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Discover 5 keys to make cities honest:

#ResearchAndInnovation - Justice is hardwired into research & innovation projects on urban sustainability

EU research agendas are steered to investigate how cities can achieve social and environmental sustainability in a just, inclusive and equitable way. Research stems from the concerns and needs of inhabitants in urban contexts and does not impose concepts, practices or blueprints. EU-funded projects aimed at improving urban planning in the field of sustainability have clear justice incentives, address the needs of vulnerable groups and include their voices in the research process, as well as its outcomes and impacts.

Related keys: #Participation #Knowledge #Solidarity

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What approaches can activate this key?

Research funding should encourage new research objectives, tools, and pathways to fully examine the extent to which historically marginalised groups are exposed to longstanding exclusion or inequality. Funding schemes should give space for exploring bolder pathways to just and sustainable cities, including alternative economic models, land arrangements or urban development strategies. Some of the approaches identified by UrbanA that could contribute to such a direction would be the broader embracement of citizen science in EU-supported research projects, and co-learning and knowledge brokerage processes.

What governance arrangements enable this key?

More interdisciplinary dialogue is needed if justice is to be given due consideration in policy and funding schemes. This requires a comprehensive vision of change that assists policy makers, municipal technicians, civil society organizations and other urban governance actors to draw links between different aspects and scales of sustainability policy -- from biophysical processes to issues of identity, culture and social justice.

Efforts to strengthen transdisciplinarity in urban sustainability research require work to acknowledge and involve non-academic actors as holders of vital expertise. But doing this crucial work opens up more opportunities to embody justice in the research process. In this sense, other supportive governance arrangements could include committing to meaningful participation processes and tapping into existing community networks.

What drivers of injustice does this key address?

It is often the case that projects of research and implementation on urban sustainability engage with the notion of justice only superficially or mechanistically, for example through loosely defined concepts such as ‘social cohesion,’ ‘diversity’ or ‘participation.’ Instead, justice needs to be understood and studied in its many facets: It has (among others) material, historical and symbolic dimensions. What is often falsely assumed in sustainability research is that justice will automatically trickle down from sustainability interventions into local contexts. But this fails to consider the ongoing effects of perpetuated exclusion and inequality. A problematic and limited engagement with the concept of participation in urban planning and sustainability projects can exacerbate, rather than alleviate inequalities.

Moreover, there is often a Lack of effective knowledge brokerage and stewardship opportunities; access to useful information and know-how produced by academics around sustainable urban interventions is not shared effectively or equally among social groups, sectors or disciplines. To overlook this gap constrains the potential for meaningful work towards sustainability and justice.

Extra insights from UrbanA Community

  • EU research and innovation focusing on the local level should better respond to inhabitants’ needs, rather than answering questions unrelated to their concerns.
  • Guidelines for funding should be co-designed with marginalised groups and/or marginalised groups’ representatives.

Inspirational example: Research supports intersectionality, Barcelona

In Barcelona, the City Council has initiated an effort to address the question of civil participation and intersectional inequities in urban planning by awarding a prize to research projects with a community and ecofeminist perspective.

In 2019, this award went to a project with the title “Network of climate and care shelters from a community and ecofeminist perspective,” which co-designs urban climate shelters in under-served neighborhoods, actively involving immigrant women residents. By recognizing the value of intersectional projects with a gender perspective and women acting as change-makers, Barcelona is exemplifying one way through which research can support sustainable and just urbanism. In Barcelona, this research is part of a wider effort to tackle the climate emergency – while leading with an ecofeminist focus.

A video that summarizes this initiative is available here.

Avenues for action

Use projects to promote transdisciplinary learning

  1. Recognise and use research and innovation projects (e.g. EU-funded ones) as opportunities to foster transdisciplinary learning and break silos across environmental, social, economic and political spheres.
  2. Build on pre-existing projects by taking stock and planning ways to keep using available project outputs.
  3. Remember to integrate a transdisciplinary approach in your communication by using non-discipline-specific language and accessible communication channels, for example. Provide possibilities for discussing the different perspectives to approach the topic of interest (e.g. joint events and publications).

Read more about the UrbanA team's work to map and analyse EU-funded projects relating to urban sustainability and injustice.

