Urban sustainability? The spatial disparities of greenhouse gas emissions and subjective wellbeing

Sanna Ala-Mantila

Research output: ThesisDoctoral ThesisCollection of Articles


Cities are engines of growth and productivity. In addition, great expectations are set upon these agglomerations to contribute to development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own. Indeed, mainstreaming of sustainability in planning and policy making is inevitable when reflected the current and projected pace of urbanization. However, the widely held association between sustainability and density of urban structure is not well-grounded in the existing empirical evidence. This dissertation studies the relationship between urbanization and sustainability from the aspects of environmental and social sustainability. The knowledge about the environmental sustainability is contributed by studying the relationship between urbanity and direct and indirect consumption-based carbon footprints, both together and separately. And the relationships between urbanity and social sustainability are studied using two measures of subjective well-being, namely, happiness and quality of life. The main contribution is to show that just a limited set of measures is sufficient to reveal discrepancies within and between the studied sustainability measures. In addition, a framework of urban sustainability and multiple related factors is constructed to visualize the complexity of the concept. Finally, it is argued that urban sustainability should be understood as a contested concept, inevitably characterized by trade-offs and discrepancies. In other words, there seems to be no unambiguous urbanization gradient in sustainability. The contribution of the dissertation is two-fold. First, it provides empirical evidence about the relationships between urbanity and the specific measures studied, using a high-quality data at disaggregated individual or household level. Second, it criticizes the shallow grounds of many urban sustainability statements by showing the limited power of the degree of urbanity, and even more so, the limited leverage of urban policies in determining sustainability outcomes. Even though transportation and housing choices of the residents can be influenced to some extent, urbanization is a multidimensional and multi-locational process related to deep reaching socioeconomic changes that are harder to influence. The conclusions of the dissertation call for keeping in mind the wide scope of urbanization, setting the power of planning to its proportion, and moving towards more human-centric approach to urban planning. The aim is not to dispute the importance of sustainable urbanization, but to underscore its complex nature and call for more ambitious urban sustainability policies that are more than rhetoric based on overoptimistic assumptions.
Translated title of the contributionKestävät kaupungit? Alueelliset erot kasvihuonekaasupäästöissä ja koetussa hyvinvoinnissa
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor's degree
Awarding Institution
  • Aalto University
  • Junnila, Seppo, Supervising Professor
  • Heinonen, Jukka, Supervising Professor
Print ISBNs978-952-60-7416-0
Electronic ISBNs978-952-60-7415-3
Publication statusPublished - 2017
MoE publication typeG5 Doctoral dissertation (article)


  • urbanization
  • environmental sustainability
  • social sustainability
  • GHG emissions
  • subjective wellbeing


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