Circles of Sustainability Study

In its simplest version the ‘Circles of Sustainability’ approach suggests that social life should be understood holistically across an integrated series of domains—economics, ecology, politics, and culture.

In its most developed form it also offers an integrated method for deciding on the critical issues associated with responding to complex problems and then responding to them. It takes a city, community or organization through the difficult process of deciding on the terms of its approach and guides the engagement. It allows for an understanding of competing issues and tensions. It then provides continuing feedback and monitoring in relation to implementation difficulties and successful outcomes. Finally it supports the reporting process.

The Approach

The approach provides a way of achieving sustainability and resilience that combines qualitative with quantitative indicators. It sets up a conceptual and technology-supported framework for investigating problems faced by communities that is intended to be applicable across the very different contexts of a city, community, or organization, and sensitive to the need for negotiation from the local to the global. It builds upon the strengths of the UN Global Compact Cities Programme.

The approach asks:

How are we best to understand and measure the sustainability of our cities, communities and organizations in all its dimensions—economic, ecological, political and cultural? What should be measured and how?

The approach is issue-driven, with following features:

  • Cross-domain — its uses a four-domain model which emphasizes interconnectivity of economic, ecological, political, and cultural dimensions;
  • Participatory — It is driven by stakeholders and communities;
  • Relational — It focuses not only on identification of critical issues, indicators, but also their relationships;
  • Cross-supported —It straddles the qualitative/quantitative divide, and uses just enough quantification to allow for identification of conflicts – but should be readily interpretable to non-experts; and
  • Standards-oriented — It connects to GRI, XBRL, AA1000, DPSIR and other emerging reporting and modelling standards.


A number of tools are in development to support leaders to have an enhanced understanding of their city or region and approach the planning, monitoring and evaluation of sustainability in a holistic manner. Currently available tools include:

The Urban Profile Process tool

The Circles of Sustainability Urban Profile Process is a way of developing an interpretative description of the sustainability of an urban region and its immediate hinterland.

Ideally the assessment is undertaken by a group of three to ten people with different and complementary expertise about the urban area in question. The quality and standing of the assessment depends upon the expertise of the persons who are conducting the assessment. The profile mapping process can be done at four levels. Follow this link for further information about the Circles of Sustainability Urban Profile Process and to download the tool and guiding paper. 

 The Social Sustainability Questionnaire

The Social Sustainability Questionnaire is a tool that can be used to measure the attitudes of residents, citizens and visitors towards the sustainability of a city. Building upon the ‘Circles of Sustainability’ approach it aims to include a simple yet comprehensive set of items covering economic, ecological, political and cultural domains.

The questionnaire is provided as a form that people can complete and submit. City organisations can administer the questionnaires as part of a specific project, we can customize to your specific purpose.