advancing
4. Robust “innovation ecologies” for urban sustainability - complex meshes of relationships and collaborations crossing sectors and institutions - are emerging at the local level and linking to other capacities

The evolving response to climate change is provided as an example of the fundamental shift in urban sustainability focus, where what began as an emphasis on GHG mitigation now includes adaptation to climate change and development of urban resilience. In a June 2013 survey, nearly 50% of USDN members said they were starting adaptation planning and an additional 15% were considering doing so in the next year or two.

North American cities are described as “innovation laboratories” using performance-management approaches.  Cities are demonstrating progress by establishing a vision and goals for sustainability, with indicators and metrics; planning strategies across departments and target measurable results; monitoring their actual performance; and then determining how to improve that performance.

USDN general recommendations in the report include:
• Municipal governments should use their collective voice to impact the development of the urban sustainability field.

• Funders should expand and rationalize investment in urban-sustainability innovation, by creating funder collaborations and marketplaces for innovation investment.

• Federal and state governments should expand efforts to form “partnerships for sustainability” with local governments

The USDN Innovation Fund is a growing financial-investment resource governed by USDN members to promote collaboration among cities and advance the development of the urban sustainability field. A Steering Committee of 12 USDN members sets the Fund’s goals and strategies and makes all decisions about grant awards. This report details the past and ongoing approach of the Fund, and provides details on all of the projects funded to date. 

For more information, the USDN and the Innovation Fund are additional resources in this clearinghouse, or go to


Publication Date: September 2013

Authors or Affiliated Users:

  • Peter Plastrik
  • Julia Parzen

Related Organizations:


Resource Category:

Resource Types:

  • Best practice
  • Case study

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