Creative Education
2011. Vol.2, No.4, 388-392
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/ce.2011.24055
Teaching Sustainability: A Multidisciplinary Approach
Yosef Jabareen
Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel.
Received June 22nd, 2011; revised July 30th, 2011; accepted August 10th, 2011.
Sustainable development is multidisciplinary concept in its nature and is covered by various bodies of sciences.
Yet, its literature is fragmented and each specific discipline of knowledge analyzes it and teaches it from its nar-
row perspective. Therefore, this paper suggests a new conceptual framework for teaching sustainability that as-
sumes the multidisciplinary nature of sustainability. This framework is consists of ten concepts, a distinctive
theme, and each one represents a specific domain or field that is related to sustainability. The themes represent
the ethical, social, economic, ecological, spatial, design, and political aspects of sustainability. The ten con-
ceptsare intertwined and interconnected and together they construct the holistic scene of understanding and
teaching sustainability. These concepts are very useful for teaching sustainability. Moreover, each concept could
be in-depth discussed individually in a specific class session. Each discipline could take advantage of this
framework and may emphasize various aspects accordingly.
Keywords: Sustainable Development, Pedagogy, Teaching, Theory, Holistic
The knowledge of sustainable development is multidiscipli-
nary in its nature and is covered by various bodies of sciences.
In recent years, ‘sustainable development’ has become a central
theme of the world environmental discourse, while challenging
academic, public, private and civil spheres. As a result, sus-
tainable development poses a challenge for pedagogy in all
fields. As for its nature, sustainable development should not be
treated monolithically in the educational system but in a more
holistic manner. Truly, Cortese (2006: p. 5) suggests, “Design-
ing a sustainable human nature requires a paradigm shift toward
a systemic perspective emphasizing interdisciplinary under-
standing, collaboration, and cooperation that must be led by
higher education.” Yet, a striking weakness of the scholarship
on the subject is its lack of multifaceted theorizing and the fact
that it typically overlooks the multidisciplinary and complex
nature of sustainability. Therefore, this paper aims to present a
conceptual framework for teaching sustainability in various
disciplines. The framework is composed of various concepts,
where all of them present a holistic view of sustainability. This
paper suggests an interdisciplinary approach for learning sus-
A conceptual analysis method was used to build the concep-
tual framework (Jabareen, 2009).This method is a grounded
theory technique that aims “to generate, identify, and trace a
phenomenon’s major concepts, which together constitute its
theoretical framework” (Jabareen, 2009). Each concept pos-
sesses its own attributes, characteristics, assumptions, limita-
tions, distinct perspectives, and specific function within the
conceptual framework. The methodology delineates the fol-
lowing stages in conceptual framework building: a) mapping
selected data sources; b) reviewing the literature and categoriz-
ing the selected data; c) identifying and naming the concepts; d)
deconstructing and categorizing the concepts; e) integrating the
concepts; f) synthesis, resynthesis, and making it all make sense;
g) validating the conceptual framework; and h) rethinking the
conceptual framework (Jabareen, 2009). The conceptual frame-
work has been developed through an extensive interdisciplinary
literature of sustainability. Together, these concepts form the
conceptual framework for the pedagogy method, with each
concept representing distinctive aspects of sustainability theory.
The Theoretical Framework for Teaching
Jabareen (2006, 2004) suggests seven concepts that together
assemble the theoretical framework of ‘sustainable develop-
ment’ and each concept represents distinctive meanings of the
theoretical framework. Each concept represents distinctive mean-
ings and aspects of the theoretical foundations of sustainability.
Concept 1. The Ethical Paradox
This concept represents the paradox between “development”
and “sustainability”, and evaluates the levels of the plan inter-
vention on natural resources, such as land consumption. On one
hand, we seek to maintain indefinitely the urban natural capital
stock. On the other hand, however, development is environ-
mental modification that requires intervention in nature and
exhausts natural resources. This concept comes to illuminate
the intervention levels of the plan on the natural assets. The
paradoxical relations between sustainability and development
are related to a varied spectrum of ideologies, which ranges
between two extreme ethical concepts: the ‘domination of na-
ture’ and the ‘intrinsic right of nature.’ There are two criteria.
