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Interdependence and Complementarity of a Multi-Dimensional Concept of Sustainable Development and the Integrated Approach to Urban Governance—Case Study City of Zagreb

The Institute for Development and International Relations (IRMO), Lj. F. Vukotinovića 2, 10000 Zagreb, Croatia
Sustainability 2023, 15(12), 9213;
Received: 19 April 2023 / Revised: 31 May 2023 / Accepted: 2 June 2023 / Published: 7 June 2023


Modern cities bear the entire burden and responsibility of operationalizing the concept of sustainable development, since they are the ones that represent the greatest threat to its implementation. The sustainability of cities largely depends on the form of public governance and decision making; in fact, this interdependence is a prerequisite for all the relevant progress in sustainable development that many European cities strive to achieve. An approach to governance in European cities that has proven to be the most effective in achieving urban sustainability is an integrated one, as it encompasses the coordination, cooperation and integration of sectoral policies and the participation of different actors at all levels of governance. Considering the prominence that the concept of sustainable development holds in public policies and concepts of urban development nowadays, the aim of this paper is to present the interdependence and complementarity of a multidimensional concept of sustainable development and the integrated approach to urban governance. The empirical section of the paper is focused on the analysis of documents used as a normative basis for providing answers to the research question: Are there elements of an integrated governance approach in the City of Zagreb, and is the interdependence of the two concepts acknowledged in the normative framework?

1. Introduction

Demographic trends, environmental threats and intensified economic activity observed in recent decades have provided a broad fertile ground for the emergence of new issues in cities. According to the United Nations [1], in 2015, half of the world’s population, or 54% (4 billion), lived in cities, and by 2035, this is expected to increase to 62% (5.4 billion). Built-up areas (cities, settlements and suburbs) are home to almost three-quarters of the citizens of the European Union, and an increase to 79% is expected by 2035 [1]. Considering the current amount of environmental, economic and social pressure on cities, as well as the pressure in the upcoming period, achieving sustainable urban development manifests itself as one of the main global development goals. Pill [2] emphasizes the importance of constant political discussion on how cities are managed, by whom, which goals inform their management and—crucially—for whom they are managed. In particular, achieving sustainability of cities largely depends on the form of public governance and decision making; this interdependence is, in fact, a prerequisite for all the relevant progress in sustainable and transformative development that many European cities strive to achieve. Regardless of which modern development concepts the development strategies of cities are based on (smart, green, resilient, inclusive), they necessarily find their foothold in the concepts of sustainable development and the integrated approach to development.
The following sections address the multidimensionality of the concept of sustainable development, expounding afterward on the postulates of the integrated approach to urban governance to subsequently present an overview of the evolution of the concept of sustainable development in the context of the integrated approach. The empirical section is focused on presenting the application of the integrated approach through the review of the relevant normative framework of the City of Zagreb, ending in some final reflections.

1.1. Multidimensionality of the Concept of Sustainable Development

In order to understand the complementarity between the integrated approach and sustainability, it is necessary to establish the basic settings of the concept of sustainable development. This paper does not delve into the concept of sustainable development as such, nor does it analyze the degree of its operationalization on a local or urban level. Given the prominence that sustainability holds in public policies and concepts of urban development nowadays, especially in the context of cities, this paper aims to establish a certain level of understanding of the interdependence between the concept of sustainability and integrated development, which will be presented in a short overview of international documents.
Sustainable development is a multi-dimensional concept aimed at achieving economic, environmental, social, cultural and governance goals in an inter-temporal context; that is to say, its focus is on meeting the needs of future and current generations. Despite numerous definitions, none is universally accepted, and neither is the definition that emerged from the Brundlandt Report, which was the subject of significant criticism during the development of the concept, mainly due to its anthropocentric character and subjectivity in defining the concept of needs [3]. However, a number of definitions seek to capture the multidimensionality of the concept, such as the one proposed by Haughton [4], summarizing sustainable development as requiring “economic and social systems that encourage environmental stewardship of resources for the long term, acknowledging the interdependency of social justice, economic well-being, and environmental stewardship.” The common denominator, i.e., the common thread connecting Haughton’s and other numerous definitions, is the recognition of the necessity of harmonizing the economic, environmental and social dimensions of development [2,5,6,7], that is, the acceptance of a holistic approach to development, which has in recent years been complemented with cultural and management dimensions of development, as shown in Figure 1.
The environmental dimension of sustainable development occupies, although to a lesser extent than before, a dominant position in terms of a broader understanding of the concept of sustainable development. Goodland and Daly [8] point out that environmental sustainability seeks to improve human well-being and social sustainability through the preservation of natural capital or raw materials used for human needs. In other words, non-renewable resources must be preserved to the greatest extent possible and energy and natural resources must be used rationally, which includes drastic waste reduction and pollution prevention. The economic dimension of sustainable development, in turn, represents a step away from the uncompromising accumulation of profits and focuses on the ability of the community/city to sustainably manage its own resources, relying on the social and environmental dimensions—that is, to arise from and co-exist inextricably with those dimensions [9]. The dominance of the neoliberal paradigm in many of the world’s cities has influenced the strengthening of the economic dimension [2], although this took place under the guise of a sustainable economy, with profit still being the main impetus towards achieving economic growth at all costs. The social dimension of sustainable development is manifested in issues of justice, solidarity, prosperity and democracy, which are present, for example, in the concepts of an inclusive city, a just city and the right to the city, oriented towards equal redistribution and equal availability of basic public services, infrastructure and goods [9]. Cultural sustainability should include the protection of cultural identities, traditions and heritage, as well as the review and transformation of behavioral patterns. Sustainable governance presupposes the application of the doctrine of good governance marked by quality standards: fair conduct of the electoral process of a representative and participatory democracy; responsiveness of local authorities; effective and efficient use of resources; open and transparent work of local authorities; the rule of law; ethical behavior that ensures the prioritization of public interests over private ones; competence and capacity; innovation and openness to change; sustainability and orientation towards longtermism; quality financial management to ensure prudent and productive use of public funds; and human rights, cultural diversity and social cohesion so that all citizens enjoy protection, respect and responsibility [10].
A critical document that reflects the multidimensionality of sustainability is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which is based on seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in which all the mentioned dimensions of sustainability are represented. Therefore, the process of localization of SDGs in the cities across the European Union is of great importance for this paper. Given that the process of preparing, implementing and monitoring goals requires a new approach in the work of national and local authorities, a pilot network was launched to localize Sustainable Development Goals. The noted pilot network was derived from the cooperation between the Program for Sustainable Urban Development (URBACT) and the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR). URBACT supports formal city actors in strengthening management capacities to, among other things, create mechanisms for empowering citizens and strengthening social cohesion, and educating citizens on sustainable urban development to achieve stronger horizontal cooperation. The Council’s work aims to shape the future of Europe by strengthening local and regional self-governments, relying on the principle of subsidiarity and citizen participation; the Council’s work is organized through two pillars: (1) influence on European policy and legislation in all areas that impact municipalities and regions and (2) a forum for discussion between local and regional authorities through their national representative associations.
The network provides a mutual exchange of experiences, enables capacity building for the localization process and instigates the development of tools for the localization of Sustainable Development Goals [11]. As pointed out in the Roadmap for Localizing the SDGs [12], all SDGs have targets directly related to the responsibilities of local and regional governments, which is why they are at the heart of the 2030 Agenda. The document mentioned above details four basic steps for the localization of Sustainable Development Goals: awareness-raising (localization of the SDGs through participatory processes), advocacy (local ownership of national SDG strategies), implementation (implementation of the SDGs in local communities) and monitoring (collecting, monitoring and analyzing data at sub-national level). Although there is increasing awareness of the importance of SDG localization in terms of strategy and policy, Richiedei and Pezzagno [13] point out that there is a research gap concerning the territorialization of SDGs and a lack of attention on the methodology used to monitor strategy and policy.
However, although the dimensions of sustainability are presented in the relevant literature as delimited, in practice, they intertwine, permeate and complement each other. This is supported by the emergence of complementary concepts that are subordinate to the concept of sustainable development and contain elements of several different dimensions. It is a shift of sorts from achieving development goals while minimizing damage to the ecosystem to a development that contributes to biodiversity and ecosystem resilience. Various socioeconomic, climate and environmental crises have caused the emergence of concepts and topics that enrich the aforementioned dimensions of sustainable development towards transformativeness and regenerativeness. Therefore, concepts such as smart development, green development, degrowth and resilience appear, followed by topics such as alternative currencies, zero-waste, circular economy and sociocracy based on a high level of cooperation and participation, and many others. Criticism directed towards economic growth or the current fascination with high-tech solutions through the uniform promotion of the concept of a smart city in no way implies that these are the cause of the problem; however, as James [14] points out, it is necessary to reconsider their connection to prosperity, stop viewing them as solutions and start using them as tools for achieving sustainability.
This paper focuses on the policy dimension of sustainability, notably the governance approach encouraging the intrinsic motivation of citizens to act, the creation of cohesive collectives focused on proactive joint action in the community, the participation of a wide range of informal actors, vertical and horizontal cooperation within governance systems and the complementarity of public policies with the aim of achieving a holistic and synergistic approach to development.

