UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Dr Carla Washbourne co-authors first-of-a-kind comparative review of urban observatories

2 February 2021

A new report co-authored by Dr Carla Washbourne provides a review of 'urban observatories’, exploring the various features, functions, and activities these institutions have and perform.

Atlas of the urban observatories analysed for the study.

The first-of-a-kind landscape review, Urban Observatories: A Comparative Review, reveals the critical role urban observatories play in knowledge mobilisation and urban governance. Urban observatories are boundary-spanning institutions that work at the interface between knowledge production and decision-making and perform an explicit monitoring role on a range of urban issues in one or more human settlements.

The report builds upon earlier scholarly research on knowledge mobilisation for urban governance and developing a global science to guide city policy. It also informed a recent scholarly publication on urban observatories' role in mobilising urban knowledge for sustainable development against the context of the COVID-19 crisis.

To accompany the review the team from the Connected Cities Lab at the University of Melbourne, UCL STEaPP and UN-Habitat have also released a companion working paper and podcast, both focused on the COVID-19 crisis.

The report outlines the operations of urban observatories, their 'value proposition' and their challenges in a variety of urban contexts around the world. Drawing from 32 case studies in cities equally across the Global North and South, the report offers tangible comparative evidence of the functioning of these institutions and contextualises their functions, activities, and outputs against the current COVID-19 crisis.

The report emphasises the important role these institutions play in urban governance in several ways. First, urban observatories support evidence-based decision-making with robust, longitudinal data and analytical expertise, either through strategic advisory roles or through capacity-filling roles in cities where state data is weak. Second, observatories play a key role in bringing multiple forms of knowledge to inform the evidence base used by decision-makers, advocating for recognition of the diverse urban realities experienced by city dwellers rather than a singular vision that does not account for the complexities and variance within a single locality. Finally, observatories network knowledge within and between cities, making knowledge inclusive and accessible to a wide range of stakeholders and giving cities the opportunity to reference the successes and failures of other places when attending to their own challenges.

The report findings provide a snapshot of the dynamics of knowledge mobilisation and urban governance in cities today and suggests the critical role urban observatories play in enabling just, inclusive, and sustainable cities for tomorrow.

The comparative report, working paper, and podcast as well as the three referenced scholarly works can be found on the Connected Cities Lab website: sites.research.unimelb.edu.au/connected-cities/projects/urban-observatories


Atlas of the urban observatories analysed for the study. Case study snapshots are bolded with the page number on which the case can be found.