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Lead authors: Josephine Kaviti Musango, Paul Currie and Blake Robinson
The authors acknowledge assistance from Nhlanhla May
Design and layout: Sunflood

This study was the outcome of a collaboration between the Sustainability Institute
( and UN Environment ( under the
framework of the Global Initiative for Resource Efficient Cities (www.resourceeffi- It is based on research conducted by Josephine Musango and
Sasha Mentz Lagrange, and reviewed by UN Environment under the leadership
of Arab Hoballah and Soraya Smaoun in 2014. The research reviewed urban
metabolic flow analysis methodologies, and was used to develop a 'toolkit' to help
cities to understand their resource flows. A copy of this research can be found at

The full report should be referenced as follows:

Musango, J.K., Currie, P. & Robinson, B. (2017) Urban metabolism for resource
efficient cities: from theory to implementation. Paris: UN Environment.

Copyright © UN Environment, 2017

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Page 1 Urban Metabolism For Resource-efficient Cities: From Theory To Implementation

Executive Summary
This report was commissioned as part of the Global Initiative for Resource Efficient Cities (GI-REC), launched in
June 2012 by UN Environment to capitalise on the potential of cities to lead a global shift toward resource
efficiency. The report reviewed urban resource assessment tools that can guide a city-level resource efficiency
transition, using urban metabolism assessment as the guiding framework.

Cities consume the largest amount of global resources, and generate enormous waste outputs that impact their
local and global hinterlands. However, they also offer opportunities for improving the resource efficiency and
reducing the environmental impacts of society. Urban environments and their activities are managed at
sub-national level, mainly, municipal or city level. Effective action taken at municipal levels can potentially
improve resource efficiencies and achieve other sustainable development goals at the same time.

The urban metabolism concept has inspired ideas about designing sustainable cities and has furthered
quantitative approaches to urban resource flows assessment. The concept refers to the “collection of complex
socio-technical and socio-ecological processes by which flows of materials, energy, people, and information
shape the city, service the needs of its populace, and impact the surrounding hinterland” (Currie and Musango,
2016). Cities have been characterised by linear processes where resources and wastes enter and leave the city
boundaries respectively. The challenge is to transition from a linear perspective to a networked and cyclical
perspective, in which wastes become new inputs, reducing dependence on the hinterland for resources. This
implies that urban metabolism assessment is a relevant concept for spatial planning and urban development in
order to support a resource efficiency transition.

Various methods have been offered to quantify resource flows: accounting approaches; input-output analysis;
ecological footprint analysis; life cycle analysis and simulation methods. However, no consensus exists about
which of these assessment methods are best used to analyse the sustainability of these complex systems.
Further, the practical implementation of the concept of urban metabolism in spatial planning and policy
development has been limited, due in part to a lack of standardisation of methods and minimal guidelines for
how to shape a sustainable urban metabolism. Different scales of analysis and different stakeholders are rarely

Faced with this challenge, this report offers some recommendations for translating the urban metabolism
concept from theory, making sense of the data and outputs from the assessments, to making practical
interventions to change resource consumption behaviour and waste generation. These were based on insights
from the literature and include:

• The need to undertake a basic urban metabolism assessment for all cities, which will ensure comparison
for all cities, in both developed and developing countries

• Moving from top-down to bottom-up approaches in order to capture data unavailable in conventional

• Linking spatial and temporal issues in urban metabolism assessments

• Switching between the different scales of analysis, for both urban metabolism assessment and spatial

• Promoting a transdisciplinary approach, in which co-design takes place with society, and not for society,
and to ensure assessment is not a once-off event.

• Promoting system dynamics modelling to examine the complex, dynamic interrelationships that exist in
physical and social processes of the urban metabolism and their implication for urban planning and design

Page 2 Urban Metabolism For Resource-efficient Cities: From Theory To Implementation

1. Introduction
Cities are growing at an unprecedented rate. More than 54 percent of the global population live in cities (UN-DE-
SA, 2014). This is expected to intensify resource requirements (cities are already significant consumers of mate-
rials and energy), environmental impacts which extend beyond city boundaries to their hinterlands, and social
inequality of urban inhabitants. The question is how to address the urban sustainability challenges relating to
population pressures, resource limitations and social inequality in the context of rapid urbanisation?

If implemented correctly, resource-efficiency initiatives may increase competitiveness, secure growth and jobs,
enable innovation, reduce resource requirements and allow improved access to resources (Commission, 2015).
Resource efficiency has traditionally focused on production and consumption (Weterings et al., 2013). However,
cities provide opportunities to manage and implement resource-efficient initiatives on a wider scale through
integrated urban planning. Local governments are responsible for the provision of diverse public services to
residents and economic activities (e.g. industry, commerce) that influence resource use and waste generation.
The challenge they face is to integrate the various aspects of the urban system, illustrated in Figure 1.

Technology/labour Value/vision

Energy and resources Urban life standard

Local, regional, Urban technical Society

global government system ∙ Lifestyle
∙ Environmental Urban metabolism ∙ Building Urban metabolism
∙ Governance
and climate ∙ Transport
change impacts ∙ Economy
∙ Energy ∙ Innovation
∙ Depletion of
natural resources Waste and emissions ∙ Water and Urban planning
sewage and design

Consequences Representation

Figure 1: Components of the urban system. Source: Adapted from Bai & Schandl (2011)

The concept of urban metabolism has furthered quantitative approaches to urban resource flows assessment
and inspired ideas about designing sustainable cities (Agudelo-Vera et al., 2012, Castán Broto et al., 2012,
Zhang, 2013), which in turn, allows for the identification of leverage points for resource-efficiency interventions.
The concept has been applied across various disciplines to theorise and assess cities’ sustainability in relation
to resource consumption and waste generation. The idea that urban environments operate as metabolic systems
has resulted in the rethinking of how environmental, social and economic factors interact to shape urban

Existing urban metabolism studies show an overlap in the interests of scholars across different disciplines: urban
ecology, industrial ecology, political ecology, political geography and ecological economics. A common concern
across these studies and disciplines is the relationship between social and natural systems, cities and their
hinterlands, sustainability of resource consumption and social justice in densely populated urban areas (New-
man, 1999, Engel-Yan et al., 2003, Codoban and Kennedy, 2008, Kennedy et al., 2010). Very often, such studies
have interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary ambitions, and the scholars work to push their disciplinary boundar-
ies (e.g. Golubiewski, 2012).

Page 3 Urban Metabolism For Resource-efficient Cities: From Theory To Implementation

While the theoretical potential of the urban metabolism concept to support urban planning and design for
resource efficiency is supported in scientific literature (e.g. Kennedy et al., 2011, Pincetl et al., 2012,
Beloin-Saint-Pierre et al., 2016), its practical implementation is so far limited (Voskamp et al., In Press). This
raises questions about the value of the concept of urban metabolism in understanding urban processes to
support resource-efficiency interventions; and how it can transition from theory to practical implementation
when quantitative assessments are considered. To explore these questions, this report begins by critically
reviewing the concept of urban metabolism in the context of resource-efficient cities. Further, it reviews
approaches to urban metabolism assessment and their application in urban contexts. Finally, based on critical
literature analysis, the report provides perspectives for transitioning from theory to practical implementation.