#Economy - The economy benefits people and the environment

The economy of a sustainable and just city focuses on the creation of social, cultural, ecological and other forms of value that benefit people from all walks of life. The inclusive and fair allocation of resources ensures an economy that works for the common good. Production and consumption are organised so as to minimise negative externalities, cultivate non-consumerist values and reduce unnecessary demand. City-makers challenge inherited neoliberal narratives that overemphasize GDP growth, and are open to post-growth and post-capitalist approaches. This openness facilitates experimentation with socially and environmentally innovative concepts such as regeneration, care, sharing and solidarity.

Related keys: #Regional #Solidarity #Finance


What approaches can activate this key?

Creating new urban economies that serve human needs requires alternative economic approaches and indicators that go beyond the current outsized focus on GDP growth. Research fields such as Degrowth show growth-based economics to be incompatible with sustainability, justice and economic democracy. Existing efforts to put this into practice include Transition initiatives, in which communities come together to remodel their local economies; ecovillages guided by a whole-systems approach that treats economic, ecological, social and cultural dimensions as interdependent; and numerous forms of urban commons. All such initiatives emphasise participation, inclusion and partnership as key foundations of a sustainable and just economy.

What governance arrangements enable this key?

Sustainable and just urban economies can only be built from the bottom up. This requires existing decision-makers to commit to a meaningful participation process. Such processes need to tap into existing community networks in order to draw on the needs, perspectives, knowledge and skills that already exist. Bridging different stakeholder groups brings diverse interests and perspectives into dialogue, recognising and addressing conflicts and perhaps identifying unexpected opportunities for collaboration. All these governance arrangements support the inclusive dialogue necessary to create a pluralistic economy; one rooted in sustainability and justice as core principles, rather than secondary concerns.

What drivers of injustice does this key address?

Alternative city economies based on sustainability and justice directly challenge the unquestioned focus on neoliberal growth and austerity urbanism: They do so by actively recognising that economic priorities should reflect the sustainable provision of human needs rather than uphold unequal and unsustainable systems and power structures. An inclusive urban economy can be an antidote to material and livelihood inequalities and racialised or ethnically exclusive urbanisation. It also simultaneously requires and strengthens civil society participation, and so can help address weakened civil society, in both the short and long term.

Extra insights from UrbanA Community

  • "What we need in order to address the world’s big problems is more than incremental change to the status quo: It will require nothing less than a radical disruption of economic dogma."

Inspirational example: Social Solidarity Economy, Barcelona

The social solidarity economy (SSE) in Barcelona draws on long-standing traditions of collaboration, mutual aid, commoning and cooperativism, and is an important force for economic transformation in the city and across Catalunya.

A 2016 study reported a total of 4,718 separate socio-economic initiatives dedicated to a more equitable and sustainable economy in the city, many of which are actively networked at neighbourhood, city and regional scales. Against a background of rising unemployment in the city, employment in workers’ cooperatives rose by more than half between 2009 and 2014. Support from Barcelona's municipal government has accelerated since the citizens' movement Barcelona En Comú came to power in 2015. A dedicated Impulse Plan includes targeted financial support for new SSE projects and pays particular attention to addressing structural inequalities. The city administration has also taken action against corporate dominance of key sectors such as water and housing, including efforts toward the remunicipalisation of energy services.

Avenues for action

Enable cross-economic dialogue and knowledge sharing

  1. Participate in, support and encourage dialogue between different, locally grounded businesses, community, and government actors which bring in alternative motivations and approaches to economic activities.
  2. Include a diversity of economic actors in your projects and institutional processes (e.g. discussing the local economic development strategies).
  3. Also include activists and other interest-groups who can challenge the dominant approaches on economic development and provide alternatives (e.g. green growth, blue growth, degrowth).

Align your activities with goals related to justice and sustainability

  1. Align your activities with initiatives that question GDP and economic profit as (the only) measures of value. When planning activities and objectives, consider other aspects of value, such as environmental and social metrics - care, regeneration, solidarity, etc.
  2. Support private sector opportunities, and private/public collaboration, in justice and sustainability (e.g. social innovations) by providing funding and suitable regulatory frameworks.
  3. Push for and adopt equitable and transparent taxation, income and employment models, which support both social justice and environmental sustainability (e.g. environmental taxes).
  4. Adopt and support innovative economic initiatives (e.g. community currencies, timebanking) which prioritise community-building and solidarity over economic profit.

Check out Beyond GDP indicators. And check out the Brixton Pound as an example of community currency.

