People standing in public square

Principles for

Sustainable Just


ICLEI Europe has been working with European Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions, the cities of Bristol and Antwerp, and the European Research Executive Agency of the European Commission to develop a set of principles for sustainable and just cities.  

The aim of this initiative is to influence EU-level policy making on sustainable urban development from the perspective of justice, inclusion, diversity and equity. The Principles are just a starting point. Our vision is to gather a coalition of organizations working at the intersection of urban sustainability and justice to speak with one voice and undertake actions in line with the Principles.  

Similar to the Keys, the Principles for Sustainable Just Cities build on the work of the UrbanA project.


As the imperative grows to limit the use of natural resources and the emission of greenhouse gasses in an effort to stem the climate crisis and live within the planet’s ecological boundaries, dilemmas surrounding the equitable distribution of and access to natural resources in the context of climate mitigation and adaptation policies or plans become increasingly salient. Urban areas are at once centres of unsustainable consumption; sites of socio-economic inequalities, and spaces for just sustainability to emerge. Yet only a minority of urban development approaches explicitly address the linkages between sustainability and justice in cities. Cities are understood not in isolation, but in relation to their surrounding peri-urban and rural areas. The EU’s urban policies should therefore explicitly integrate justice into approaches for sustainable urban development and support local governments by establishing mechanisms to better fund just sustainability.



  • EU urban sustainability policies explicitly address justice in their core and make it a requirement rather than an add-on.
  • New funding schemes are provided or existing ones reinforced to integrate justice into efforts targeting sustainable cities.

Cities can only become sustainable and just if supported by local and regional economies for the people. They foster the wellbeing of communities and their common good within the planet’s boundaries through appropriate and fair financial mechanisms and business models. This requires the adoption of economic models that question the primacy of GDP growth and embrace concepts such as regeneration, circularity, cooperation, care, solidarity, wellbeing, prosperity, and community wealth creation. Underpinning this shift lies the reconfiguration of welfare and fiscal systems towards a framework that taxes the (mis)use of natural resources instead of labour and guarantees the equitable redistribution of wealth. In taking up these alternatives, issues surrounding material inequalities need to be explicitly addressed, including not only the gap between rich and poor, but also more subtle imbalances in mobility, health, housing, job opportunities and more, in order to secure no one is excluded from the future decarbonized economy. The EU’s urban policies should build on economic models beyond growth at the local level as a means of rebalancing the social, environmental and economic dimensions of sustainable development.



  • EU policies support alternative non-growth oriented economic and financial models.
  • Fiscal systems tax the (mis)use of natural resources rather than labour, and wealth is equitably redistributed.

Urban policies are disproportionately shaped by those holding economic and political power, which can put them at odds with the common good. New modes of policy-making are therefore needed for citizens to be better included in formulating sustainability policies and in ensuring that these do not reinforce existing patterns of inequality or exclusion, or create new ones. Locally-rooted participation offers a means to do so, especially when implemented as a co-creative process that accompanies all stages of the policy cycle. The failure to empower citizens through meaningful participation and to foster a form of participation that supports the voice and decision-making of historically marginalized or invisible/invisiblized groups lead to sub-optimal outcomes, as only part of the local reality will be captured and only part of the intellectual capital to generate innovative ideas will be used. It also risks further eroding civic trust in local government and public action and creating greater distance and power hierarchies between elected groups and diverse groups of citizens. The EU should therefore support urban policies and regulations that respond to citizens’ and stakeholders’ diverging priorities, considering their concerns and needs, and building on everyone’s proposals.



  • The EU supports people-centred urban policies that address diverging needs and interests.
  • The enhanced representation of historically excluded communities is ensured in all stages of the policy cycle.

Cities are the laboratories of the future, playing host to continuous social innovation and giving rise to path-breaking and sustainable solutions. These are, however, deeply embedded within their specific contexts and disciplines, potentially constraining their visibility and impact. Translocal learning – i.e., learning between and across localities – is therefore a means of enabling transformative change for sustainable and just cities by untethering local solutions from their original geographical or institutional contexts and opening them to up- and out-scaling. EU sustainable urban development initiatives should therefore promote translocal peer learning mechanisms, as well as rural-urban partnerships, multi-stakeholder and multi-level collaboration. They should build on existing translocal networks and initiatives for just and sustainable cities providing them with resources and tools to help integrate and connect them.



  • The EU provides greater support for inclusive peer-learning programmes across localities building on existing translocal networks.
  • The EU backs multi-actor, multi-level, interdisciplinary and synergistic projects for supporting a just transition.