1.2. Integrated Urban Governance

In order for cities to improve their sustainability and provide their citizens with a better quality of life, city authorities must employ innovative approaches to governance, with one of the primary tasks being to strengthen the involvement of the local community in urban development planning [15]. In the context of discussing sustainable urban development, in a report published by UNESCO, Enyedi [16] proposes changes in the attitudes and approach of local authorities, urban planners and local residents, stressing the need to establish procedures that will provide citizens (the public) with the right to participation and co-decision-making. Certain cities are more successful in implementing this precisely due to the application of modern horizontal instruments of participation and the establishment of partnerships between citizens and public administration [17]. Active involvement of actors in urban policy making with the aim of improving the sustainability of cities is also a main feature of integrated urban governance, in which the needs of society take center stage [15,18,19].
Different forms of urban governance in the 1990s developed simultaneously with the shift from an industrial to post-industrial economy and the increasingly prominent role of competitiveness and economic growth [20]. According to Van Kempen et al. [21], at the beginning of the new millennium, urban policy was marked by the following processes: (a) a shift from government to public governance, (b) an attempt at policy integration, (c) citizen empowerment, (d) a shift from universal to area-based policies (participation occupies a very important place in area-based approach in which partnership with local actors plays an important role in fostering inclusion, responsibility and a sense of ownership [18]) and (e) policy effectiveness gaining ground. These changes aroused an increased interest among scientists who recognized the possibility of finding new forms of public governance that would overcome bureaucratic rigidity; mobilize a wide range of resources, skills and knowledge; enable a faster and more flexible response to the changing socio-economic context; and thus pave the way for other actors in urban policy making. An integrated approach in scientific and professional literature is often brought up in scientific and specialized literature as a desirable form of public governance, as confirmed by numerous examples of good practice (Magdolna quartier in Budapest, Hungary; the city of Bydgoszcz in Poland; Trinitat Nova quartier in Barcelona, Spain; and many others).
The integration of public policies becomes the main global challenge in achieving sustainable development, since the process of adopting decisions grows in complexity due to differing simultaneous development trends. Cross-cutting, overlapping issues that dominate horizontal policies, such as environmental protection, further contribute to the complexity of the network of structures, relationships and processes. Concepts such as coherence, consistency, collaboration, cooperation and, particularly, coordination are closely related to the understanding of integration. However, when compared with policy cooperation and coordination, the integration of public policies is perceived as more sophisticated. According to Peters [22], policy integration represents a level of coordination within the government that includes the coordination of the provision of services and the possibility that public organizations are also interested in achieving goals. Apart from the cooperation of lower levels of public authorities to ensure implementation, such a level of coordination also requires coordination between other government levels to ensure the compatibility of the set objectives. Policy integration represents the synergy of public policies, that is, the focus on synchronization and integration of public policy design and implementation [23,24], which is a prerequisite for achieving integrated governance and sustainable development. Pill [2] stresses the complexity of the urban governance system, which is very often fragmented and prone to failures due to unrealistic expectations, a lack of political commitment and unsustainable financing, which is why achieving policy coordination quite often represents an insurmountable challenge.
In 2000, the Institute of Public Administration Australia carried out the “Working Together—Integrated Governance” research project, aimed at promoting understanding of the main shift in public administration through the inclusion of integrated solutions across all sectors and levels of government within the governance framework. Within the framework of the project, the following definition of integrated governance was adopted: “Integrated governance describes the structure of formal and informal relationships in order to solve tasks through a method of cooperation, either between government agencies or between different levels of government (local, state), and the non-governmental sector” [25]. More specifically, integrated governance refers to the horizontal integration of sectoral policies and the different actors involved, to the vertical integration of different levels of governance, as well as to integration beyond administrative boundaries (city administration—regional/national administration). IPAA [25] lists the assumed results arising from integrated governance: a holistic governance approach, user-oriented governance, cooperation between different services, wider social contribution, increased public interest and a higher level of trust, increased social capital, association of different departments, programs and policies, etc. Citizens’ trust in public institutions and their convergence is a prerequisite for strengthening mutual cooperation in meeting common goals in terms of achieving a better quality of life in local communities [26]. According to Jacquier [27], the emergence of initiatives bringing together a wide range of actors is not due to a whim, but a crisis of traditional government that finds itself incapable of devising adequate responses to the new trends and complexities of modern society, as well as to social fragmentation and economic uncertainty. It is precisely the city administration that plays a crucial role in creating a relationship with the community that is based on trust, because if the agenda is transparent, if there are clear rules that apply to everyone equally and if the leadership as a facilitator is ready and open to dialogue, the chances for establishing the basis for beneficial relationships aimed at achieving sustainable solutions are higher.