#Power - Power dynamics are identified and dismantled for more equitable structures

In a sustainable and just city, harmful power relations are addressed for systematic and transformative change to take place. Power relations characterized by inequality, exclusion, exploitation and extractivism are acknowledged and questioned. People have the transformative capacity to challenge, alter and replace existing power relations. Transforming power is about dismantling existing structures and creating alternative practices while also being critical and transparent about new power dynamics that emerge.

Related keys: #Solidarity #Knowledge #Translocal


What approaches can activate this key?

Besides the approach of participatory budgeting mentioned below, transformative power can be exercised through approaches that focus on exercising “prefigurative power.” This takes the form of developing alternative ways of doing, thinking and organizing that are more fair and equitable, such as crowdsourcing, community gardens, co-working spaces, digital fabrication, cooperatives, urban commons and sharing initiatives. These approaches show that alternative ways of organizing are not only possible, but that they already exist and may help to make existing unsustainable and unjust structures obsolete. Other approaches are more explicitly focused on countervailing power, in other words, challenging and dismantling problematic power inequalities. This includes efforts such as the right to housing movement and civil disobedience initiatives. It is often the combination of different and intersectional approaches, and the strategic collaboration and complementarity between them, that can empower citizens to exercise transformative power.

What governance arrangements enable this key?

Governance, by definition, is inherently connected to power. All six governance arrangements identified by UrbanA can help to shift power relations, while at the same time, also involve new problematic power dynamics. The three most important governance arrangement for enabling transformative power are: Build bridges between separate stakeholder groups, Develop resilient and self-sufficient financing arrangements, and Commit to a meaningful participation process.

What drivers of injustice does this key address?

Injustice ultimately manifests in terms of power relations, meaning that the issue of power is inherent to the concept of injustice. Limited citizen participation in urban planning and Weakened civil society, for instance, are related to unequal power relations between citizens and civil society actors on the one hand, and policy-makers and commercial parties on the other hand. Many drivers of injustice, like exclusive access to the benefits of sustainability infrastructure, material and livelihood inequalities, racialized or ethnically exclusionary urbanization, uneven and exclusionary urban intensification and regeneration as well as uneven environmental health and pollution patterns, result from a structural and historical legacy of power asymmetries. This manifests across class, ethnicity, gender and generation. All drivers of injustice require us to recognize uneven power relations and make a commitment to changing those power relations.

Extra insights from UrbanA Community

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Inspirational example: Participatory budgeting to re-distribute power, Amsterdam

Participatory budgeting is a democratic process in which community members decide how to spend part of a public budget. It has the potential to “give people real power over real money” and provide opportunities for experimentation in cities around the world.

In Amsterdam (The Netherlands), for instance, Participatory Budgeting is implemented in the Indische Buurt neighbourhood. The City and a citizens’ initiative collaborated to make the municipal budget more transparent, the municipality more accountable and the public budget better aligned with the needs and ideas of residents. Participatory budgeting has the potential to challenge existing power between residents and local governments by empowering residents to (1) hold the municipality accountable for expenditures, while also (2) influencing how their neighbourhood is developed. In this way, participatory budgeting has the potential to shift decision-making power for municipal budget allocation, engaging hitherto neglected residents in this process. There is also mutual learning as residents understand more about the budget and budgeting process, and municipalities learn more about residents' concerns and issues.

Avenues for action

Institutionalise critical reflections on power

  1. Build in processes for consistent, critical reflection on power at the level of groups and organisations by bringing the analysis of power dynamics and tools for distributing power more equally in decision-making and planning processes.
  2. Conduct power audits and transparency reports, start a position for equity (e.g. gender equality officer, diversity officer) with appropriate funding, organise training activities around topics related to power (e.g. race, class, gender) and provide safe spaces for uncomfortable discussions about pre-existing and newly emerging injustices.

Learn more about Gender budgeting for mainstreaming gender in budgetary processes here.

Make power imbalances visible and talk about them

  1. Visualise how people’s actions are changing the power dynamics in the organisation, community, and so forth. For example, power charts could be a useful resource for groups organising for change to target the actions and monitor their impact.
  2. Organise “Power Literacy Labs” to empower people to discuss concepts of power in an accessible language and overcome issues of injustice. The labs can be arranged in diverse locations as pop-ups across the city.

Get inspired by the Power Literacy Lab, as discussed in the fourth Urban Arena Event.

#Technology - Digital tools can serve everyone

In sustainable and just cities, digital technologies contribute first and foremost to environmental sustainability and human wellbeing. They provide the means of including people in deliberative and participatory decision-making processes, and support the adoption of sustainable consumption and production practices. Ethical artificial intelligence, open data and open source tools and standards can all support digitalization for sustainable and just cities.