Concept 2. The Natural Capital
Natural capital stock is “the stock of all environmental and
natural resource assets, from oil in the ground to the quality of
soil and groundwater, from the stock of fish in the ocean to the
capacity of the globe to recycle and absorb carbon” (Pearce,
Barbier, & Markandya, 1990). Natural capital representsthe
consumption level of the environmental and natural resource
assets that is used for development. Keeping constant natural
capital is an important criterion for sustainability. Pearce and
Turner (1990: p. 44) point out that “the resource stock should
be held constant over time.” The stock of natural capital should
not decrease in order not to endanger the opportunities of future
generations to generate wealth and well-being and in order not
to harm the ecological system. Several efforts at measuring the
planet’s stock of natural capital have been proposed (Pearce,
Barbier, & Markandya, 1990; Neumayer, 2001; Geldrop & With-
agen, 2000; England, 1998; Costanza et al., 1997).
Concept 3. The Utopian Vision of Sustainability
This theme demonstrates the visionary aspects of planning
regarding the discourse of on future urban life and the contribu-
tion of the city to the climate change adaptation efforts. The
utopian concept envisages human cities and communities based
generally on better life and mitigation of the environmental
crisis. The power of utopian thinking is its inherent ability to
see the future in terms of radically new forms and values (Geus,
1999). This theme represents the urban utopia of the plan and
its framing discourse. And asks what is the alternative ecologi-
cal urban visionary picture that the plan suggests for the city.
How does it connect with the new global discourse? “Collective
action frames are constructed in part as movement adherents
negotiate a share understanding of some problematic condition
or situation they define as in need of change, make attributions
regarding who or what it to blame, articulate an alternative set
of arrangements, and urge others to act in concert to affect
change” (Benford & Snow, 2000).
Concept 4. Equity
The concept of equity represents the social aspects of sus-
tainabilityand it analyzes the environmental, economic and
social justice of the plan including its procedural justice: public
participation. It is perceived that a more equitable distribution
of power and resources would contribute to improvement in
environmental quality and injustice and a greater power ine-
quality leads to greater environmental degradation (Boyce,
Klemer, Templet, & Willis, 1999; Agyeman, Bullard, & Evans,
2002; Jabareen, 2005; Solow, 1991; Stymneand Jackson, 2000).
The impacts of climate change and its mitigation policies are
“socially differentiated” and are matter of local and interna-
tional a matter of distributional equity and justice (Adger, 2001;
O’Brien et al., 2004; Paavola & Adger, 2006). Climate change
has been already lead to changes in ecological, spatial, and
socio-economic systems. Importantly, there are individuals and
groups within all societies that have insufficient capacity to
adapt to climate change. “Vulnerability to climate change refers
to the propensity of human and ecological systems to suffer
harm and their ability to respond to stresses imposed as a result
of climate change effects” IPCC (2007: p. 720). Notably, the
vulnerability of a society is influenced by its development path,
physical exposures, the distribution of resources, prior stresses,
social networks, government institutions, and technology IPCC
(2007: pp. 719-720). And communities have different vulner-
abilities within each country (O’Brien et al., 2004).
Concept 5. Uncertainty Management
This concept is about adaptation management and risk man-
agement. Recent evidences indicate that climate change is ac-
celerating and will lead to wide-ranging shifts in climate pa-
rameters, and it “poses novel risks often outside the range of
experience, such as impacts related to drought, heatwaves, ac-
celerated glacier retreat and hurricane intensity” (IPCC, 2007: p.
719). Eventually, Climate change creates new uncertainties.
“Uncertainty is a perceived lack of knowledge, by an individual
or group, which is relevant to the purpose or action being un-
dertaken and its outcomes” (Abbott, 2009). Environmental un-
certainty arises from the changing social, economic, and physi-
cal environment and is experienced by everyone, andexternal
uncertaintiesarise from the external environment (Abbott, 2009).
They relate to external processes and events which may affect
the planning process and the urban environment being planned.
