Reconceptualising urban justice and sustainability

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Alternative conceptual framings are a feature of many and diverse approaches to urban sustainability and/or justice, and in particular their intersections. Arguments in their favour range from the ethical to the instrumental: the moral right of all those living in cities to contribute to shaping their future, to the practical importance of diverse outlooks, ideas and capabilities in working towards sustainability and justice.

This page is part of an ongoing, open-ended online collaborative database, which collects relevant approaches that can be used by city-makers to tackle unsustainability and injustice in cities. It is based mainly on knowledge generated in EU-funded projects and touches on fast changing fields. As such, this page makes no claims of authoritative completeness and welcomes your suggestions. All citations are from project websites/reports if not otherwise marked.

Why Reconceptualise Urban Justice and Sustainability?

The UrbanA project characterises both sustainability and justice in broad terms. It recognises that the concepts of sustainability and justice are both highly contested, and may be defined, understood and acted upon in many different ways.[1] Particularly when sustainability and justice are considered together, this can challenge dominant notions of sustainability.

UrbanA considers sustainability as an intergenerational and multi-level phenomenon with multiple dimensions (social-cultural, economic, ecological). Sustainability may be understood and achieved in very different ways, depending on which of these are taken into account or given emphasis.

UrbanA understoods justice to include distribution of costs and benefits of sustainability interventions, patterns of participation and exclusion in decision-making and execution, and the extent to which action on sustainability accomodates diverse needs and expectations, particularly in relation to often-marginalised groups such as ethnic minorities, low income groups, the elderly, women and gender non-conforming people. Accomodating such diversity often involves challenging the tendency of certain powerful actors to dominate discussion and action on urban sustainability.[2] This often leads to understandings of sustainability, and courses of action, very different from those promoted by such powerful incubments.

Shapes, Sizes and Applications

Many different academic fields and forms of practical action towards urban sustainability and justice call for, and in many cases offer, new conceptualisations of sustainability and/or justice.

Examples of academic reconceptualisations include:

  • The observation from Energy Systems Studies that decarbonising energy systems is not simply a process of substituting fossil fuels with renewable energy technologies, but also requires dismantling social and political systems that 'lock in' dependence on fossil fuels.[3]
  • The recognition within Sustainability Science of the incompatibility between sustainability and dominant mindsets, and need for a paradigm shift in cultural outlook.[4]
  • Calls in Alternative Economics for new economic models that question the primacy of GDP growth as a macro-economic indicator and call for new approaches that seek to achieve societal welfare within sustainable limits.[5][6]
  • The establishment within Organisational and Management Studies of new approaches to collective planning that emphasise the need to question and move beyond established ways of thinking and acting.[7]
  • The emergence within Design Studies of the new field of Transition Design, which takes its lead from the 'pluriverse' of collaborative and place-based action for alternative futures, rooted in strong values of sustainability and justice.[8]

The EU-funded ENTITLE Project (a training network within the Marie Curie action of FP7, 2012-2016) trained a cohort of 18 early career researchers in the academic field of Political Ecology.[9] Political Ecology emphasises that environmental issues have inseparable social and political dimensions, and can neither be understood nor addressed without taking into account the uneven distribution of costs and benefits of environmental change across differences of class, race, ethnicity and gender, and the power imbalances these both reflect and engender.[10]

The concept of Convergence was the central focus of the EU-funded CONVERGE project (FP7, 2009-2013).[11] It is an extension of Aubrey Meyer's concept of Contraction and Convergence, created by the Global Commons Institute in the 1990s as a tool to promote equity in relation to climate change mitigation. Contraction referred to the reduction of global levels of greenhouse gas emissions to sustainable levels, Convergence to the equitable per capita distribution of rights to emit these emissions.[12] CONVERGE extended this concept to areas such as access to natural resources, energy, governance, trade and human well-being, as an integrative framework for reconciling equity and respect for global environmental limits.[13]

In terms of practical action, the TRANSIT project (FP7, 2013-2016), examined initiatives and networks involved in Transformative Social Innovation (TSI). TSI actors, which include many urban social change initiatives, adopt and enact values, practices and forms of social relations radically different from those of wider society.[14]

