Doing more with less (data): Complexities of resource flow analysis in the Gauteng City-Region

Christina Culwick, Graeme Götz, Siân Butcher, Jesse Harber, Gillian Maree, Darlington Mushongera

Research output: Contribution to journalLetterpeer-review


Urban metabolism is a growing field of study into resource flows through cities, and how these could be managed more sustainably. There are two main schools of thought on urban metabolism - metabolic flow analysis (MFA) and urban political ecology (UPE). The two schools remain siloed despite common foundations. This paper reflects on recent research by the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO) into urban sustainability transitions in South Africa's Gauteng City-Region, a large and sprawling urban formation that faces a host of sustainability challenges including water deficits, erratic electricity supply, stretched infrastructure networks and increasingly carbon-intensive settlement patterns. Three GCRO research projects are reviewed. Each project began with the assumption that data collection on the region's metabolism could enable an MFA or MFA-like analysis to highlight where possible resource efficiency and sustainability gains might be achieved. However, in each case we confronted severe data-limitations, and ended up asking UPE-style questions on the reasons for and implications of the chronic paucity of urban metabolism data. We have been led to conclude that urban metabolism research will require much more than just assembling and modelling flows data, although these efforts should not be abandoned. A synthesis of MFA and UPE is needed, which simultaneously builds a deeper understanding of resource flows and the systems that govern these flows. We support the emerging approach in political-industrial ecology literature which values both material data on and socio-political insight into urban metabolism, and emphasises the importance of multi-disciplinary and multi-dimensional analysis to inform decision-making in urban sustainability transitions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number125006
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 11 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • data issues
  • Gauteng City-Region
  • metabolic flow analysis
  • political-industrial ecology
  • urban metabolism
  • urban policy
  • urban political ecology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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