1.3. Overview of the Evolution of the Sustainable Development Concept from the Perspective of the Integrated Approach

The following section is a brief developmental overview of the concept of sustainable development based on international documents with an emphasis on the integrated approach, illustrating how this approach was embedded into the foundations of the concept of sustainable development from the very beginning, indicating interconnectedness and interdependence between the two.
The chronological presentation of international documents starts in 1972, when the UN adopted 26 principles at its first environmental conference in Stockholm, one of which (Principle 13) emphasizes the need to adopt an integrated and coordinated approach to development in development planning for the benefit of the environment (UN Environment Programme 1972). As a direct consequence thereof, the principle of integration found its integral place in the first Environment Action Programme of 1973. The term “sustainable development” was introduced into the development discourse within the 1980 World Conservation Strategy; however, the focus was placed on the natural environment, and the human side of sustainable development was not given as much attention. The concept gained popularity through the report “Our Common Future”, known as the Brundtland Report, in which the principle of integration occupies a crucial place as one of the fundamental institutional challenges. The report emphasizes the need to revise the former development direction that led to environmental destruction and the point when development is no longer sustainable. Peti [28] states that the use of the term “sustainability” has become omnipresent and meaningless, its content not sufficiently tangible to give a clear direction to program situations and its objectives very general instead of specific. In addition to the anthropocentric character and subjectivity in defining the concept of needs, this leads to another problem of the concept of sustainable development, which is its operationalization, i.e., application in practice [29]. In response to the identified shortcomings, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 marked an important milestone in the promotion and operationalization of the concept of sustainable development, which began to be introduced into national strategic and development documents [6]. On this occasion, it was clearly stated that the doctrine of good governance is a prerequisite for achieving sustainability locally, meaning that it is impossible to achieve it without the involvement of the local communities and their increased political engagement in the decision-making process [5]. The basic lesson that emerged from the event is that the concept of sustainable development must begin in the cities as the pillars of this development strategy.
One of the key documents derived from UNCED is the Agenda for Sustainable Development in the 21st Century (Agenda 21 1992), which represents an incentive for further development and implementation of the concept of sustainable development through the request for integration of environmental issues in the creation of sectoral policies. Program for sustainable cities began to emerge in the early 1990s due to activism at the local and national levels around the world, as well as the action of the European Community, the World Bank and UN agencies [3]. The importance of local administration in the implementation of sustainable development guidelines is acknowledged in Agenda 21 (Chapter 28, point 28.3), which stresses that local administration must work on building and establishing a dialogue with its citizens, local organizations and the private sector, so that, through frequent consultations and achieving consensus, it is able to adopt their useful knowledge and information. Local Agenda 21 (1996) empowers local administrations to implement the principles of Agenda 21 locally, and promoting the participation of all social actors, especially socially marginalized groups, is declared as a fundamental element. At the same time, another important document at the European level, the Charter of European Cities and Towns Towards Sustainability, the so-called Aalborg Charter (1994), emphasizes the key role of cities and their responsibility in achieving sustainable local communities. Accordingly, European cities are joining the European Sustainable Cities & Towns Campaign launched to achieve the objectives set out in the Local Agenda 21. The human face of sustainable development has gained importance through the Habitat Agenda (UN Habitat II City Summit, Istanbul, 1996), which highlights the importance of environmental and social aspects of sustainable urban development in raising the quality of life of citizens. Wheeler [3] states that these documents result in goals important for urban sustainability: the preservation of open spaces and vulnerable ecosystems, reduced use of cars, a reduction in waste and pollution, decent and affordable housing, improved social equality and opportunities for marginalized and socially disadvantaged citizens, strengthening the local economy, etc. In the same period, the popularization of the concept of sustainable development influenced European development policies, wherein a sustainable approach was set as the fundamental idea [28]. The principle of sustainable development has received strong support within the EU policy framework, which has followed UN-led global initiatives. Article 6 of the Amsterdam Treaty (1997) clearly links the concept of sustainable development to integration as one of the fundamental principles. Lafferty conceptualized sustainability as a question of “policy integration”, which speaks in support of the aforementioned claim that the concepts of sustainability, good governance and participation are intertwined and interdependent [6].
The emerging concept of solving urban issues through the integrated approach occupied an important place at the Vienna Forum, which was held in 1998, and the reason for its maintenance is the Commission’s Action Plan for Sustainable Urban Development, adopted in the same year. Among the basic principles of the Action Plan is a holistic and integrated approach to urban issues, as well as a partnership aimed at achieving a sense of ownership of all actors. The Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention 1998) highlights the involvement of all social actors in the decision-making process, the right to access information and access to justice in environmental protection issues [30]. Bush et al. [31] state that this is a new type of agreement that clearly links the environment and human rights in order to underline the right to participation of all actors who, in interaction with public authorities, can offer the knowledge required to address environmental issues crucial to achieve sustainable development and strengthen the participatory process. At the Gothenburg Summit in 2001, the EU leaders, based on a proposal from the European Commission, presented the EU’s first sustainable development strategy which stresses the interconnectedness of environmental, social and economic impacts on development. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) held in Johannesburg in 2002, the principle of sustainable development received strong political support.
The revised EU Sustainable Development Strategy of 2006 highlighted the need for a gradual change in the unsustainable system of production and consumption, as well as the introduction of an integrated approach in the process of drafting EU guidelines and policies, with particular emphasis on the principles of solidarity and partnership. The EU underlined the need for an integrated and holistic approach to tackling urban issues by adopting a series of formal documents on urban development policies. The Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities was signed in 2007 by European ministers at an Informal Ministerial Meeting on Urban Development and Territorial Cohesion [32]. Its importance lies in the fact that its basic objective is to improve urban governance based on the integrated approach defined as a process in which spatial, sectoral and temporal aspects of key urban policy areas are coordinated with the emphatic participation of all social actors.
In 2008 in Marseille, ministers advocated the implementation of the Leipzig Charter and agreed on holistic urban development strategies that highlight the need to improve sectoral policy coordination and focus on knowledge and interdisciplinary skills required for developing these policies. The Charter emphasizes how positive contributions of integrated urban development policy are manifested through reconciliation and harmonization of interests of different levels of government and actors (state, region, city, citizens, economic operators, etc.) and better utilization, efficiency and cost-effectiveness of public-private initiatives and investments. Furthermore, it states that integrated urban development has a positive impact on governance structures, thereby improving or strengthening the competitiveness of cities and promoting coordination of infrastructure development. The Charter also stresses the need to improve neglected neighborhoods, focusing on the dimension of social housing and social housing policy (strengthening social cohesion and stability) and draws attention to the following relevant policies: improving the spatial environment (energy efficiency), strengthening the local economy (local labor market policy, stability), proactive education policy (especially for younger generations) and efficient and accessible public transport (mobility, accessibility, reduced environmental pollution). Moreover, it acknowledges the need for a practical tool to put into practice the general objectives and recommendations of the Leipzig Charter. To this end, the Reference Framework for Sustainable Cities (RFSC) has been developed, a web-based tool launched by the European Commission to encourage European cities to cooperate and apply the integrated approach in urban development planning, and to evaluate their own strategies, programs and projects, compare them with other cities and thus exchange experiences and improve their knowledge and skills.