Specific cases of practical initiatives whose discourse or practice express alternative conceptualisations of sustainability and or justice include:

  • Ecovillages are a form of intentional community, found in urban, peri-urban and rural settings, and among the case studies in the TRANSIT Project. Ecovillages emphasise themes of cultural change and unity in diversity, and deliberately seek to create spaces of heightened social and environmental awareness, characterised by collaboration, creativity and experimentation.[15]
  • Transition towns, another TRANSIT Project case study,[16] provide experimental spaces for collaborative exploration of creative responses to local manifestations of global social and environmental issues such as climate change and economic stability, and in some ways translate ecovillage thinking and action to established communities, and provide .[17] [18]
  • Both Transition and ecovillages are forms of community-led initiatives, of the kind studied in the TESS project, whose activities provide alternative pathways to sustainability and decarbonisation that emphasise democratic participation, with greater scope for participation and justice.[19] Both operate through the creation and management of commons, diverse arrangements for ownership and management of resources based on collective agreement among their co-users.[20]
  • The EU-funded HiReach Project (H2020, 2017-2020) examined of experiences of transport poverty among diverse groups, including children, migrants, women, elderly people, people with reduced mobility, inhabitants of rural or deprived areas and low income and/or unemployed people. Findings revealed diverse expectations concerning mobility and transportation needs, requiring a range of different approaches to transport provision, in both technical and organisational terms.[21]
  • The AGAPE Project (FP7, 2014-2016) studied the consequences of urban displacment in southern European cities following the post-2008 economic crisis. It identified a range of actions undertaken by those affected in order to challenge directly gentrification and its effects, including confronting eviction, privatization, speculation and austerity. It concluded that such anti-gentrification practices dramatically reshape understandings of urban exclusion and justice, the courses of action available to city authorities, and the consequences of these.[22]

Relation to UrbanA themes: Cities, Sustainability, and Justice

Action to make cities more sustainable often has the unintended consequence of increasing injustice. For example, the activities of community initiatives in Peckham, south London reinforced ongoing processes of gentrification that led to exclusion of low income residents.[23]

The apparent trade-off with justice observed in many urban sustainability initiatives is most likely an artefact of capitalist economics that equate well-being with levels of material consumption, and hence with environmental impacts.[24] Many ecovillages, for example, achieve levels of reported well-being and life satisfaction comparable to those of affluent urban neighbourhoods at far lower levels of material consumption, through alternative approaches that make social capital the main determinant of life quality.[25] This emphasises the importance - and challenge - of identifying alternative conceptualisations that bring justice and sustainability into alignment, and finding ways to make them the basis of urban sustainability transitions.

In terms of their occurence, alternative conceptualisations may arise in both urban and non-urban settings. Experiences from ecovillages suggest that a degree of cultural isolation from the mainstream has been important in enabling the emergence and maturity of new modes of thinking and action.[26] While perhaps most readily available in intentional communities, such freedom of creative thought and action is also a feature of temporary or permanent alternative spaces that are often found in urban settings.[27]

The EU-funded RELOCAL project (H2020, 2017-2020) mapped patterns of inequality in cities (and non-urban areas) in nine countries across Europe, at scales ranging from city-wide to neighbourhood.[28] A key finding was the existence of 'frontier areas' where marked differences in affluence are evident among geographically close neighbours.[29] In many cities, widely different understandings and experiences of urban life may thus co-exist in close proximity. This suggests both the necessity of, and potential for, reconciling diverse views of sustainability and perspectives on urban life, via attention to all three key dimensions of justice, may be highest in urban areas.[30]

Narrative of Change

Although the approaches listed here are diverse, they have in common that they reject dominant narratives, and the courses of action they imply, in favour of their own. These alternative discourses often foreground sustainability and justice as primary societal goals, not secondary considerations dependent on or subordinate to other factors.