Related keys: #Finance #Accessibility #Power


What approaches can activate this key?

Around the world, experimentation labs, employed as an approach to sustainable and just cities, are giving more and more people the opportunity to use and own digital devices. Fab Labs, for instance, are making digital fabrication accessible to all. In the digital sphere, although the use of data on the internet is often contested, ethical data collection can boost sustainability and social justice. The internet has also allowed small-scale and community initiatives for sustainability and justice to get started, thanks to funding generated by and collected via crowdsourcing.

What governance arrangements enable this key?

Digital technologies strongly rely on the production and consumption of services and products. For this reason, to put ‘digital tools at everyone’s service’ we need resilient and self-sufficient financing arrangements.

What drivers of injustice does this key address?

Making digital technology accessible to everyone directly addresses the injustice around material and livelihood inequality, according to which economic resources in the context of sustainability are distributed unequally. This has been addressed in the context of Smart Cities, where sustainability is pursued through digital technologies which are often too expensive and only present in the richer areas of cities. This links to injustices in access to effective knowledge to operate certain technology and digital tools, thereby constraining the potential for forward movement on sustainability and justice.

Extra insights from UrbanA Community

  • Tech tools in the hands of citizens can be a gamechanger, as a way to reduce costs, enhance productivity, making repetitive tasks a breeze, prototypes in a blink of an eye.” (Rafel Caledo)
  • Green technology and digitalisation will help the ecological transition but should not be seen as the only solution to the ecological crisis
  • Although technological tools contribute to make cities just and sustainable, we need to stay critical about how these tools were built, with what kind of labour, and what kind of material (working conditions, rare material, impact of extractivism, disposal circle…)

Inspirational example: Alba Iulia’s strategic approach to Smart Cities, Alba Iulia (Romania)

The historical city of Alba Iulia is Romania’s forerunner in using ICT-technology and data to tackle challenges of social, economic and environmental sustainability.

The city started to implement their Smart City strategy in 2018 and the initiative has provided leverage for the advancement of diverse intelligent innovations. The numerous smart city projects include intelligent public lighting systems, car sharing, sensor networks, e-health solutions, e-governance and a wide network of free and secured Wi-Fi. The accessible internet has also supported the digitalization of government services and dialogue between the city and its citizens, who can now receive information about the city and report issues using the SmartAlert application.

Avenues for action

Support digital literacy

  1. Provide training for citizens in digital skills. Recognise the power and skills of civil society and employ Citizen Coaches to train people in their own community.
  2. Be mindful about digital inequality by providing technical support, alternative and complementary participation methods, and by providing (shared) ICT-devices.
  3. Engage with critiques of “smart city” narratives and advocate for technological approaches which are publicly accessible and accountable, and do not concentrate power and data in the hands of a few private companies.
  4. Learn about digital fabrication and FabLabs as a form of empowering community good.

See Simbioza Lab as an example of an initiative supporting senior citizens in adopting new technologies by providing training and supporting in accessing job opportunitites. Read about the popular movement in Madrid, pushing for a "non-neo-liberal smart city", centred around openness, democratic participation and a clear policy that data generated from public services remains publicly owned. FabLab Lisboa serves as a truly inclusive community centre built around the sharing of knowledge to reduce waste and bringing production back into cities.

Provide platforms for citizen-led initiatives

  1. Develop and maintain open digital platforms that support citizen-led initiatives and allow them to promote and discover projects and network with other actors.
  2. Support citizen-led initiatives by making practical advice and resources for implementation easily accessible.
  3. Recognise the value of such platforms as forms of 21st Century commons - a feature of conscious activism to promote sustainability and social justice, and help envision alternatives to state and market systems.

See Decidim Barcelona as an example of a digital citizen engagement platform.

#Responsibility - City-makers take responsibility and are held accountable

In creating sustainable and just cities, everyone has a role to play, as well as the responsibility to speak out and act upon current injustices and unsustainable practices, even if individual actions must ultimately be connected to systemic efforts. As such, responsibility is shared by all actors – to the best of their varying capabilities – in a city and beyond its boundaries. Local authorities recognise the significant contribution that community-led initiatives make to achieving the city’s sustainability and justice goals, without co-opting them. Local authorities also protect all citizens from exposure to pollution and climate risks. They recognize citizens’ claims of harm and assist victims of pollution. In short, in the quest for a sustainable and just city, city-makers are aware of and are committed to their responsibilities, while keeping an eye to broader systems change.