Furthermore, in 2008, the European Commission launched the Covenant of Mayors initiative, which aims to connect energy-conscious European cities into a network, fostering a continuous exchange of experiences. With the adoption of the related Agreement, the mayors committed to drafting a Sustainable Energy Action Plan (SEAP) within two years (in 2015, the Covenant of Mayors turned Sustainable Energy Action Plans (SEAPs) into Sustainable Energy and Climate Action Plans (SECAPs)). SEAP is a fundamental document that identifies the actual state, based on the collected data on the existing situation, and provides precise and clear determinants for the implementation of projects, the application of energy efficiency measures and the use of renewable energy sources and environmentally friendly fuels at the city level, which will result in a reduction in CO2 emissions by more than 20% by 2020, or by 40% by 2030.
In the Cities of Tomorrow report (Cities of Tomorrow—Challenges, visions, ways forward, 2011), the European Commission presented the European model of urban development and the challenges, visions and projections of the future development of cities responsible for achieving sustainable development of the EU. Emphasizing that the European model of sustainable urban development is at risk (demographic changes, lack of continuous economic development and job creation, increased levels of unemployment and poverty, rise of social and spatial segregation, etc.), the report proposes possibilities of transforming threats into positive challenges through the adoption of new forms of governance, namely, a holistic model of sustainable urban development.
The Rio + 20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 2012, resulted in the adoption of a document entitled The Future We Want, which indicates the importance of participation of all actors in decision making, planning and implementation of policies and programs for sustainable development at all levels.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development of 2015 sets out seventeen Sustainable Development Goals calling for action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure peace and prosperity. The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (2015), where the Agenda 2030 was adopted, was almost entirely unnoticed in Croatia. Neither the media, the appropriate state administrative organizations or the office of the then-president, who led the Croatian delegation at the meeting, adequately informed the Croatian public about the process of final consideration and agreement, which resulted in the adoption of the new seventeen SDGs [33]. The defined Sustainable Development Goals are universal, complementary and represent an era of shared responsibility for humanity in addressing key systemic barriers to sustainable development through a clear framework for shaping transformative recovery [34]. National authorities, both regional and local, play an equally important role in this process, so it is not surprising that one of the goals is aimed precisely at cities as drivers of development, which must focus all their efforts to achieve inclusiveness, security and resilience that permeate all dimensions of sustainable development (ecological, economic, cultural, management and social). Goal 11 explicitly states that strengthening national and regional development planning should support positive economic, social, and environmental links between urban, peri-urban and rural areas. Additionally, cities should implement integrated policies and plans regarding inclusion, resource efficiency, mitigation and adaptation to climate change and resilience to natural disasters. Modern cities define different development missions (smart/resilient/circular/sustainable/green/digital/low-carbon cities) and, despite the differences in focus, their common starting point is meeting the seventeen global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In the same year, a number of relevant events followed: an action plan to limit global warming, the Paris Agreement, was reached, entering into force in 2016, and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 was adopted, as well as the Addis Ababa Action Agenda at the Third International Conference on Financing for Development. Furthermore, the Habitat III United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development held in Quito in October 2016 featured the adoption of the New Urban Agenda [35]. In accordance with Resolution 66/207 and the two-decade cycle (1976, 1996 and 2016), the General Assembly wanted this conference to raise awareness of the global commitment to sustainable urbanization and set Gold Global Standards for sustainable development [34]. The New Agenda addressed the challenges of planning and governing cities and villages with a view to fulfilling their core role as drivers of sustainable development and further reflected on how they can implement the new global development goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change. By formulating policies, plans and programs at the local, national, regional and international levels, the New Urban Agenda considers the role of sustainable urbanization as a driver of sustainable integrated development and urban–rural connectivity, as well as the interdependence of social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development in promoting stable, prosperous and inclusive communities [34]. All governance levels and civil society willing to participate in open, inclusive, multilevel, participatory and transparent monitoring are invited to track the implementation progress of the Agenda. Until that point, Habitat conferences held the status of being the most progressive within the UN system when it comes to civil society engagement. However, civil society representatives were overlooked in Quito, as evidenced by the rejection of two of their proposals; the first for the introduction of a multi-actor panel on sustainable urbanization that would provide an institutional mechanism to promote their ideas and proposals, and the second for the proclamation of the UN International Decade of Sustainable Urbanization, which would raise broader awareness of the topic.
The Urban Agenda for the EU—Pact of Amsterdam [36] is of great importance for the achievement of the EU’s strategic objectives, and its implementation largely depends on the active involvement and cooperation of urban authorities with the local community, civil society, the private sector and academia in order to improve the legislative framework so as to achieve the objectives at a minimum cost, i.e., more accessible funding through EU funds through simplification and better coordination, the creation of a database on urban issues and the exchange of successful experiences through networked information sharing. It points out that in order to achieve the full potential of urban areas, it is necessary to improve policy complementarity through the involvement of all levels of government, ensuring coordination and effective interaction between different sectors, while respecting the principles of subsidiarity and the competencies of each level. The Urban Agenda stresses how a balanced, sustainable and integrated approach to urban challenges must be in line with the previously mentioned Leipzig Charter on Sustainable Cities, the Territorial Agenda 2020 [37], the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the global Habitat III New Urban Agenda. This approach also implies that achieving good urban governance requires the representation of economic, environmental, social, territorial and cultural aspects of development. The priority themes and issues of common interest of the Urban Agenda are in line with the priorities of the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth: inclusion of migrants and refugees, air quality, urban poverty, housing, circular economy, jobs and skills in the local economy, climate adaptation (including green infrastructure solutions), energy transition, sustainable land use and nature-based solutions, urban mobility, digital transition and innovative and responsible public procurement.
Given the lack of a single European urban policy, the presentation of relevant international documents indicates a growing recognition of the role cities play in achieving sustainability in the EU, which is supported by a series of official documents, Acquis Urbain (the Bristol Accord (2005), the Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities (2007), the Marseille Declaration [38], the Toledo Declaration (2010), the Territorial Agenda (2011), Cities of Tomorrow—Challenges, Visions, Ways Forward (2011), Riga Declaration—Towards an EU Urban Agenda (2015), the Pact of Amsterdam (Urban Agenda, 2016), New Charter, or the revised Leipzig Charter (2020), Ljubljana Agreement (2021), etc.), used for developing a European system aimed at strengthening the integrated approach to urban development. The intention behind the overview of the development of the sustainable development concept in the context of the integrated approach in international documents was to point to their strong interdependence, followed by an expanded and holistic understanding of the concept of sustainable development that considers all its fundamental dimensions equitably, and the last but most important aspect was the exponential advocacy of the necessity of applying the integrated approach to development, fostered by the processes of decentralization and Europeanization that empower European cities to implement the integrated approach.

