Published August 21, 2020 | Version v1
Conference paper Open

Innovative actions to build transformative capacity for urban transition in European and Chinese cities

  • 1. AIT Austrian Institute of Technology
  • 2. TU Dresden
  • 3. Chinese Academy of Sciences


Building environmentally friendly, livable, socially integrative, green, healthy and energy efficient cities is high on the European Agenda, and it has also become one of the top priorities of the Chinese government’s commitment to foster further urbanization and to improve its environmental conditions. Inclusion, poverty, housing, air quality, climate adaptation, energy transition, sustainable use of land and nature-based solutions as well as digital transition are among the 12 priority themes of the Urban Agenda for the EU (Pact of Amsterdam) agreed at the Informal Meeting of EU Ministers Responsible for Urban Matters in 2016. And in the European Green Deal, it is stated that the ”urban dimension of cohesion policy will be strengthened”, and that further initiatives “will provide assistance to cities to help them make best use of opportunities to develop sustainable urban development strategies” (European Commission 2019, 23). In China, with the National New-type Urbanization Plan (2014-2020) the government has promoted a new strategy towards a “people-centered” urbanization. It pays attention to related pressing challenges, such as sustainable urban development, the integration of rural migrant workers into urban societies, combatting regionally unbalanced urbanization trends, the future of “ghost cities” which had emerged due to land development exceeding population growth in cities, and the improvement of urban management to fight “urban diseases” like traffic congestion as well as air, water and soil pollution, the protection of natural environments, and the provision of adequate services and infrastructure, including the provision of energy.

On this background, this research explores transformation processes towards urban sustainability in Europe and China. Its objective is to provide knowledge about and compare recent activities in Europe and China which promote urban sustainability transformations, especially regarding eco- and smart cities. It looks at the involvement of stakeholders as well as their approaches and capabilities to tread new paths towards urban sustainability and to develop socially integrative, economically viable as environmentally friendly and smart neighborhoods in cities. Several cases from Europe and China are presented.

Following theoretical considerations of Wolfram (2016) an analytical framework to assess the transformative capacities of cities has been derived. This analytical framework has then been empirically tested and eight city case studies in Europe and China. A range of methodologies was selected and applied to gather empirical information on the transformative capacities the selected cities, such as interviews with key stakeholders, strategic document analysis as well as applying heuristics and analysis of R&I data bases.

The results from the case studies show that our analytical framework is a powerful method for measuring the capacity for urban transformation in European and Chines cities, as it helped us to clearly identify innovative actions applied by the cities to build tranformative capacities and to foster urban transformation. Furthermore, it allows for a comparison of results from the different cities, leading to new insights:

  • Across all case studies some transformative capacities measures are critical, for example: “Engagement of a diversity of actors and appropriate resources”, “leadership and ownership by appropriate key actors“, and “Continuity of actors cross multi-level governance/bodies”. The case analysis shows that these were present across all cases, there is a difference in the way these capacities are expressed between Chinese and European cities and that it is always embodies the local context.
  • European cities show a stronger tendency to organise and substantiate this diversity of actors in more horizontal way, while Chinese cities express this diversity from a more vertically organised governance perspective.
  • A similar observation can be made with the capacity measure of leadership and ownership which was also found to be critical across all cases. In European cities, this capacity measure manifests itself in a more decentralised way in which leadership and ownership becomes a more distributed phenomenon in smart city planning and implementation. In Chinese cities however, leadership and ownership are expressed in a more centralised and consolidated way.




The research is conducted within the HORIZON 2020 project "TRANSURBAN EU-CHINA" under grant agreement No 770141. The project, which involves 14 partners from Europe and China, coordinated by TU Dresden, Germany, aims to support the transition towards urban sustainability through socially integrative cities in Europe and China.



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TRANS-URBAN-EU-CHINA – Transition towards urban sustainability through socially integrative cities in the EU and in China 770141
European Commission