Cities are diverse, but this diversity is not inclusive by default. Many European cities have faced exclusionary urbanization processes based on ethnicity, religion and other factors. Planning for inclusive, people-centred and carbon-neutral cities requires localized solutions resulting from a comprehensive analysis of the real and diverse needs of all citizens, adopting an intersectional approach. The EU should place the inclusion of social, age, gender, racial and cultural diversity at the heart of its sustainable urban development policies, in a way that these recognize the need for tailored approaches.



  • The EU provides tailored diversity, equity and inclusion frameworks for sustainable urban development policies.
  • The EU supports cities in integrating intersectionality into their urban planning activities.

Injustice (e.g. through marginalization) and unsustainability (e.g. through a lack of green spaces) isolate and disempower residents, preventing them from transforming their neighbourhoods into more sustainable and just environments. Vibrant communities play a key role in overcoming these issues by fostering individual and collective wellbeing through a sense of belonging, acting as levers for change. Communities, however, largely rely on voluntary or unpaid service, and their ability to deliver positive social and environmental impacts is contingent on the availability of sufficient and continuous human and financial resources. The EU should recognize the value of community-based initiatives, and support joint endeavours between local governments and their communities for sustainable just cities. Legal frameworks should be adapted to enable the shared governance of urban commons, and easy-to-access funding schemes should support community initiatives working towards sustainable and just cities.



  • The EU supports shared governance arrangements and co-responsibility for urban commons.
  • Greater funding is made available for community-led initiatives targeting sustainable just cities.

A growing number of local and regional governments are embarking on ambitious sustainability transitions. Climate adaptation, climate mitigation and biodiversity protection are key pathways in this regard, including the implementation of nature-based solutions and green infrastructure in urban areas. However, those efforts and their impacts are rarely equitably distributed across all settlements. Marginalized and vulnerable communities live disproportionately in less safe, resilient and green neighbourhoods, and face a greater exposure to human and natural hazards, including pollution, flooding, heat and noise. These communities also encounter additional barriers (e.g., financial, spatial) to access environmental public goods (e.g. low-carbon affordable energy, biodiversity, clean water and air). Last, they are those most at risk of exclusion from green gentrification. The EU should support cities to design sustainability interventions that benefit all residents by guaranteeing the accessibility and equitable enjoyment of environmental public goods in line with residents’ right to place and right to a clean and healthy environment.



  • Specific measures are adopted to protect all citizens from harmful and polluting industries, including recognition of claims and support of victims of environmental pollution.
  • The EU supports interventions guaranteeing the equitable distribution of urban nature and strengthening equal access to environmental public goods and sustainability solutions.

Guaranteeing all inhabitants have their basic needs covered is the sine qua non of sustainable and just urban development. This includes fundamental human rights such as decent and affordable food, health, housing and education. Beyond this minimum, wellbeing requires an empowering environment that provides equal opportunities to all inhabitants to develop their full potential. Crucially, the provision of these services and the support of individual and collective development must occur within global planetary boundaries. This can be achieved by combining top-down (e.g., public regulations) and bottom-up (e.g., social innovation) approaches, as well as by better integrating the functions performed by urban, peri-urban and rural territories (e.g., food production, eco-tourism). The EU should support cities to employ a concept of care and develop people’s capabilities to secure the psychological, physical and financial wellbeing of their inhabitants with specific attention to vulnerable populations (e.g., elderly, persons with disabilities, ethnic minorities, youth).



  • All available resources are activated to ensure coverage of basic needs for all inhabitants.
  • Equal development opportunities are guaranteed whilst reducing resource use towards globally just shares.

Digitalisation in cities needs to be put at the service of societal challenges and needs, rather than the profit of private entities with limited public accountability. In essence, this translates into a move from a supply-driven – companies offer tools to local governments – to demand-driven – local governments commission tools for specific problems – approach. This is crucial as unbridled digitalisation risks amplifying existing inequalities by excluding groups facing barriers to digital technologies and embedding unconscious biases into tools, including AI. Nevertheless, digitalization has the potential to accelerate sustainable consumption (e.g. by enabling sustainable lifestyles including waste reduction through sharing approaches) and production (e.g. by enabling distributed and responsive production), as well as to provide new means of including citizens in deliberative and participatory decision-making processes. An effort should therefore be made to reorient digitalization towards sustainable and inclusive development by supporting ethically-grounded AI, securing open data and open source tools and standards, as well as promoting appropriate business models such that respond to diverse social groups’ needs, including the elderly.



  • The EU supports ethical digitalisation that responds to local needs and priorities.
  • The EU activates programmes to bridge the digital gap of vulnerable groups, including the elderly and low-income communities.

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