2. Materials and Methods: Overview of the Application of the Integrated Approach through the Review of the Relevant Normative Framework of the City of Zagreb

Document analysis acted as a normative basis for providing answers to the research question: Are there elements of the integrated governance approach in the City of Zagreb, and is the interdependence of the two concepts acknowledged within the normative framework? The author analyzed document texts on the basis of the logic of analyzing qualitative data through five phases (data preparation; initial data research; data analysis; presentation and exposition of data; confirmation of data) that Denscombe [39] took over from Creswell and Piano Clarke [40]. The selected approach to analysis was thematic, which implies the categorization of data into certain topics that are closely related to research issues [41]. The data analysis procedure consisted of data coding, grouping data into categories/topics, topic comparisons and searching for concepts that outline the category/topics. Sub-topics are determined within the identified topics to provide a more precise research structure. The topics are then organized in a coherent and internally consistent manner with an accompanying narrative, enabling research findings that are interpreted considering the research questions and literature review [41]. The first topic, “integrated governance”, is divided into several sub-topics: conceptual understanding, potential for integrated governance, and obstacles to integrated governance. The topic “participation of informal actors” is divided into several sub-topics: conceptual understanding, methods of participation, and obstacles to implementing participation. The analysis of the normative framework (Table 1, below) included the following publicly available documents: the Act on Regional Development of the Republic of Croatia [42]; the Act on Local and Regional Self-Government [43]; the Act on the City of Zagreb [44]; the Statute of the City of Zagreb [45]; the Development Strategy of the City of Zagreb [46]; the Development Strategy of the Zagreb Urban Agglomeration [47].
These six documents were selected for analysis as they represent basic legal acts and planning documents that regulate the principles of governance and the scope, powers and organization of the City of Zagreb, crucial for providing answers to the research question. It is necessary to point out that medium-term strategic planning acts must be harmonized with strategic planning acts of national importance, specifically the National Development Strategy up to 2030 and the previous Regional Development Strategy of the Republic of Croatia up to the end of 2020.