2. The concept of urban metabolism

2.1 Definition

The concept of urban metabolism has re-emerged after being overlooked for many years (Barles, 2010). Interest-
ingly, there is no consensus in the literature on the foundations of the concept. For instance, Kennedy et al.
(2011) highlight Abel Wolman (1965) as the founder of the concept, when he examined the process of supplying
material, energy and food to a hypothetical city, as well as its respective output products. Lin et al. (2012) argue
that Burgess (1925), a sociologist, first utilised the term with no formal definition to analogise urban growth to
the anabolic and catabolic processes. Barles (2010) suggests the concept was not formulated for the urban
context in the 19th century, but used by chemists who were concerned with wastewater and fertilizer use in
agriculture production. Others trace the term to Marx in 1883 when he described the exchange of materials and
energy between society and environment (Pincetl et al., 2012, Zhang, 2013). Recently, Lederer and Kral (2015)
have evidenced Theodor Weyl, a German chemist and medical doctor, as the founder of current urban metabo-
lism studies. His 1894 publication, ‘Essays on the metabolism of Berlin,’ investigated nutrient flows discharged
from Berlin, comparing them to nutrient consumption through food intake.

The urban metabolism can be understood as the process by which a city attains resources from its local environ-
mental hinterland or through trade, consumes them for the production of economic outputs and social services
(which are ideally, but not actually, equitably distributed), and releases
the wastes into the environment. Kennedy et al. (2007) define the urban
Urban metabolism can be metabolism as the ‘sum of the technical and socio–economic process-
understood as the “collection es that occur within the cities, resulting in growth, production of energy,
of complex sociotechnical and elimination of waste’. Although other studies provide the concept
definition (e.g. Wolman, 1965, Graedel, 1999, Baccini and Brunner,
and socio-ecological 2012), Kennedy and colleagues’ definition is the most cited in the litera-
processes by which flows of ture. Their definition explicitly encompasses essential components of an
materials, energy, people, urban system but with a specific bias towards industrial ecology, which
focuses on quantification, and excludes the emergent urban activities
and information shape the
made possible through resource exchange. Recognising it as wider than
city, service the needs of its industrial ecology, the urban metabolism can be understood as the
populace, and impact the “collection of complex sociotechnical and socio-ecological processes by
which flows of materials, energy, people, and information shape the city,
surrounding hinterland.”
service the needs of its populace, and impact the surrounding hinter-
land” (Currie and Musango, 2016). Ferrao and Fernandez present these
processes in an urban metabolism assessment framework (Figure 2), which connects resources, urban bio-so-
cial processes, and the urban activities of providing housing, goods and services, and transporting people and

The discrepancies in the apparent foundations of the concept of urban metabolism indicate that a single
disciplinary enquiry is not sufficient. This is evidenced by calls to integrate the concept so as to better understand
the socio-technical and socio-ecological process of urban systems. This demands transdisciplinary actions (Lin
et al., 2012), in which researchers move between disciplines but also engage directly with stakeholders. More

Page 4 Urban Metabolism For Resource-efficient Cities: From Theory To Implementation

inputs urban economy outputs

passive passive
biogeochemical context
flora +
fauna carbon
nitrogen passive
cycles air exports
air phos
solar rad. water

active socio-environmental active

socioeconomic context
imports extraction
water Goods & Services water

energy energy exported

UA2 mun.
materials B. Env. & Infrastc materials waste
biomass biomass
UA1 municipal
municipal Transportation sink
hidden flows

regional regional
hidden flows hidden flows

environmental dispersion
(heat, materials, air + water)

Figure 2: Urban metabolism framework. Source: Ferrao & Fernandez (2013:40)

so, the formal definitions should not only integrate flows of natural, industrial and urban materials and energy,
but also flows of people and information (Currie and Musango, 2016). Finally, the urban metabolism is hugely
shaped by political context, which influences the political commitment to translate knowledge into practical
implementation. Guibrunet et al. (2016) suggest that the urban metabolism concept offers an important
perspective for drawing out the political realities of a city.

Castán Broto (2012) highlights six themes that emerged within interdisciplinary boundaries in relation to the
urban metabolism: “(i) the city as an ecosystem; (ii) material and energy flows within the city; (iii) economic–ma-
terial relations within the city; (iv) economic drivers of rural–urban relationships; (v) reproduction of urban
inequality; and (vi) attempts to re-signify the city through new visions of socio-ecological relationships”.

2.2 Motivating the use of urban metabolism assessment

Barles (2010) provides two perspectives for urban metabolism studies. The first is applied research and decision
support, which examines: (i) urban biogeochemistry processes; (ii) implications of the material and energy needs
of cities on other spaces and the entire biosphere; (iii) biogeochemical and social operations interactions. The
second is a tool to address sustainable development challenges and the requirements to achieve dematerialisa-
tion1, decarbonisation2 and the closing of material loops. These studies entail constructing indicators, identifying
sustainability targets and developing decision support tools for strategies to dematerialise or decarbonise. This
report concentrates on the second perspective, with the specific aim to shift from theory to implementation of
resource efficiency plans and designs.

The consumption of fewer materials
The consumption of less carbon

Page 5 Urban Metabolism For Resource-efficient Cities: From Theory To Implementation

The increasingly widespread use of urban metabolism assessments is driven by a need to radically decrease the
resources required to enable economic growth and a good quality of life. This need is motivated by the UN
Environment Report, Decoupling natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth (UNEP,
2011) which calls for a decoupling of economic production from resource consumption
as well as from environmental degradation. It presents a number of scenarios for a safe It is important
level of global resource consumption, most notably a scenario in which countries of the to promote
global North reduce consumption while countries of the global South increase consump-
improved access
tion (which is required as many of these populations lack access to basic resources),
converging at a global level of 70 billion tons of materials consumed in 2050. This to resources in a
amounts to about 8 tons per person, which is about a third of the United States’ resource-efficient
consumption, half of typical current European consumption, and double the average
African country’s consumption. As cities are the concentrators of resource consumption,
it is imperative that they lead the shift towards this goal of 8 tons per capita, through resource-efficiency
measures. It is important to be aware of the misconception that many cities of the global South appear to be
resource efficient already, as this is largely due to unmet demands that have serious negative consequences for
the poor. In these contexts, it is important to promote improved access to resources in a resource-efficient
manner so that the benefits can be shared by more people.

2.3 The city: from organism to ecosystem

An urban metabolism perspective on cities also differs based on the central metaphor utilised: ‘organism’ or
‘ecosystem’. As organisms, cities are seen to share attributes with organisms in their distribution resources
through networks: cities are likened to a human body (Golubiewski, 2012). For instance, similar to blood vessels
or the vascular networks which distribute energy and materials to cells in an organism, city networks of
infrastructure (e.g. power lines or roads) distribute energy, materials and people throughout an urban area. The
perspective of cities as ecosystems only became common in the second half of the 20th century (UNU-IAS Urban
Ecosystems Management Group., 2003).

Odum (1971; 1973) proposed that materials and energy in societies can be analysed in the same manner as for
organisms and ecosystems. While the approach for cities as organisms is not entirely new, the notion that tools
from biology can be used to study cities is increasingly relevant for ecologists studying the metabolism of cities
(Decker et al., 2000; 2007), the ecological footprints of cities and regions (Luck et al., 2001), and the ecological
impacts of human societies (Vitousek et al, 1997; Wackernagel et al., 2002; Bettencourt et al., 2007). Over the
years, the conceptualisation of a city has however taken various paths, which can be categorised as an urban
ecology approach, flows approach, or biosocial approach (Table 1).

Table 1: Trajectories in conceptualizing a city

Category Description

Urban ecology approach This largely remains within the realm of biology. The urban ecologists have
regarded cities as unique types of natural ecosystem and such studies have
applications to urban planning (e.g. Hough, 1990). Human activities are also
separated from humans in this approach and the focus is mainly on the
concepts, processes, disturbances, structures and functioning of the urban
ecological systems.

Flows approach Attempts to incorporate human activities into the understanding of the urban
metabolism or dynamics in the sense of flows approach. The cities are analysed
in terms of inputs and outputs of resources, materials, and energy (e.g. Wolman,
1965, Boyden and Celecia, 1981).