The challenge is to be more aware of the new and unconven-
tional uncertainties of the climate change, which pose a new
challenge to humanities. Apparently, we need better under-
standing of the risks facing communities, households, and ur-
ban physical infrastructure; the potential impacts on household
well-being and social outcomes; and how to effectively lower
community, household, and urban vulnerability (Heltberg, Ben-
nett, & Jorgensen, 2009; IPCC, 2007; UNDP, 2002; Adger et
al., 2007; Stern, 2006; UNFCCC, 2007). In this case, there are
tow types of uncertainty mana gement, adaptation management,
or risk management: a) Ex-ante management, which includes
prevention or risk reduction—actions to reduce the probability
of risky events (e.g., emissions reductions). b) Ex- post man-
agement includes Risk coping—actions taken to make up for
losses after realization of a risky event (Mirfenderesk & Corkill,
Concept 6. The Eco-Form
This concept evaluates the aspects of spatial planning, archi-
tecture, design, and ecologically-desired form of the city and its
communities. The physical form of city affects habitat, ecosys-
tem, daily-life activities and spatial practices of inhabitants, and
eventually the climate change. Contemporary urban form has
been perceived as a source of environmental problems (Alberti
et al., 2003; Beatleyand Manning, 1997; EPA, 1989; Jabareen,
2006; Wheeler, 2002; Elkin, McLaren, & Hillman, 1991). Ja-
bareen (2006) suggests a distinctive set of seven concepts by
which human habitat can be classified in terms of their “envi-
ronmental burden” and develops a Sustainable Urban Form
Matrix that contribute to our evaluation of the sustainability of
a given form. Jabareen (2006) concludes that by using the right
scales of the proposed concepts we might be enabled to produce
practically the most sustainable urban forms that contribute to
the climate change adaptation strategies. Therefore, the ideal
sustainable urban form according to the se concepts is that which
has a high density and adequate diversity, compact with mixed
land-uses, and its design is based on sustainable transportation,
greening and passive solar energy. The concept of Urban Form
Matrixis composed of seven criteria as follows:
1) Compactness: it refers to urban contiguity and connec-
tivity and suggests that future urban development should take
place adjacent to existing urban structures (Jenks, 2000). Com-
pactness of urban space can minimize transport of energy, wa-
ter, materials, products, and people (Cervero, 2003). Intensifi-
cation, a major strategy for achieving compactness, uses urban
land more efficiently by increasing the density of development
and activity. It includes: development of previously undevel-
oped urban land; redevelopment of existing buildings or previ-
ously developed sites; subdivisions and conversions; and addi-
tions and extensions (Clercq & Bertolini, 2003).
2) Sustainable Transport: in order to achieve ST the Plan
should address the following criteria: shortens trips; reducing
negative of traffic; encouraging non-motorized travel: walking
and cycling; safe; transit-oriented development; minimizes the
use of land; provides equitable access for people and their
goods in each generation; and is powered by renewable energy
sources (Duncan & Hartman, 1996; Elkin, McLarenand Hill-
man, 1991; Walker & Rees, 1997; Newmanand & Kenworthy,
3) Density: it is the ratio of people or dwelling units to land
area. Density affects climate change through differences in the
consumption of energy, materials, and land for housing, trans-
portation, and urban infrastructure, and high density can save
significant amounts of energy (Parker, 1994; Van & Senior,
4) Mixed Land Uses: indicates the diversity of functional
land uses such as residential, commercial, industrial, institu-
tional, and transportation. It allows compatible land uses to
locate in close proximity to one another and thereby decrease
the travel distances between activities, encourage walking and
cycling; and it reduces the probability of using a car for com-
muting, shopping, and leisure trips, since jobs, shops, and lei-
sure facilities are located nearby (Thorne & Filmer-Sankey,
2003; Wheeler, 2002).
5) Diversity: Diversity is “a multidimensional phenomenon”
that promotes further desirable urban features, including greater
variety of housing types, building densities, household sizes,
ages, cultures, and incomes (Owens, 1992; Thomas, 2003). Di-
versity is vital for cities and without it, the urban system de-
clines as a living place (Jacobs, 1961) and then homogeneity of
built forms, which is often produces unattractive, monotonous
urban landscapes, lead to increased segregation, driving, con-
gestion, and air pollution (Yanns, 1998).
6) Passive Solar Design: The idea of solar design is to re-
duce the demand for energy and to provide the best use of pas-
sive energy through specific planning and design measures,
such as sitting, orientation, layout, and landscaping. This can
make the optimum use of solar gain and microclimatic condi-
tions to minimize the need for space heating or cooling of
buildings by conventional energy sources (Beatley & Manning,
1998; Swanwick, Dunnett, & Woolley, 2003). Yannis (1998: p.
43) summarizes some design parameters for improving urban
microclimate: a) Built form—density and type, to influence
ai rfl ow , view of sun and sky , and exposed surface area; b) Street
canyon—width-to-height ratio and orientation, to influence wa-
rming and cooling processes, thermal and visual comfort condi-
tions, and pollution dispersal; c) Building design—to influence
building heat gains and losses; d) Urban materials and surfaces
finish—to influence absorption, heat storage, and emissivity; e)
Vegetation and bodies of water—to influence evaporative cool-
ing processes on building surfaces and/or in open spaces; and f)
Traffic—reduction, diversion, and rerouting to reduce air and
noise pollution and heat discharge.