3. Results

3.1. Horizontal Cooperation

The presentation of the research results begins with the topic of horizontal cooperation (Table 2, below), which is interpreted based on the theory of public policy coordination. The interpretation incorporates the following successive levels of achieving coherence in the design of public policies, as developed by Peters [22]: negative coordination, positive coordination, policy integration and the development of strategies for government. According to Peters, the lowest level of coordination includes negative coordination, which indicates no overlap in the performance of tasks in the operation of public administration institutions and different public agencies. This form of coordination involves a minimal investment of political capital, and while it may improve service delivery, it is unlikely to change policy patterns significantly. The next level is positive coordination, which includes avoiding overlaps in the activities of different agencies and institutions and an explicit agreement on cooperation in service delivery, whereby the institutions (mainly at the bottom) coordinate the actual delivery of the program. The next level of policy integration is much more demanding, requiring different administrative bodies and agencies to cooperate to achieve common goals. Considering the organizations’ mutual differences and possible incompatibilities, it is necessary to establish a negotiation process to facilitate their rapprochement to have them act in an integrated manner. The final and most complex phase of coordination is the development of effective government strategies, which ensures cooperation in providing services and joint orientation towards set goals. It provides a clear picture of the policy sector’s future and the government’s role in that sector.
The analyzed documents contain indications of coordination between different actors. However, the documents do not highlight inter-sectoral cooperation or the importance of coordination for public policy making. The need for a more efficient governance system, i.e., a need for the necessary improvement of the existing governance model, has been recognized. Consequently, the analysis identifies the necessary steps needed to strengthen cooperation, such as new knowledge and skills or effective planning, the fulfillment of which is crucial for achieving the quality of urban governance. However, the lack of a normative framework for cooperation and the absence of a stronger articulation of the importance of coordination for public policy making indicates the lowest level of coordination—negative coordination [22]. The noted level of coordination includes a minimum investment of political capital and a low probability of a significant change in the policy pattern. It assumes the coordination of different governing bodies with no overlap of task performance. However, the articulated potential, development issues and priorities in improving the development management system in the relevant normative framework indicate the need to move towards a higher level of coherence in public policy design. According to Peters [22], such a shift, requiring an explicit agreement or consensus on joint effort and cooperation in the delivery of services (whereby institutions (mainly at the bottom) coordinate the actual execution of the program), pertains to positive coordination.

3.2. Integrated Urban Governance

Integrated governance seeks to establish horizontal and vertical coordinated actions and cooperation of formal and informal actors to create a synergistic effect through a holistic problem-solving approach [25,49,50]. Horizontal cooperation between sectoral policies and actors is heterogeneous and requires many different skills and knowledge [27]. This type of governance presupposes deconstructing the previous hierarchical relationships within the sectoral approach. It rests on the principles of reciprocity and interdependence [51], which direct the relationship between public administration and citizens towards a horizontal relationship. Table 3, below, provides an overview of the document analysis on the topic of integrated urban governance.
It is not possible to detect any commitment to this governance approach. Although the reviewed documents show certain potential for implementing integrated governance, the overall participation of civil actors, economic actors and experts and the coordination and cooperation within and between sectors are still insufficient. The reasons for such a state of affairs are derived from the internal structure and a legal framework that provides a limited policy integration option. Regarding the ITI, Puljiz [52] points out that the establishment of the ITI mechanism in eight Croatian urban areas was a very demanding and long-lasting process. According to the same author, one of the main reasons for such a state of affairs is the limited experience in the establishment of the ITI mechanism as well as the use of ESI funds. Puljiz [52] states that the significance of financing through the ITI mechanism for total capital investments in the area of Zagreb is relatively limited due to the fact the total amount available for capital investments through the ITI mechanism for the entire period of 2014–2020 is only slightly higher than the average level of annual capital investments available in the city budget in the period preceding the ITI mechanism financing.

3.3. Participation

The main characteristic of integrated urban governance is the active involvement of different actors in creating urban policies, considering that society’s needs represent the critical focus point [19]. Therefore, document analysis focused on conceptualizing participation methods and obstacles to implementing participation. The typology of levels of participation arranged according to the ladder model represents a continuum of eight levels of participation (Figure 2), from one extreme, non-participation, to the other extreme, tokenism and civil control, where each new level indicates a greater degree of power that a particular actor enjoys when compared with the outcome [53].
More concretely, through the typology of the level of participation modeled by Arnstein [53], the document analysis suggests the interaction between informal and formal actors (derived from the analyzed documents, Table 4, below) can be placed at which of the eight levels of participation spectrum.
The promotion of cooperation between different stakeholders in development processes underlines, inter alia, the role of citizens acting through civil society organizations and other informal actors. The citizens are recognized within the basic legal framework for development policies as an integral part of the stakeholders that anticipate, prepare and implement development policies. This formal recognition also highlights the role of participation as an indisputable and indivisible process within development policies implemented at the international, national, regional and local levels. Such broadly defined activities in key strategic documents enable different interpretations of possible levels of participation that can range from the level of tokenism (e.g., participation in public debates) to the category of civic power (e.g., assuming a part of public affairs). The latter category presupposes high-intensity participation of actors in decision making and outcome control outcomes [53]. The Statute of the City of Zagreb makes a terminological step forward compared to the Act on Local and Regional Self-Government. It allows for a more direct influence of citizens on governance itself. The Act on Local and Regional Self-Government also regulates the issue of local self-government, which, according to legal terminology, also falls under the category of direct participation of citizens in decision making. As a participatory method, strategic planning recognizes the importance of regulating consultation with the interested public and cooperation with associations. The absence of a normative framework for consultation with the interested public in the procedures for making city-related decisions and strategic documents is perhaps one of the most significant obstacles to implementing participation. Additionally, the strategic development and legal documents do not incorporate relevant standards of good governance such as responsiveness, transparency, ethical behavior and openness. The 2020 Development Strategy of the City of Zagreb is also somewhat deviating from practice, wherein, as part of the priorities of improving and promoting human rights and civil society development, one of the measures directly calls for developing partnerships with the civil sector.
In conclusion, the normative framework and strategic documents emphasize the possibility of citizens participating in decisions of importance for their environment, which represents an intrinsic capacity of citizens to create or participate in determining the elementary settings that form a community of citizens in a particular area. This enables citizens to be recognized as objects of regulation and subjective stakeholders in forming and functioning local units. However, based on the listed participatory methods covered by the normative framework and strategic documents, we can conclude that one-way methods of participation are dominant, and two-way methods of participation, which presuppose high-level participation such as participatory budgeting, working groups or focus groups, interactive online platforms, etc., are scarce in most cases. According to Musa and Dobrić Jambrović [55], one of the reasons why participatory methods are not fully flourishing lies in the “general spirit of the basic regulation, the Act on Local and Regional Self-Government, which is not imbued with the spirit of participation as a fundamental principle of government functioning in local units”.