Biosocial approach This entails the application of ecological metaphors by the sociologists to
understand for instance, the role of competition and cooperation as a
mechanism of change and progress in the urban management.

Page 6 Urban Metabolism For Resource-efficient Cities: From Theory To Implementation

An ecosystem perspective is appealing as it widens the scope of inquiry to include relationships between actors
and between other system elements, and is embraced by managers and the general public (Likens, 1992, Golley,
1993). While there are still disparities between ecologists and other disciplines on whether a city constitutes an
ecosystem, the potential utility of the concept when applied to urban systems is its potential utilisation within the
realm of systems thinking (Grimm et al., 1999, Golubiewski, 2012).

The organism metaphor represents the current configuration of city metabolisms, which is mostly linear. Cities
depend on their hinterlands for the majority of materials (biomass, water, construction materials and energy
requirements (Bai, 2007), which are utilised inefficiently (Agudelo-Vera et al., 2012). The waste resulting from
consumption is disposed of in solid, liquid or gaseous forms. Cities are thus vulnerable due to their resource
dependency in their current linear metabolisms, which impose stresses on local resource supplies and negative-
ly impact the natural environment during resource extraction and waste disposal.

a) Linear metabolism,
unsustainable, inefficient,
organism perspective

Energy, water, materials, Emissions to soil, water and air;

people, information people, information

b) Circular metabolism,
sustainable, efficient,
City socio-political and
ecosystem perspective socio-ecological dynamics

Energy, water, materials, Emissions to soil, water and air;

people, information people, information

∙ Resource harvesting locally

∙ Reuse, recycle waste materials,
gases and liquids

Figure 3: Linear metabolism city versus circular metabolism city

Page 7 Urban Metabolism For Resource-efficient Cities: From Theory To Implementation

On the contrary, an ecosystem metaphor of cities represents resource efficiency and closed loops in which all
outputs are potential inputs, thus offering a stronger prospect for achieving
An ecosystem metaphor of urban sustainability. A circular metabolism resembles a natural ecosystem
cities represents resource with efficient consumption, recycling and reuse of resource flows (Doughty
and Hammond, 2004). This reduces dependence on the hinterland and
efficiency and closed
other cities. Cities have typically designed their infrastructures following
loops in which all outputs linear metabolisms (e.g. resource-consumption-waste). In light of planetary
are potential inputs. resource constraints, the long-term viability and sustainability of cities is
reliant on shifting from linear metabolisms to circular metabolisms.

Based on the concept of urban metabolism, proposals of moving from theory to practical implementation of a
more circular metabolism are discussed in Section 5. These aim at closing the loops, exploring ways to decrease
demand for resources and providing alternative, efficient ways to meet resource needs. If a metaphor is to be
utilised, scientists must be very precise about the terms used so as not to undermine or confuse the metaphors
from biology and ecology as demonstrated in Table 2. As discussed in Section 3, these attributes shape how
methods of urban metabolism assessment are employed, specifically in relation to context, flows, movement,
space and scope.

Table 2: Differences between the conceptualisation of urban systems

as ‘organisms’ and ‘ecosystems’

Organism perspective Ecosystem perspective

Scientific foundation Biology Ecosystem ecology

Disciplinary focus Life processes Abiotic / biotic interactions

Orientation Inward Internal processes, external linkages

Metabolism meaning Food/waste Energy processing, production / respiration

(carbon balance)

Metabolic units Volume Energy or carbon (or other materials)

Movement Input-output Feedbacks

Flows Throughput Structure-function linkages

System regulation Homeostasis Homeorhesis

Stability Resistance Resilience

Time Climax succession Disturbance dynamics

Structure Morphostatic Multiple stable states

Space Uniformity Fine scale spatial heterogeneity (patch

dynamics and gradients)

Agency Single actor Social, biological and physical entities

Consumption Heterotrophy Internal transformations and teleconnections

Scope Black box Sub-systems

Environmental context of city Separate but connected, Integrated social-biological-physical system


Source: Golubiewski (2012)

Page 8 Urban Metabolism For Resource-efficient Cities: From Theory To Implementation

3. Approaches for assessing urban metabolism
In the last two decades, there has been a resurgence in the output of urban metabolism studies and an increase
in the number of methods by which researchers have attempted to understand the metabolism of urban
systems. A number of thorough reviews of these methods have been produced (e.g. Kennedy et al., 2011, Zhang,
2013, Zhang et al., 2015, Beloin-Saint-Pierre et al., 2016, Mostafavi et al., 2014), which document a shift from
methods which seek simply to account for material or energy flows in cities and city-regions, to methods which
attempt to provide indicators for metabolic changes and environmental impacts of their metabolisms.

In addition to ecological concerns, multiple methods have emerged to extend urban metabolism investigations
beyond questions of resource flow accounting, to questions of equitable access to resources, as well as of how
urban systems shape, and are shaped by, these resource flows. This section provides a brief exploration of
common urban metabolism assessment methods, here categorised into accounting approaches, input/output
analysis, ecological footprint, life cycle analysis, simulation methods and hybrid methods. Considerations which
affect the choice of method, derived from the review of 112 urban metabolism studies by Beloin-Saint Pierre et
al. (2016), are then discussed with specific reference to the need to standardise methods as well as increase
their relevance to policy-makers and decision-makers.

3.1 Accounting approaches

Accounting approaches make use of the thermodynamic laws of the conservation of mass and conservation of
energy (Mostafavi et al., 2014), in which inputs and outputs of the city system are deemed as equivalent, result-
ing in aggregate assessments of resource flows as they enter and leave the city, and overlooking the internal
processes of the city.

Material flow analysis (MFA) quantifies resource flows by physical weight or volume. It can be conducted at multi-
ple scales and considers a range of metabolic flows offering a wide range of detail (Barles, 2010). The most
well-established and broadly used approach is economy- wide material flow analysis (EW-MFA), likely because
the Statistical Office of the European Communities (Eurostat., 2001) has produced a standardised methodology,
predominantly for use at national level but more recently adapted for use at city-level (Barles, 2009). Econo-
my-wide material flow analysis attempts to systematically measure the overall magnitude of metabolic flows for
a given period within defined administrative boundaries. It regards an economy as a ‘black box’
(Beloin-Saint-Pierre et al., 2016), accounting for inputs by domestic resource extraction and physical imports,
changes to physical stock within the economy, and outputs through export, waste disposal and emissions, which
balance these accounts. Comparing resource inputs and outputs demonstrates some simple characteristics of
cities (Fernández, 2014). Young cities tend to have larger inputs than outputs, as they are growing and need
resources to build stocks (e.g. buildings and infrastructures); over time, this accumulation of built stocks contrib-
utes to waste flows, as it breaks down. As cities mature, the inputs and outputs become more similar in magni-
tude and reuse and recycling initiatives have more impact on the city’s metabolic intensity (Bai, 2007, Kennedy
et al., 2011).

