Description of mapping themes

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Our focus is on approaches, including interventions, actions, strategies, solutions or policies which address (urban) sustainability and/or justice. Below we describe the main mapping themes. This is based on our mapping guidelines.


The notion of sustainability is a typical ‘essentially contested notion’, a concept which “inevitably involves endless disputes about their proper uses on the part of their users”, and “to engage in such disputes is itself to engage in politics” (Lukes [1974] 2002:45). We propose to approach sustainable development as a concept that is intrinsically complex, normative, subjective, and ambiguous (Kasemir et al. 2003, Rotmans 2005). Even though there is no agreed upon definition of sustainability, there are still some basic features that characterize the concept; it is an intergenerational phenomenon, it operates at multiple scale levels, and it covers social-cultural, economic, and ecological dimensions. The sustainability debate revolves around “an attempt to combine growing concerns about a range of environmental issues with socio-economic issues” (Hopwood et al. 2005). Likewise, in the UrbanA mapping we aim to include a diverse set of projects and approaches that address ecological, socio-economic and/or other social justice issues. Such issues can be related to different functional domains, such as the energy system, the mobility system, the housing system, the food system and urban ecosystems, but can also be of a more holistic and intersectional nature.


Sustainable urban development is not about being colour-blind, class-blind or gender-blind when evaluating projects or approaches, but rather about paying particular attention to (a) processes of exclusion of ethnic minorities, people with lower-incomes (and/or in poverty), elderly people and female residents from the benefits of e.g. urban renewal projects or specific low-carbon initiatives (distributional justice). We also focus on identifying challenges to their ability (b) to participate in the design, creation, implementation, and management (participatory and procedural justice) of initiatives or solutions, and (c) to see their ethnic, racial, age, and gender needs, preferences, and uses included when urban (sustainable) projects or interventions are being planned, designed, implemented, and designed (that is interactional equity or justice as recognition).

We thus focus on exclusion in terms of, inter alias, ethnicity, race, income, age and gender (and the linkages across these categories, i.e. intersectionality) and the impact of exclusion on distributive justice (e.g. equitable distribution of material resources and services), procedural justice (e.g. participatory and democratic decision-making), and recognition justice (e.g. culturally inclusive practices). These types of exclusion and forms of justice are selected because they are central to applied and theoretical work on urban justice and the just city in the context of Western urbanization (cf. Agyeman et al. 2003, Fainstein 2019, Mohai et al. 2009, Shlosberg 2009, 2013, Anguelovski 2015, 2016).

Transformative potential and its paradoxes

In UrbanA we are particularly interested in approaches to just and sustainable cities that have an innovative and/or transformative potential. Here the distinction between ‘innovation’ and ‘transformative change’ is an important one. Although innovation (both technological and social) can be a very important (and sometimes necessary) condition to contribute to transformative change towards more just and sustainable cities, it does not necessarily do so. On the contrary, innovation can also be used to adapt and optimize existing urban structures, as such even hampering transformative change. This is why the transformative potential is particularly relevant, because without such a transformative dimension, approaches run the risk of reproducing or even aggravating the unsustainability and injustice that they meant to challenge in the first place. Building on transition theory and transformative social innovation research (Grin et al. 2010, Markard et al. 2012, Loorbach et al. 2017, Avelino et al. 2017, Haxeltine et al. 2017), we conceptualise innovation and transformative change as follows:

  • Innovations: ideas (narratives, rules, knowledge), objects (technology, natural resources, monetary resources) and/or actions (practices, routines) that engage in novel ways of doing, thinking and organising.
  • Transformative change: process of challenging, altering and/or replacing dominant structures, cultures and practices in a social context (in UrbanA, the urban context).

As such the transformative dimension is a gradual process characteristic of certain approaches: rather than aiming to evaluate whether approaches are inherently transformative or not, it is about exploring the extent to which they (can) challenge, alter and/or replace those dominant structures, cultures and practices in the urban context that are causing and reproducing unsustainability and injustice. Therein it is important to acknowledge the dialectic paradoxes and tensions of such processes of change. Even when approaches are challenging (some aspects of) problematic structures/cultures/practices, they can meanwhile also reproduce (other aspects of) these or other problematic structures/cultures/practices (Haxeltine et al. 2017). It has been argued that successful innovations are those that manage to navigate this paradoxical and dialectic confrontation with the existing system: on the one hand being able to translate innovative elements to the mainstream context, while at the same time holding on to the radical core of the innovation (Smith 2006, 2007). This paradox lies at the heart of the very concept of transformative change. In order for an innovative approach to have transformative impact, some form of diffusion, mainstreaming or institutionalisation must occur, and in that process, the innovation – by definition – loses some of its original innovativeness. While ‘co-optation’ or ‘capture’ are generally framed as undesirable in the context of innovation and change, it is important to remember that if innovation is to have a lasting transformative impact on its environment, it is actually meant to be captured at least to a certain degree, in some aspects, and by some parts of the surrounding system (Pel 2016).

We understand transformative potential in terms of the extent to which 'problematic power relations' (unequal, injust, oppressive, exclusive, etc.) are being challenged, altered, replaced.