4. Discussion

As elaborated in the paper, the concept of sustainable development has often been criticized for its shortcomings, but at the same time, it has been abused and used as a front for unsustainable solutions, which has opened it to further questioning. It is, therefore, necessary to rethink and redefine the concept of sustainable development so that the values and objectives it promotes have amenity value.
Citizens, families and micro-communities represent the nucleus of society, so any considerations on ensuring social, economic, cultural and environmental sustainability cannot be achieved unless a systematic approach to involving citizens in policy processes is established. Such a systematic approach within the governance structure represents a shift away from retaining exclusivity and a hierarchical approach, towards a horizontal, network-based approach and fostering inclusivity. If the city is governed not solely for profit, but for the sake of its citizens and achieving fairness, then much more space is created for the application of various participatory methods with the aim of stronger involvement of citizens in sustainability-based policy processes. The doctrine of good governance, as an indispensable element of transformative urban change, is essentially a rectifier of injustice and inequality. Furthermore, the future of urban development needs to be based on a paradigm that will make a clear shift away from focusing solely on exponential economic growth and thinking that high-tech systems are the only solution. Considering all the benefits they offer, they should be seen as a tool (not a solution!) for achieving a better quality of life in cities. Cities represent the intersection of multi-scalar processes (national/regional/city/local/micro-local (neighborhood) level) that, in addition to being based on the neoliberal capital accumulation paradigm, are also based on the socio-political effort towards achieving justice [2], so it is necessary to accelerate the process of green, inclusive, energy and other types of urban transformation. In conclusion, each concept/model/approach has its pros and cons, just like the concept of sustainable development and the integrated approach to urban governance; therefore, they should not be seen as a cure-all for solving global crises and threats, but should be considered and paired holistically with other concepts that can further contribute to increasing their added value. Achieving balanced sustainability, while respecting all dimensions of the concept equally, is not only a challenge, but can sometimes be a determining factor, whereby applying an integrated governance approach based on public policy synergies and horizontal and vertical cooperation enables a large number of obstacles in the process to be overcome.
The research results point to the need for further development of coordination and communication mechanisms within and between city administrative bodies, which marks a step towards achieving coherence in the design of public policies. The above leads to the conclusion that the documents envisage coordination that implies reaching an agreement or consensus between different bodies through joint work (i.e., achieving positive coordination). The latter includes avoiding overlaps in work and an explicit agreement on cooperation in the delivery of services, whereby institutions (mainly at the bottom) coordinate the actual delivery of the program [22].
Strategic development and legal documents do not explicitly state a commitment to applying the integrated urban governance model. Still, the necessity of strengthening the horizontal and vertical coordination of activities of common interest is well recognized, and, in line with Peters [22], it shows a formal commitment to positive coordination.
The possibilities of implementing integrated urban governance in strategic, development and legal documents are primarily recognized by a certain critical mass of citizens who think in a participatory manner and participate in the work of civil society organizations. Therefore, it is necessary to strengthen the mechanisms of civil society representatives’ involvement in city-related decision making, strategic document preparation, and the creation of a strategic document for cooperation with civil society associations. However, when it comes to barriers to integrated governance in the example of the City of Zagreb, a whole series of obstacles identified in the review literature [50] have been recognized. The commonly identified obstacles include limited legal framework, failure to recognize a need for integrated urban governance, the absence of a broader understanding of integrated urban governance, a lack of recognition of its benefits, the absence of an explicit commitment to the application of an integrated model of urban governance, etc.
Considering the critical element of integrated governance—participation—the analysis points to a notable absence of a normative framework regulating public consultations in the city decision-making procedures and strategic document preparation. The noted absence represents a significant obstacle to implementing participation and can lead to different interpretations of the level of participation. The interpretations can range from the tokenism category, i.e., the dominant role of the decision maker (which includes levels of information, consultation, and appeasement), all the way to the category of civil power, dominated by a high intensity of actor participation in decision making and outcome control [53].
In the Croatian context, the governance of urban areas, the interdependence and complementarity of a multidimensional concept of sustainable development and the integrated approach to urban governance have not been sufficiently researched. The results of this research partially contribute to raising awareness of the importance of this topic and the need for further elaboration. A holistic approach would undoubtedly contribute to the noted goal, offering an in-depth analysis of all elements of integrated urban governance (horizontal integration of sectoral policies and the different actors involved, vertical integration of different levels of governance, integration beyond administrative boundaries) by using multiple data sources, such as triangulation. Therefore, cities such as Zagreb require a transformative step forward in achieving urban sustainability, largely depending on the form of public governance and decision making, which further emphasizes the need for a holistic approach such as integrated urban governance, which is the basis for finding sustainable solutions to many socio-economic, climate and environmental crises.


This research received no external funding.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Informed Consent Statement

Not applicable.