Economy-wide material flow analysis can provide a basis for

Material flow analysis can provide a material flow management and dematerialisation strategies on a
basis for material flow management regional or city-scale (Barles, 2009) and can contribute to the
and dematerialisation strategies definition of public environmental policies. While economy-wide
material flow analysis may depict flows for each sector, the
on a regional or city-scale, and simplification of resource flows into inputs and outputs omits a
can contribute to the definition of number of interactions that take place in the city, obscuring
public environmental policies. potential intervention levers (Hammer et al., 2003). Econo-
my-wide material flow analysis also tends to depict large material
flows and may under-represent smaller materials flows, despite their potentially high environmental impacts
(Hammer et al. 2003). To address this, substance flow analysis (SFA) can be utilised to track the pathways of a
specific substance or group of substances from origin to destination, identifying where they accumulate (Baccini
and Brunner, 2012). The most widely researched substances, still mostly at a national level, include steel,

Page 9 Urban Metabolism For Resource-efficient Cities: From Theory To Implementation

copper, zinc, cadmium, chromium, phosphorous, or a combination of nitrogen and phosphorous (Yuan et al.,
2011). As information generated from the substance flow analysis is quite detailed, it can be used to provide a
targeted management strategy for substance flows. Beloin-Saint-Pierre et al (2016) show that most (38%) of
their reviewed studies made use of flow analysis methods such as material flow analysis and substance flow

One of the earliest accounting approaches was introduced by Odum (1996) in the 1970s to measure energy
flows. Odum developed a system of accounting using energy equivalents or emergy (embodied energy), favouring
solar energy as an equivalence unit. Another energy balance method is that of exergy, which “represents the
amount of useful work that can be performed by the energy in a system” (Zhang, 2013). The benefit of using an
equivalence measure is the ability to combine material or energy flows of different unit measurements for an
integrative analysis, thus enabling comparison of the relative importance of different flows. It also allows inclu-
sion of renewable resources (e.g. solar energy), and both direct and indirect flows (Huang and Chen, 2009).
However, this approach faces difficulties in finding appropriate conversion rates for each flow, and the method
has no unified way to account for wastes (Zhang, 2013).

The need to decarbonise economies has increased the need to analyse carbon-related metabolic processes to
account for the impact of urban metabolisms on global climate change (Zhang, 2013). Energy and carbon flow
analyses explicitly recognise carbon flows in materials such as fuels, food or emissions at input, extraction or
output stages. Conducting energy, carbon or emergy accounting transcends the limitations of approaches such
as economy-wide material flow analysis, input-output analysis or ecological footprint analysis, which generally do
not take carbon and energy into account (Kennedy et al., 2012). Beloin-Saint-Pierre et al (2016) show that 23
percent of their reviewed studies made use of energy assessments.

3.2 Input-output analysis

Input-output analysis was originally developed to carry out empirical analyses of commodity flows between the
various producing and consuming sectors of a national economy (Leontief,
Input-output analysis 1936, Miller and Blair, 1985, Duchin and Lange, 1998). Economic models
based on input-output analysis trace resources and products by purchases,
evaluates the material
revealing how industries interact to produce gross domestic product.
flows between sectors in Despite providing similar information to economy-wide material flow analy-
an economy by tracking sis, input-output analysis fills some gaps by opening the ‘black box’ to show
the internal flows (Daniels, 2008) and how resources interact with urban
product and sector-specific
activities. Applied to a city environment, input-output analysis presents a
resource flows. detailed distinction between the actors of the urban system, necessary for
simulating the functions of an urban metabolism (Zhang, 2013). These
actors are compartmentalised, mostly into sectors, and metabolic flows between these compartments are clear-
ly represented in the form of physical input-output tables. Input-output analysis thus evaluates the material flows
between sectors in an economy by tracking product and sector-specific resource flows as well as productivity
(Giljum and Hubacek, 2009). Seven percent of the papers reviewed by Beloin-Saint-Pierre et al. (2016) made use
of input-output analysis.

3.3 Ecological footprint analysis

Ecological footprint analysis was developed as a sustainability indicator of a human economy, at any scale,
based on the carrying capacity of the earth (Rees and Wackernagel,
1996). Ecological footprint analysis converts a population’s resource Ecological footprint analysis
consumption into a single indicator of how much land area is needed to converts a population’s
sustain that population indefinitely. Unsustainable populations are
resource consumption into a
deemed to be those with an ecological footprint that exceeds the actual
land available to them. Ecological footprint analysis thus combines single indicator of how much
socio-economic development demands with ecosystem carrying capac- land area is needed to sustain
ity into a simple framework that informs researchers and practitioners
that population indefinitely.
whether a given metabolism is over-consumptive or operating within its

Page 10 Urban Metabolism For Resource-efficient Cities: From Theory To Implementation

However, ecological footprint analysis is criticised as an oversimplification of measuring resource sustainability,
for example by losing the specific reason for un-sustainability in an aggregate measure (land) or by suggesting
only a single land use (Moffatt, 2000, Opschoor, 2000). The ecological footprint indicator has mainly been used
as a public awareness tool to communicate patterns of over-consumption of a population or individual (Brunner,
2001). Despite this, 10 percent of Beloin-Saint-Pierre et al (2016) reviewed papers made use of ecological
footprint analysis.

3.4 Life cycle assessment

Life cycle assessment (LCA) offers a “cradle-to-grave” analysis of material flows

Life cycle assessment embedded within products and services to identify their wider impact (Ferrao and
Nhambiu, 2009). It evaluates all stages of a product or service ‘life cycle,’ from the
is an invaluable tool
extraction of raw materials, through the creation of products and services, to their
when comparing disposal into the environment (Hendrickson et al., 2006). In this way, life cycle
the environmental assessment recognises that industries are dependent, directly or indirectly, on one
impacts of various another. Life cycle assessment is mainly suitable for estimating indirect flows
associated with raw materials and products with a low level of processing. This is
products and because performing life cycle assessment can be resource and time intensive.
processes. Significant material input data at each stage of production are required to calcu-
late indirect flows for semi-manufactured and finished products. Any environmen-
tal impact demonstrated by life cycle assessment is presented as a relative measure between products and
services (Pincetl, 2012, Goldstein et al., 2013). This means that the assessment of an urban system’s sustain-
ability is limited without studies of other times or systems with which to compare. Despite such difficulties, life
cycle assessment is an invaluable tool when comparing the environmental impacts of various products and
processes, for example for choosing between various technology intervention options. Beloin-Saint-Pierre et al.
(2016) suggest it is the most useful for making policy decisions, yet only four percent of their reviewed studies
make use of life cycle assessment.

3.5 Simulation methods

A sustainable urban transition is made difficult by the inherent complexity of cities: the interrelations between
variables are difficult to unravel, and the perceptions of causes, and effects may be misunderstood (Parrot,
2010, Pickett et al., 2001), with consequences for policy making and planning. The urban metabolism is a
complex system that emerges from the internal processes of socio-economic and socio-ecological systems.
Analysing the metabolism therefore requires an understanding of the whole
System dynamics system. While such tools are not included in most reviews of urban metabolism
assessment, this report stresses the importance of using simulation methods,
combines qualitative
particularly system dynamics, to support policy scenario analysis and planning.
and quantitative There are three main simulation methods: system dynamics, agent-based model-
analysis and is based ling; and discrete event (Dooley, 2005). This report focuses on the first two as they
on relationship are the most relevant for urban metabolism assessment.

structures, allowing System dynamics modelling is an inter- and transdisciplinary method for under-
models to be used standing the behaviour of systems over time in order to address long-term policy
effectively even problems (Forrester, 1971, Forrester, 1961, Barlas, 2002, Barlas and Yasarcan,
2006, Sterman, 2000). System dynamics recognises that the structure of any
in data-scarce system has non-linear, interlinked causal relationships between its components
environments. (Sterman, 2000). It identifies the interactions and feedback that emerge between
elements, whilst taking into account how exogenous variables affect the system.
System dynamics models are context specific and require engagement with relevant stakeholders to ensure
relevant real-world behaviour is captured. The main shortcoming of system dynamics is that decision rules used
to build the model are not obtained from empirical data, but from subjective perceptions of the modeller or stake-
holders. However, this is beneficial as it allows for the capturing of real-world behaviour which determines the
flow and direction of resources. Further, system dynamics combines qualitative and quantitative analysis and is
based on relationship structures, allowing models to be used effectively even in data-scarce environments.