The degrowth and postgrowth movements express an explicit political ecology of this type. They assert that commitment to GDP growth as a goal in itself is ecologically and socially damaging in multiple respects. On the basis of a large and growing body of evidence, GDP growth is argued to be fundamentally incompatible with sustainability, to often generate and exacerbate injustice, and to undermine democracy by excluding alternatives from serious consideration.[31]

François Schneider and colleagues (2010: 513) emphasise that degrowth is based on a politics of choice:

(D)egrowth is offered as a social choice, not imposed as an external imperative for environmental or other reasons. Decentralizing and deepening democratic institutions and repoliticizing the economy are prime objectives for the degrowth movement, alongside the reduction of consumption and production; one cannot be considered without the other.[32]

Democracy and empowerment through locally autonomous, self-organised action are also central to narratives of change in the ecovillage and Transition movements. According to the Global Ecovillage Network website:

The Global Ecovillage Network envisions a world of empowered citizens and communities, designing and implementing pathways to a regenerative future, while building bridges of hope and international solidarity.[33]

The ECOLISE network of European community-led sustainability and climate change initiatives, whose members include GEN, Transition Network, and many national networks in the ecovillage and Transition movements, begins its strategy with the following statement:

ECOLISE sees hope in the rich seam of solutions that are being continuously developed by community-led initiatives across Europe and the world, including those that encompass inner growth, inclusive approaches to collaboration and to the governance of commons and stewardship of ecosystems. Furthermore ECOLISE is inspired and motivated by the growing interest in these life-affirming approaches. In this context ECOLISE’s purpose is to engage in, support and facilitate accelerated learning and collaboration among community-led initiatives, their networks and partners in order to catalyse systemic transformation within and across society.

The work of ECOLISE is inspired by the vision of a compassionate, equitable and regenerative society of empowered and resilient communities that thrive on diversity and inclusion and live within planetary boundaries.[34]

UrbanA fellow Marilyn Hamilton of Integral City emphasises the importance of an integral approach, which integrates multiple perspectives within a meta-framework recognising that all phenomena have both interior/exterior and individual/collective dimensions, and develop and evolve in each of these.[35] In Marilyn's view, approaches to sustainability and justice tend to emphasise exterior dimensions of phenomena, and in particular to overlook the caring qualities prominent in inner dimensions and essential for justice. Inclusion is another important feature of an integral approach, which honours pluralism and recognises that all perspectives express some degree of relative truth and bring valid insights into complex problems. Locating different perspectives on the integral map allows each to be honoured in its own terms, and enables collaboration towards inclusive action.

Transformative Potential

Reconceptualisations of justice and sustainability directly challenge conventional top-down and centralised approaches to urban planning. As well as offering alternative perspectives, they demand more inclusive, pluralistic and participatory approaches to urban governance. While this makes them inherently transformative - at least in theory - in practice the extent to which their transformative potential is realised varies. Initiatives and networks locate themselves differently in relation to dominant institutions and ways of thinking. They also vary greatly in their degree of maturity, and their success in practice in operating in alignment with their values.

Squatters on Barcelona's urban periphery are an example of what has been termed 'uncivil' initiatives. They explicitly distance themselves from accepted norms and deliberately break laws they perceive to be unjust. Instead, they cultivate popular legitimacy through socially responsible action in their immediate neighbourhoods.[36]

Community-based initiatives seeking engagement with incumbent regimes run constant risks of co-option by the very dominant framings they seek to challenge, limiting or even directly contradicting their stated goals.[37]. Initiatives that choose to constitute as officially recognised organisations often find themselves subject to a phenomenon known as coercive isomorphism, where the need to sustain the chosen legal form creates pressures that are at odds with their basic premises and preferred ways of operating.[38] Such effects can be exacerbated by participation in funding schemes that assume or favour particular organisational models, framing concepts and modes of action.[39][40]

Increasing numbers of cases exist where citizen movements enacting alternative conceptualisations that closely link sustainability and justice have assumed political power at city level. In Naples, protest movements against toxic waste dumping matured into people'a assemblies encating a radical participatory form of democracy. Spreading to all districts of the city, they became the basis of a grassroots political coalition that won control of the city in municipal elections in 2016.[41] In Barcelona, housing rights campaigner Ada Colau was elected mayor in 2015, part of a wave of popular protest movements to have come to power as part of the 'new municipalist' movement worldwide [42] Its projects include Barcelona Energia, a publically owned renewable energy company that now manages the electricity grid for the entire municipal region, with aim of empowering residents to produce their own energy and democratise control of energy infrastructure.[43]


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