Data Availability Statement

No new data were created.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


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Figure 1. Dimensions of sustainable development. Source: Author.
Figure 1. Dimensions of sustainable development. Source: Author.
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Figure 2. Eight rungs on the ladder of citizen participation. Source: [53].
Figure 2. Eight rungs on the ladder of citizen participation. Source: [53].
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Table 1. Normative framework.
Table 1. Normative framework.
Act on Regional Development of the Republic of Croatia (ZRR) is a fundamental legal act regulating the goals and principles of regional development management. ZRR (Art. 11) encompasses, under regional development policy-planning documents (which are adopted for a period of seven years), the Regional Development Strategy of the Republic of Croatia [48], the Development Strategy of the City of Zagreb for the period up to 2020 (that is, the county development strategy) and the Development Strategy of Urban Agglomeration.
Act on Local and Regional Self-Government is a legal act regulating local and regional self-government units, their scope and organization and the functioning and supervision of their bodies and activities.
Act on the City of Zagreb is a fundamental legal act regulating the scope, competence, organization and other relevant issues concerning the City of Zagreb administration. For all other issues not regulated by the Act on the City of Zagreb, the general provisions of the Act on Local and regional self-government apply. The Statute of the City of Zagreb (regulates in detail all relevant issues established by the Act on the City of Zagreb and the Act on Local and Regional Self-Government.
The Statute of the City of Zagreb regulates, among other things (Article 3), the self-governing scope of the City of Zagreb, the organization and competence of city bodies and their functioning, the organization of the city’s administrative bodies, the organization of public services, local self-government, cooperation with other units and direct citizens’ decision-making methods.
The Development Strategy of the City of Zagreb for the period up to 2020 represents the primary strategic document for the regional development policy (goals and priorities) of the City of Zagreb and the basic framework for all project initiatives and proposals regarding the city’s development.
The Development Strategy of the Zagreb Urban Agglomeration is a primary strategic document (Article 15 of the Regional Development Act) that determines a specific urban area’s development priorities and goals. In the case of the City of Zagreb, the Regional Development Act establishes the Urban Agglomeration of Zagreb, whereby the City of Zagreb is appointed as the holder of the strategy. The Development Strategy of the Urban Agglomeration of Zagreb for the period up to 2020 was adopted in 2017.
Table 2. Horizontal cooperation.
Table 2. Horizontal cooperation.
Indications of coordination between different actors.
Deputy Mayor
City Department Heads
President of the City Assembly
President of the Council of City Districts
President of the Council of Local Committees
President of the Council of City Districts
Statute of the City of Zagreb (Art. 91 and 104) refers to coordination (coordination body and its activities) at the city level (more specifically, at the level of city districts and local committees).
Statute of the City of Zagreb does not establish a sector-specific coordination body within the governance structure.
Coordination is in no way indicated as relevant to public policy making.
2020 Development Strategy of the City of Zagreb [46] points to a developmental issue regarding governance and coordination of administrative bodies by pointing to “(…) insufficiently developed mechanisms for communication and coordination of work within and between administrative bodies.”
An insufficient normative framework for cooperation.
2020 Development Strategy of the City of Zagreb [46]: points to a need for more efficient implementation of the human resources management plan (“Improving and promoting human rights and civil society development; Improving knowledge of skills for development management; Effective governance of the city area and city property; Improving the work of city administration, institutions, and public enterprises”).
The doctrine of good governance is detected in the following.
The statute of the City of Zagreb (Art. 125) primarily discerns accountability and transparency.
2020 Development Strategy of the City of Zagreb [46]: “(…) within the framework of the continuous aspirations to improve and ensure professional, effective, efficient and user-oriented city administration, whose actions are aimed at achieving the highest standards of efficiency, economy, professionalism, and transparent action, certain Instruments have been established to achieve said aspirations” (the instruments used to improve the city administration are business process management, risk management and internal audit and control).
Development management system potential.
2020 Development Strategy of the City of Zagreb [46]: “(…) the financial strength of the city/budget, the development and number of civil society associations and organisations as stakeholders in the development and the stability and education of the city administration staff.”
Cooperation of informal actors.
2020 Development Strategy of the City of Zagreb [46] points out the following development problem: “(…) insufficient cooperation of entrepreneurs, especially small and medium-sized ones, with universities and scientific research institutions.”
Table 3. Integrated urban governance.
Table 3. Integrated urban governance.
No indication of integrated governance as a recognized approach to public governance
Statute of the City of Zagreb and 2020 Development Strategy of the City of Zagreb
Integrated Territorial Investment Mechanism (ITI).
2020 Development Strategy of the City of Zagreb [46] mentions ITI in the context of the which was introduced as an EU mechanism “(…) to strengthen the role of cities as drivers of economic development”.
Potential for integrated governance.
Regional Development Act (Art. 5) acknowledges the need to develop citizen participation and strengthen civil society organizations by achieving more effective cooperation “(…) between state administration bodies, economic operators, the scientific community, social partners and civil society organisations.”
Table 4. Participation.
Table 4. Participation.
Role of civil society.
2020 Development Strategy of the City of Zagreb [46] states that the civil sector has become “(…) a significant actor and supporter of the introduction of positive social changes and values…”
2020 Development Strategy of the City of Zagreb [46] states that civil society organizations are recognized as significant actors in the “(…) development of city policies, which are able to clearly express the needs, requirements, and expectations of the social group whose interests they represent.”
Cooperation between informal actors.
Regional Development Act of the Republic of Croatia (Art. 5) states that the regional development policy is based on “(…) partnership and cooperation between the public, private and civil sectors, which includes cooperation between state administration bodies, regional self-government units, local self-government units, economic operators, the scientific community, social partners and civil society organisations.”
Participatory methods.
List of participatory methods [54]: focus groups, citizen committees, workshops, social networks and online platforms, consultation documents, forums and meetings, citizen protests, providing information (media, leaflet, brochure, posters, etc.), referendum, strategic planning, participatory budgeting.
Act on Local and Regional Self-Government (Art. 24) presumes participation through “(…) referendum and local assembly of citizens, in accordance with the act and the statute of the local and regional self-government unit.”
Statute of the City of Zagreb (Art. 169) enables another method of participation: “The bodies of the City of Zagreb are required to inform the public about the performance of tasks within their scope and to report on their work through means of public communication or in another appropriate manner.”
Statute of the City of Zagreb (Art. 139) expands the list of participatory methods to include a “(…) local referendum, advisory referendum, local citizens’ assemblies, petitions, proposals and complaints made by citizens.”
2020 Development Strategy of the City of Zagreb ([46] mentions strategic planning as a participatory method within the development needs by highlighting a “(…) lack of a normative framework for consultation with the interested public in the city decision-making procedures and strategic documents,” and a “(…) lack of a city strategic document for cooperation with associations.”
Act on Local and Regional Self-Government (Art. 26) states that the bodies of local and regional self-government units are required to “(…) enable citizens and legal entities to submit applications and complaints regarding work, as well as the work of their administrative bodies, and any improper attitude of employees of these bodies when citizens and legal entities contact them for the purpose of exercising their rights and interests or performing their civic duties.”
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Keser, I. Interdependence and Complementarity of a Multi-Dimensional Concept of Sustainable Development and the Integrated Approach to Urban Governance—Case Study City of Zagreb. Sustainability 2023, 15, 9213.

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Keser I. Interdependence and Complementarity of a Multi-Dimensional Concept of Sustainable Development and the Integrated Approach to Urban Governance—Case Study City of Zagreb. Sustainability. 2023; 15(12):9213.

Chicago/Turabian Style

Keser, Ivana. 2023. "Interdependence and Complementarity of a Multi-Dimensional Concept of Sustainable Development and the Integrated Approach to Urban Governance—Case Study City of Zagreb" Sustainability 15, no. 12: 9213.

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