Page 11 Urban Metabolism For Resource-efficient Cities: From Theory To Implementation

Agent-based models examine interactions between entities and with the environment in order to capture dynam-
ic behaviour patterns, adaptation and learning behaviours. Agent-based models offer the means to present
interactions of agents at micro scale, as compared to the meso and macro scales
Agent-based models best suited to system dynamics modelling. The application of agent-based models
to metabolic flow analysis enables the transcendence of limitations associated
offer the means to
with input-output approaches which do not account for the complexity of agent
present interactions of behaviour and processes of change, especially at an individual level (Zhang
agents at micro scale. 2013). For cities, which are heterogeneous and subject to a wide variety of
outcomes through agents’ decision-making, tracing these behavioural dynamics
is key. Agent-based models can represent the incentives or constraints that determine agents’ willingness to
cooperate into a joint intended outcome and can do so at multiple scales, making the approach well adapted to
the city context. However, due to its exclusive focus on agents, the agent-based models include only partial
stages of a material flow cycle, specifically where agents interact with materials.

3.6 Hybrid methods

While standardisation of traditional methods is necessary, the extension of

the urban metabolism metaphor into multiple fields implies new lines of The extension of the urban
inquiry that cannot be fully addressed by traditional methods. The urban metabolism metaphor into
metabolism methods discussed above tend to focus directly on resources, multiple fields implies new
with ecological footprint analysis, life cycle analysis and input-output analy-
lines of inquiry that cannot
sis including some environmental effects of resource consumption or flow.
There have been many studies which have extended these methods to be fully addressed by
include indicators of social welfare or reshaped the scope of inquiry to traditional methods.
provide more detailed environmental or sustainability indicators. Further-
more, studies have sought to link resource flows with the human activities that they enable, thus improving
knowledge of which interactions can be targeted for resource-efficiency improvements or improvements to urban
functions or quality of life. Thus the use of hybrid approaches has burgeoned. A few examples of such methods

• Dakhia and Berezowska-Azzag’s (2010) urban institutional and ecological footprint which assesses institu-
tions, laws, instruments, standards, programmes, and public participation related to metabolic flows along
with an ecological footprint analysis.
• Kampeng et al. (2009) combine an input-output analysis with system dynamics to appraise the economic
and ecological evolution of Macao, thus enabling decision makers to examine how the material flows in
Macao would evolve over time – on the basis of exogenous influences – and its impact on the future devel-
opment path of the special administrative region.
• Liang and Zhang (2011) combine a physical input–output model and scenario analysis of Suzhou, China,
to predict the urban impacts of recycling four categories of solid waste: (i) scrap tires; (ii) food waste from
restaurants; (iii) fly ash from solid waste incineration; and (iv) sludge from wastewater treatment.
• Giampietro et al. (2009) have generated an indicator they define as the bio-economic pressure of a given
system, which not only factors in disaggregated measurements of energy and material flows, but also
quantifies human activity (as hours) expended on resource transformation and transaction, and household
activities, making it possible to analyse not only formal economic activities, but household and informal
activities. The application of metabolism assessment to city-level necessarily makes use of novel
approaches to extend traditional methods.

3.7 Considerations when choosing urban metabolism methods

The methods described in Sections 3.1 to 3.6 can be

The manner in which the city system is utilised at multiple scales, and face the challenge of
conceptualised has direct implications on delineating boundaries, particularly as sustainability
issues extend from local to global in impact. To be useful
what policy or planning recommendations for sustainability analysis, Beloin-Saint-Pierre et al.
can be produced from these assessments. (2016) assert that extending temporal scope is

Page 12 Urban Metabolism For Resource-efficient Cities: From Theory To Implementation

necessary, as static examinations are not useful for detecting improvements or declines in urban metabolic
sustainability. The manner in which the city system is conceptualised has direct implications on what policy or
planning recommendations can be produced from these assessments. In this way, Beloin-Saint-Pierre et al.
(2016) distinguish between black box models, in which internal aspects of the city are ignored, grey-box models,
which show internal environmental effects of resource flows in cities, and network models, which connect
resources with human activities, allowing for direct identification of policy levers. Accounting methods and
ecological footprint analysis make use of black box models, while input-output analysis and life cycle analysis are
grey-box models, and simulation methods – which are not represented in Beloin-Saint-Pierre et al. (2016) – are
network or transparent models, as they capture the internal processes and dynamics. Finally, the indicators and
target audience of the study must be identified. These considerations are summarised by Beloin-Saint-Pierre et
al. (2016) in Figure 4 as a decision tool for identifying the appropriate urban metabolism assessment method.
Temporal scope

1. Is it an evaluation of the UM for a rating or for the analysis of its development?

Rating Development

Arbitrary period (e.g. 2015) Time series (e.g. 2010 to 2020)

2. Is it for evaluating the sustainability or direct environmental effects of the UM?

Sustainability Direct

Life-cycle perspective Per arbitrary period of time

Geographical scope

3. Is it an assessment of input/outputs or environmental effects? (i.e. elementary flows or impacts)

Inputs/Outputs Environment

City limits 3a) Consideration of global supply chains?

Yes No

Global Regional (e.g. city+hinterlands)

System modeling approaches

4. Is it an evaluation of the system or its inner workings?

System Inner workings

Black box 4a) Consideration of the link between components?

Yes No
Network Gray-box

Type of results (indicators and targeted audience)

5. Is the study focusing on one type of environmental sustainability indicators?

Yes No

Single issue (where a material flow can be an indicator) Multiple indicators

Methods: Methods:
SFA, MFA, EFA; Emergy, Exergy, CF, EF, P-I/O, ENA EE-I/O, LCA

6. Who is the targeted audience for the qualitative results for the evaluation?

Environmental specialists Decision makers

Methods: Methods:
SFA, MFA, EFA; Emergy, Exergy, P-I/O, ENA CF, EF, EE-I/O, LCA

Figure 4: Map of methodological choices used to address different goals of UM studies.

Notes: CF – carbon footprint; EF – ecological footprint; EFA – energy flow analysis; ENA – environmental network analysis;
I/O – input-output analysis; LCA – life cycle analysis; MFA – material flow analysis; SFA – substance flow analysis.
Source: Beloin-Saint-Pierre et al (2016)

Page 13 Urban Metabolism For Resource-efficient Cities: From Theory To Implementation

Many authors call for the standardisation of urban metabolism assessment methods (Kennedy et al., 2011,
Zhang et al., 2015, Beloin-Saint-Pierre et al., 2016, Hoornweg et al., 2012), so as to allow better data sharing and
analysis between researchers, as well as allowing relative comparisons of different urban systems or the same
urban system over time. Low capitalisation of urban metabolism assessment tools by decision makers has also
been directly connected with the lack of a common language between approaches to urban metabolism assess-
ment (Beloin-Saint-Pierre et al. 2016). This report does not focus on efforts to standardise the methods
discussed, but proposes a framework with which decision makers can begin urban metabolism assessments in
their cities (each with different contexts and levels of research capacity).