7) Greening: Greening the city contribute positively to the
climate change. It aims to bring nature into the city and has
many benefits: contributions to maintenance of biodiversity;
amelioration of the physical urban environment, moderating the
urban climate; increasing the economic attractiveness of a city;
fostering community pride; contributing to health and to educa-
tion and an educational function as a symbol or representation
of nature (Dumreicher, Richard, & Ernest, 2000; Beer, Del-
shammar & Schildwacht, 2003; Roger, 1999; Johnson, 2009).
Concept 7. The Integrative Concept
The integration of environmental, social, and economic con-
cerns in planning and holistic management approaches is essen-
tial for achieving sustainability. The integrative approach seeks
to bring together all stakeholders: civil society organizations,
communities, and various social groups. Addressing the risk
associated with climate change generally requires dealing with
scenario uncertainty. Apparently, “the ability of a governance
system to adapt to uncertain and unpredicted conditions is a
new notion” (Mirfenderesk & Corkill, 2009: p. 152). adaptive
management requires new planning strategies and procedures
beyond conventional planning approaches since this type of
pla nni ng is undertaken in a high level of uncertainty, and sho uld
integrate uncertainties to planning processes, and it suppose to
meet stakeholders expectations in an uncertain environment.
Therefore, “adaptive governance need to be investigated at a
number of levels and dimensions, for instance at policy level,
planning level, implementation, administration, etc. Strategists
need to design plans that not only address the environmental,
economic and social needs today but also plans that are flexible
enough to quickly adapt to our rapidly changing environment”
(Johnson, 2009).
Concept 8. Ecological Energy
The clean, renewable, and efficient use of energy is a central
theme in planning for the achievement of climate change objec-
tives. This concept evaluates how a plan a major and funda-
mental condition for sustainability. This theme addresses the
energy sector and whether it proposes strategies to reduce en-
ergy consumption and to use new, alternative, and clean energy
Concept 9. The Ecological Economics Theme
This theme assumes that environmentally sound economics
could be a decisive driven force for achieving sustainability in a
capitalist world. For example, it appears that President Barack
Obama is trying to combat a recession and job losses with a
huge ramp-up in green-energy spending. Obama’s goal is to
generate new jobs while simultaneously transforming the en-
ergy marketplace, heading off global warming, and building a
U.S. clean-energy economy and industry. His energy spending
marks a sharp departure from the past 25 years, both in quantity
and focus. Climate-change legislation is a big part of his pro-
gram. A “market-based cap on carbon pollution” would drive
the production of more renewable energy in America, he said,
promising to invest $15 billion annually for 10 years to support
energy innovation leading to new technologies such as “wind
power and solar power, advanced biofuels, clean coal, and more
fuel-efficient cars and trucks built right here in America.” “The
American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan signed by the
President will spur job creation while making long-term in-
vestments in energy, and infrastructure. Among other objec-
tives, the recovery plan will increase production of alternative
energy”. Obama said that in order “to truly transform our eco-
nomy, protect our security, and save our planet from the rav-
ages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, re-
newable energy the profitable kind of energy” (Yanns, 1998).
Concept 10. Politics of Sustainability
This themepresents the concept of global agenda,or our ‘all
agenda’, as an emerging new worldwide political discourse
reconstituted around the ideas of sustainability. Since the Rio
Summit, this discourse has extended beyond purely ecological
concepts to include various international issues, such as secu-
rity, peace, trade, heritage, hunger, shelter, and other basic ser-
vices. Simultaneously, this concept reflects deep political dis-
putes between various countries, such as developed and devel-
oping countries, which undermines the achievability of sus-
1) This paper suggests a new conceptual framework for
teaching susta inabi lity . The main features of this framework are
as follows:
2) This framework is consists of ten concepts, and each one
represents a specific domain or field that is related to sustain-
3) The concepts represent the ethical, social, economic, eco-
logical, spatial, design, and political aspects of sustainability.
4) The conceptual framework with its ten themes altogether
tells the story of sustainable development. The ten themes are
intertwined and interconnected and together they construct the
holistic scene of understanding sustainability.
5) The conceptual framework with its ten cocnepts could be
used to assess public policies and projects from a sustainability
6) Each theme could be in-depth discussed individually in a
specific class session.
7) Each discipline could take advantage of this framework
and may emphasize various aspects accordingly.
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