Related keys: #Power #Solidarity #Knowledge


What approaches can activate this key?

Shared responsibility can be stimulated by governance and participation processes to search for similar needs, interests and goals across different stakeholders in the city. In such processes co-learning and knowledge brokerage in public settings are central in making responsibilities explicit and improving accountability. Sharing initiatives and cooperatives for urban commons can encourage a sense of collective responsibility for certain urban resources and facilities. Financial practices and instruments can be used to stimulate -- or even force -- certain actors to take responsibility for unjust and/or unsustainable practices in cities.

What governance arrangements enable this key?

Creating a comprehensive vision of sustainable and just change in a city can entice different stakeholders to take (more) responsibility for certain challenges and public resources. Intermediaries can play a crucial role in this; for example, building bridges between separate stakeholder groups and finding common ground in achieving a more just and sustainable city.

What drivers of injustice does this key address?

Unfit institutional structures can hamper the distribution of responsibilities as well as accountability for past, current and future missteps. Poorly coordinated policy and ineffective decision making can be seen as a result of avoiding responsibility. Also, a weak(ened) civil society can be seen as a threat to a more balanced playing field, in terms of power relations between informal and formal, public and private, and profit and non-profit actors. This level playing field can be further eroded by a lack of effective knowledge brokerage and stewardship opportunities between such actors in confronting urban sustainability challenges.

Extra insights from UrbanA Community

  • “To say you believe and not act is hypocritical. Believing in peace requires our personal hands-on responsibility for the peace of our very surroundings.”
  • “Responsibility is a key factor to make possible an effective fight against climate change and its effects in urban settlements.”
  • “We need, all together, to develop a common language and to practice multidisciplinarity. This would be a remarkable responsibility from my point of view.”
  • “I think that talking about responsibility is key for achieving a sustainable and just city, my concern would be connected to the boundaries of the action. A responsible action for your city can lead to unsustainable situations somewhere else (promoting green-washing and rebound effects outside the city) and that should raise some warnings.”

Inspirational example: Peace Garden, Wuppertal, Germany

The Peace Garden Wuppertal (Germany) was initiated in 2020 and is a place where all people in Wuppertal are welcome to grow, eat and share healthy food and enjoy nature.

Access to an affordable, acceptable and healthy diet throughout one's life are central premises of the initiative. Addressing food poverty and health inequities is part of the collective work that was foundational to the garden. Using peace-building methods leads to collaborative and inclusive solutions and contributes to a shared responsibility and sense of stewardship for urban life, particularly in the garden. The garden is an example of hands-on responsibility as a vehicle for change and enhanced well-being.

Avenues for action

Integrate justice and sustainability in codes of conduct

  1. Create policies and codes of conduct that explicitly mainstream justice, by emphasising transparency, accountability and social responsibility. These are important tools for embedding justice and sustainability within your organisation’s culture.
  2. Lead by example by putting your organisation’s policies and code of conduct in practice and by providing relevant training.

See this list of 71 good practice cases where public buyers in the EU have implemented socially responsible public procurement in specific sectors. As examples from this list, watch these videos on how public procurement can be used to help social enterprises that employ people with dissabilities, protect workers' rights by ensuring ethical and transparent supply chains, or promote gender equality.

Involve impacted communities in decision-making

  1. Enable citizens, grassroots organisations and other stakeholders to take part in decision-making processes and to actively engage to co-create transformative actions.
  2. Communicate the expected group-specific impact transparently in order to encourage impacted stakeholders to participate. This responsibility is especially important in cases which primarily concern that particular social group.
  3. Create a political body to represent the interests of different social groups to the city council (e.g. Migrant Council, Youth Council, Council For Persons With Disabilities).

The Migrant Council in Freiburg is an example of an initiative targeting a particularly underrepresented social group. Barcelona's approach to public participation during the establishment of its 'Superblocks' became increasingly open and informal, as resistance in some neighbourhoods led to adaptation of the participation process.

Create moments and spaces for trust-building

  1. As a local government actor, create and facilitate accessible spaces for different actors to meet, build trust and solve common issues. Citizen assemblies and forums, community hearings etc.
  2. Commit to addressing concerns that are raised in these spaces. The trust between residents and local government gets broken when the outcomes of these processes are ignored.

Learn about the 'Out of Town Hall' approach which supports local governments in engaging actively with local governments.