4. Application of urban metabolism assessment

at city-level
This report has catalogued 165 peer-reviewed studies of urban metabolism assessment applied to a specific city
context or used for comparing multiple cities. They are listed in Appendix A by location, date and method of analy-
sis. Metabolic assessment studies have typically been conducted at national or regional level, where material
flow data, or trade proxies, are more available. Figure 5 shows the sharp
increase in metabolic studies applied to city-level since 2000, with 26 appli- Metabolic assessment
cations in 2016. Figure 5 also shows the shift in methods utilised to under-
studies have typically
stand the urban metabolism. Accounting methods remain predominant,
though it should be noted that many urban metabolism assessment case been conducted at national
studies do not display rigorous methodological adherence to the methods or regional level, where
described in Section 3. Instead, due perhaps to differences in data availabil- material flow data, or trade
ity or desired research outputs, many studies present a basic accounting of
energy, material, or waste production or consumption – these are described proxies, are more available.
as accounting methods along with more structured methods such as econo-
my-wide material flow analysis, emergy analysis, etc. What is notable over the years is the occurrence of more
simulation methods and studies that hybridise methods, suggesting increased attempts to investigate inner
functions of the city, and to produce applied outputs.



Number of Studies



74 75 76 78 83 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 00 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
19 19 19 19 19 19 19 19 19 19 19 19 20 20 20 20 20 20 20 20 20 20 20 20 20 20 20 20 20
Year Published

Simulation Process: LCA IOA Hybrid Footprint Analysis Accounting

Figure 5: Number of urban metabolism assessment studies over time, showing

the increasing diversity of approaches utilised.

Page 14 Urban Metabolism For Resource-efficient Cities: From Theory To Implementation

Most studies have been undertaken in cities of the global North, where funding and research capacities are
concentrated (Simon and Leck, 2014). In fact, of the 165 studies sourced for this report, 94 are from cities in the
global North. The value of these studies is evidenced by useful contributions to resource efficiency or substitu-
tion (Browne et al., 2009) determinants of resource consumption (Barles, 2009, Weisz and Steinberger, 2010),
lessons for urban resilience (Bristow and Kennedy, 2013), and direct mitigation of environmental impacts.
However, many lessons from these studies are not directly transferrable to cities of the global South, which
perhaps are not able to, or should not, follow normative planning and urbanisation pathways (Watson, 2009) as
they are undergoing rapid growth in an era of resource constraints (Parnell and Pieterse, 2014) and global agree-
ments to achieve sustainability targets.

Number of Studies

1 5 8+
Accounting Approaches
Footprinting Approaches S. AMERICA
Hybrid Approaches
Input Output Approaches AUSTRALIA

Life Cycle Approaches

Stimulation Approaches
Multiple Approaches

Figure 6: Map of urban metabolism case studies

Figure 6 shows the geographic locations of city-specific

Top-down, aggregate measures of metabolism studies as well as the type of methods used,
resource consumption in cities are useful giving some basic insight into the depth of analysis
available for each city. Studies that compare multiple
as baselines for further studies, but not
cities (Saldivar-Sali, 2010, Kennedy et al., 2015, Kennedy
necessarily useful for urban planning. et al., 2007, Hoornweg et al., 2012, Currie and Musango,
2016) are not included, despite being particularly useful
for demonstrating the relative sustainability of cities. Comparative investigations typically produce top-down,
aggregate measures of resource consumption in cities, which are useful as baselines for further studies, but not
necessarily useful for urban planning. The distribution of studies shows strong focus in Europe, North America
and China, with more investigations desirable in South America, and the rapidly urbanising Africa and South Asia.

Figure 7 shows that 56 percent of studies focus on cities in the global

North, while nine percent of studies compare multiple cities around the Informal systems are typically
world. About 33 percent of studies examine contexts in the global adaptable, decentralised and
South, the majority of which are Chinese cities (see Figure 7). New innovative, offering potential
studies of urban resource flows from the global South are emerging
(e.g. Conke and Ferreira, 2015, Attia and Khalil, 2015, Guibrunet et al., lessons for shaping the future
2016), and it is typically from these that questions of the political ecolo- of these cities’ infrastructures.
gy of the urban metabolism are brought to the fore. Such examinations
necessarily have to account for discrepancies in resource access and consumption, typically between elite and
marginalised populations. It is in these cities that informal systems of resource provision or acquisition, which
complement or replace formal systems, are important socio-technical infrastructures to understand and learn
from. While informal systems are vulnerable due to their exclusion from government policies or modernist urban

Page 15 Urban Metabolism For Resource-efficient Cities: From Theory To Implementation

Process: LCA

Global South 5%
12% Accounting
(Energy or Carbon)
Hybrid 22%

Global Scope Footprint Analysis

9% 10%
Accounting (Materials)
Global North 32%
56% Accounting

Figure 7: The location of, and method utilised in, 165 urban metabolism case studies

planning regimes, they are typically adaptable, decentralised and innovative, offering potential lessons for shap-
ing the future of these cities’ infrastructures.

The various methods of urban metabolism assessment provide different outputs for understanding the city.
Aggregate accounting approaches, often not following strict adherence to a method, may provide insight into the
drivers of a city’s metabolism, improving the ability to predict resource consumption levels. Accounting methods
may also provide direct quantifications of resource consumption, with policy suggestions or targeted recommen-
dations for reducing consumption or increasing access to specific resources. Simulation approaches may
provide specific behavioural and technical recommendations. Life cycle analyses of infrastructure systems may
offer comparisons of the relative environmental consequences of current or proposed resource-efficiency initia-
tives. Some examples of resource flow, infrastructure or policy recommendations that have emerged from urban
metabolism assessment approaches include:

• An economy-wide material flow analysis of Paris (Barles, 2009), conducted at multiple scales, shows higher
consumption of food and goods in the city center and higher consumption of fossil fuels and construction
materials in the sprawling suburban areas surrounding the city. Recommendations include creating new
public policies surrounding waste management to reduce construction material imports, and strengthen-
ing ties between urban and agricultural policies to make use of local fertilizers and increase local food

• An emergy study of Macao (Lei et al., 2016) identifies large energy and water inflows, noting that heat
dissipation – due to waste incineration as the predominant solid waste management strategy – is the
largest contributor to energy loss; Lei and colleagues recommend capturing and reusing this available heat
energy, possibly for local electricity generation. They further recommend inclusion of waste reduction
strategies to avoid poor environmental emissions from incineration. As water is the scarcest resource,
reducing its inflows into the city through demand management initiatives is recommended.

• A substance flow analysis of copper inflows, stocks and outflows in Stockholm (Amneklev et al., 2016)
traces the use of copper, and makes recommendations based on estimates that copper reserves will run
out by 2400 and that copper emissions to the environment are problematic and increasing. Recommenda-
tions include seeking substitution of copper in roofing and water-pipe systems, as well as consumer goods.
However, substitution should not replace copper with a different environmentally poor material. A further
recommendation includes improving copper recycling rates by going beyond end-of-life-cycle recycling to
make use of urban mining or landfill processing.

• A system dynamics modelling process in Maui (Bassi et al., 2009) examined the implications of water
policies for addressing increasing demand while not undermining cultural importance of the stream
systems and water use. The policy options include setting flow standards to meet regulations, improving

Page 16 Urban Metabolism For Resource-efficient Cities: From Theory To Implementation

water use efficiency over time and investing in a desalination plant. Each of these policies have direct and
indirect implications for water and energy use as well as industry development, but the model’s usefulness
remains as a tool with which the communities and policy makers can explore policy options and their
implications together.

• A life cycle analysis of Beijing, Cape Town, Hong Kong, London and Toronto (Goldstein et al., 2013) shows
the direct and embedded environmental stresses resulting from urban resource flows. These flows are
connected to activities such as water extraction, building energy, transport, and food provision, which offer
a wider understanding of the impact of these activities. The comparison between cities shows that flows in
poorer cities are less attributable to private consumption, and more indicative of old infrastructure

• A life cycle analysis of the waste system in Bogota (Vergara et al., 2016) explores which waste management
strategies are more sustainable, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. What is notable is the inclusion of
informal waste management systems in the analysis. It shows that waste treatment produces more
emissions than collection and transportation, and recommends that policies focus on recycling and reuse,
rather than on improving transportation efficiency. Landfill gas and aluminium reprocessing are the largest
source of emissions, while the reuse of materials (textiles in particular) has significant potential to reduce
emissions. Thus discouraging informal waste processing and reuse is not recommended. Finally, it is noted
that Bogota’s proposed formal recycling plan would produce more emissions than the current informal
recycling system.

Despite the examples of recommendations listed above, many authors (Kennedy et al., 2011, Hoornweg et al.,
2012, Ferrão and Fernández, 2013) have remarked on the potential uses of urban metabolism research in urban
planning. However, the degree to which urban metabolism assessment methods are utilised in city planning
processes is limited, partly due to the results not being well translated or detailed enough for urban planners and
decision makers (Beloin-Saint-Pierre et al., 2016), and due to metabolism studies overlooking or excluding the
impact of urban policies on resources (Zhang et al., 2015). This represents the greatest gap in mainstreaming
the applications of urban metabolism research, particularly for cities that are growing rapidly and have yet to
build the infrastructures needed to support their populations and industries. This is a key opportunity to leapfrog
the unsustainable infrastructure systems associated with cities of the global North, and instead embed
sustainable infrastructures (Hajer, 2016). This should perhaps also be seen as a key opportunity to embed the
concept of urban metabolism as a tool for guiding urban development in these areas. Direct engagement with
regional and national authorities can produce integrated urban plans as general guides for local governments,
while each city can shape assessment processes in cognisance of its own contexts as well as the availability of
funds, data and research capacity. However, to consider these engagements, a number of inconsistencies
related to the implementation of urban metabolism research must be addressed. A useful output of such a
process would be a detailed implementation framework to support a wide variety of urban and environmental

This report does not aim to prescribe specific interventions, but instead demonstrates how cities can acquire
urban metabolism data and ensure that it is used effectively. In fact, it critiques the borrowing of external
solutions to context-specific problems and advocates that city practitioners determine their own solutions –
which could certainly require the cross-border sharing of ideas – through transdisciplinary application of the
urban metabolism concept and its various methods.

5. From theory to implementation

While urban metabolism studies exist at city level (refer to Section 4), utilisation of their outputs for practical
implementation in urban design and planning is limited. Few studies have attempted to move beyond analysis
into re-designing sustainable or resource efficient cities (Attia et al., 2012). This section discusses the
opportunities to move from theory to implementation based on insights from the literature.

Page 17 Urban Metabolism For Resource-efficient Cities: From Theory To Implementation

5.1 Basic urban metabolism assessment for all cities

Kennedy (2014) developed a multi-layered indicator set for megacities,

which is similarly applicable to all city types, in both the global North and Few studies have attempted
South. This allows comparison between all city types. They suggest that to move beyond analysis into
the indicator sets should consist of four layers: (i) context; (ii) biophysical
re-designing sustainable or
characteristics; (iii) urban metabolism parameters; and (iv) the role of
utilities. These layers of indicators are captured in the latest ISO resource efficient cities.
standard for measuring city performance (ISO, 2014), as part of a suite
of indicators for economy, education, governance, safety and others. However, the standard focuses mostly on
access to services, with quantities measured only for electricity, water and solid waste. Further, the standard
does not measure a city’s ability to implement system-wide changes. Musango (Forthcoming) proposes the
addition of a fifth layer, policy frameworks, to the Kennedy et al (2014) multi-layered indicator set. Policy frame-
works explicitly and implicitly influence resource flows (Pincetl et al., 2012) and relate directly to a country or
city’s ability to implement resource-efficiency interventions. Inclusion of a policy indicator would promote linking
urban metabolism with relevant policies to provide relevant, practicable recommendations. The five layers for a
basic urban metabolism assessment are described in Table 3.

Table 3: Parameters for a basic urban metabolism

Layer Description

Layer 1: Context Examine context of the city: spatial boundaries; constituent cities;
population; economy

Layer 2: Biophysical characteristics Examine the biophysical characteristics: land area; urbanized area;
climate; building gross floor area

Layer 3: Urban energy metabolism Examine urban metabolism parameters: consumption of

parameters materials, water, food, energy – all types; electricity sources; and
sectors related to energy consumption (water; waste water; food;
transport; housing), waste generated from consumption

Layer 4: Role of utilities Number and ownership of distributors and suppliers of resources:
water, energy (electricity; natural gas; access to basic services),
food, waste

Layer 5: Policy frameworks Existing policies that shape the direction of resource flows

Adapted from Kennedy et al. (2014) and Musango et al. (Forthcoming)

Urban metabolism assessment This basic urban metabolism assessment is essential to: (i) provide
scientific knowledge of resource use and resource requirements
is important for providing the
especially in data-scarce environments; (ii) provide initial indicators
baseline understanding of urban that facilitate engagement with the urban decision-makers; (iii)
contexts and potential levers, as render urban metabolism data and information that is relevant for
practical implementation. Standardisation of the data forms collect-
well as identifying what further
ed in this assessment will allow comparability between cities, for
knowledge is needed. benchmarking, comparison and progress reporting.

A basic urban metabolism assessment is important for providing the baseline understanding of urban contexts
and potential levers, as well as identifying what further knowledge is needed. In this way, it should be the first
step of a larger urban metabolism investigation, such as that suggested by Ferrao and Fernandez (2013). As
time, funding and capacity permits, a city should undertake to assess: (i) an urban bulk mass balance, (ii) urban

Page 18 Urban Metabolism For Resource-efficient Cities: From Theory To Implementation

material flow analysis, (iii) product dynamics, (iv) material intensity of economic sectors, (v) environmental
pressure of material consumption, (vi) spatial location of resource use and (vii) transportation dynamics (Ferrao
& Fernandez, 2013). Such an approach moves from assessing the outputs of an urban metabolism to the direct
functional causes, and the opportunities for shaping them.

5.2 From top-down to bottom-up approaches

Data used for urban metabolism assessment is typically derived from top-down or bottom-up approaches. In their
review, Beloine-Saint-Pierre (2016) found that, 65 percent of studies used top-down data, especially where mate-
rial flow analysis was the assessment method. These studies therefore offer limited insights into the formation
of resource flows through urban regions and in relation to urban activities, as well as how both evolve over time.
Data scarcity is often cited as a limiting factor to undertake an urban metabolism assessment at city level. Utilis-
ing bottom-up approaches may minimise the data-scarcity challenges, though it is recognised as resource and
time consuming. Data-scarce environments such as Africa, where limited urban metabolism studies exist, can
benefit from bottom-up approaches: in particular, for examining the informal economy. The informal economy is
not captured in most existing studies as the required data is unavailable in conventional databases. It was
observed that data is often available from a variety of platforms and individuals, but there
Data-scarce is limited cross-sharing of this data (e.g. Hoekman and von Blottnitz, 2016, Currie and
environments Musango, Forthcoming, Musango et al., Forthcoming). There is a need to deploy a suite of
data collection methods which capture behaviour-related data (primary activities, prefer-
can benefit ences, attitudes) in addition to resource flow data as these behaviours form a key part of
from bottom-up the socio-technical urban system and have implications for shaping the urban metabolism.
approaches. A basic urban metabolism assessment would consolidate such information to support
linkages with spatial planning.

5.3 Spatial and temporal issues

The spatial perspective “has not yet received the attention it deserves” (Francke et al., 2016). Interventions to
transform urban resource flows from a linear metabolism to a circular metabolism, depend on: spatial (form,
planning); temporal (short-, medium- or long-term); and sectoral (energy, water, waste, energy) aspects of a city.
The lack of spatial and temporal consideration in existing studies limits their practical use. Furthermore, there is
a time lag between the date of data used to examine the urban metabolism and the study’s publication date, e.g.
using a 2000 dataset for a study done in 2008 (Codoban and Kennedy, 2008).
This static snapshot in time reduces the usefulness of recommendations, Methods which are
particularly for systems which are subject to change. While snapshots are
cognisant of trends in
useful for establishing baseline resource consumption levels, methods which
are cognisant of trends in resource flows and consumption prove more helpful resource flows and
for shaping long-term solutions – especially if the information is current, consumption prove
constantly updated and widely accessible.
more helpful for shaping
To support implementation, urban metabolism assessment should be long-term solutions.
integrated into spatial planning practices (Gemenetzi, 2013). Linking spatial
aspects with metabolic flows, as illustrated in Table 4, makes it possible for urban decision-makers to identify the
value of urban metabolism outputs and ensures urban metabolism studies provide policy-relevant information,
hence, bridging the science-policy divide. Such examples of spatial considerations include extending bulk
infrastructure to excluded populations, identifying appropriate sites for industrial activity, integrating
transit-oriented development into the city fabric and guiding changes to urban form in ways which enhance
material and energy efficiency.

5.4 Scale of analysis

The scale of urban metabolism analyses vary from country, region, city-region, city, neighbourhood and
household level (Beloin-Saint-Pierre et al., 2016). On the other hand, there are three spatial scales: macro, which
entails country and urban agglomerations and provinces; meso, which includes city and functional regions; and
micro, representing land parcels (Huang et al., 2015). Micro-spatial levels encompass individual structure

Page 19 Urban Metabolism For Resource-efficient Cities: From Theory To Implementation

Table 4 An illustration of urban form, metabolic flows and resource-efficiency leverage
points’ linkages, relevant for urban practitioners

Specific potential local Resource efficiency

Urban form Metabolic flows
government interventions leverage points

Energy • Energy efficiency of

Promotion of walking and cycling
Optimisation of private car use • Water-use efficiency
(carpooling; car sharing) intransportation sector
• Carbon emissions
Attractiveness of public transport
People intensity of transportation

Land use mix • Compactness
Open and green spaces Land uses • Population density
Protected areas • Centrality of the city

analysis and sub-systems within them such as houses, room features, activities; meso-spatial covers issues
relating patterns of growth, community organisation and residential patterning; and macro-spatial entails
resource utilisation and changing land patterns (Lacovara, 2013).

The global nature of environmental and social impact means that cities have multiple scales of impact, each of
which must necessarily be a consideration when assessing their functions and contributions to sustainable
development. Bounding the city for study has implications for excluding global or regional impacts.

Transitioning from a linear to circular metabolism will require switching

between the different scales in both urban metabolism analysis and spatial Transitioning from a linear
design. This implies taking a holistic view, which is practical and relevant, to to circular metabolism will
guide urban design and planning at all scales. For countries of the global require switching between
South in which informal growth is dominant, it implies considering informal
urban metabolism. Some projects working towards these objectives include: the different scales in both
IABR–2016–The Next Economy3; Differential Urban Metabolism4; Bangalore urban metabolism analysis
Urban Metabolism Project5, and informal urban metabolism (Attia and and spatial design.
Khalil, 2015, Kovacic et al., 2016, Kovacic and Giampietro, 2016, Guibrunet
et al., 2016, Smit et al., 2017)

5.5 Transdisciplinary approach to assessment

Various studies have pointed to the interdisciplinary nature of urban metabolism assessment (Rapoport, 2011,
Castán Broto et al., 2012) while others have indicated the concept requires a transdisciplinary framework – with
a boundary object (Castán Broto, 2012; Newell and Cousins, 2014; Rapoport, 2011). However, its application
has been multidisciplinary and relatively scattered (Barles, 2010, Pincetl et al., 2012). The challenge is moving
from multi- to inter- to transdisciplinary inquiry, in which co-design is happening with society, and not for society.
This implies engaging with both planners and residents to: (i) identify relevant issues relating to the urban metab-
olism; (ii) identify relevant data availability and inform relevant data collection requirements; (iii) create a living
platform for knowledge exchange and continuous assessment of the urban metabolism rather than once-off,


Page 20 Urban Metabolism For Resource-efficient Cities: From Theory To Implementation

static analysis. Such platforms include: living labs (e.g. ‘Living Lab’
Buiksloterham in the north of Amsterdam6); community-based The challenge is moving
research centres (e.g. Enkanini Research Centre in an informal settle- from multi- to inter- to
ment in Stellenbosch, South Africa7); and urban laboratories such as transdisciplinary inquiry, in
Utrecht University’s Urban Futures Studio8 and the City Lab
Programme at the African Centre for Cities9. which co-design is happening
with society, and not for society.
5.6 System dynamics modelling

Cities are spatial systems which integrate several components: population, economy, technology, governance,
culture, resources and environment (Huang et al., 2015). They are also open systems that exchange materials
and energy required to maintain their operation. The interrelationships between physical
Institutions, flows and social processes that exist in urban metabolism studies mainly focus on material
social and energy flows, rather than the institutions, social processes and power structures that
influence the quality and quantity of flows. These complex interrelationships have implica-
processes tions for urban planning and design, especially predicting the effects of urban metabolism
and power interventions. Increasing urbanisation leads to greater resource consumption and waste
structures generation, resulting in environmental problems that limit socio-economic development.
System dynamics modelling becomes a suitable approach in urban metabolism assessment
influence the
to understand and identify leverage points for interventions that achieve resource efficiency
quality and goals, as well as provide insights on often-overlooked interactions. As cities are socio-techni-
quantity of cal systems, these leverage points can range from behaviour-changing campaigns to more
expensive infrastructure investments. Finally, it provides insight into how cities and resource
flows may change over time, making it a useful tool for considering future scenarios.

6. Conclusions
Urban environments and their activities are managed at sub-national level, mainly, municipal or city level. Effec-
tive interventions at municipal level can enable achievement of resource efficiency as well as other sustainable
development goals.

Improving the understanding of a sustainable urban transition at local level requires linking overall urban activi-
ties within urban planning. Urban metabolism assessment is recognised as a framework to operationalise
resource flows and identify possible resource-efficiency measures. The current challenge of urban metabolisms
is to transition from a linear perspective to a circular perspective, in which waste is utilised as a resource in the
urban environment.

While the concept of urban metabolism is dominant in the field of industrial ecology, it is an inter- and transdisci-
plinary concept that has extended to political ecology and urban geography, amongst other fields. The concept is
currently embraced in academia (theoretically) and politically, but its practical implementation remains limited.

Further, the urban metabolism results from complex and dynamic interrelationships between different resource
users, institutions that govern the actors’ behaviour, and social as well as global power structures. In order to
move from theory to practical implementation, this report suggests the following, based on insights from litera-

• A need to undertake basic urban metabolism assessment for all cities, which will ensure comparison for
all cities, in both developed and developing countries.


Page 21 Urban Metabolism For Resource-efficient Cities: From Theory To Implementation

• Combine conventional top-down approaches with more bottom-up approaches in order to capture data that
is currently unavailable

• Linking spatial and temporal issues in urban metabolism assessments

• Switching between the different scales of analysis, in both urban metabolism assessments and spatial

• Promoting a transdisciplinary approach, where co-design is happening with society, and not for society, and
to ensure assessment is not a once-off event.

• Promoting system dynamics modelling to examine the complex, dynamic interrelationships that exist in
physical and social processes of the urban metabolism and its implication for the urban planning and
design interventions.

Page 22 Urban Metabolism For Resource-efficient Cities: From Theory To Implementation


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