Archives for category: urban sustainability

I went for a wander around Hammarby Sjöstad, an ongoing residential redevelopment of an old industrial area near Stockholm’s city centre, and widely billed as an exemplar of environmentally friendly urban design. It’s perfectly reasonable to critique the ‘eco’ claims of places like this, either because we think more radical environmental change is needed, or simply as a sort of journalistic or academic game. But, from just walking round as a tourist, I can report that:

(a) the buildings are clearly very high-spec, and interestingly varied;

(b) the communal areas and public spaces are very inviting, and – on a nice summer’s day at least –  full of people;

(c) the people that live here, or were visiting it, are clearly not living on the breadline.

Hammarby Sjöstad 1Hammarby Sjöstad 2Hammarby Sjöstad 3

If we wanted to be critical, then, it might be worth mobilising the charge of ‘eco-gentrification’ (while noting that Hammarby Sjöstad is just south of the island of Södermalm – the most obviously and famously gentrified part of Stockholm).

But I was also therefore curious to see what a less well-heeled part of Stockholm might look like. So I travelled to Husby, at the other end of the city, where riots broke out in 2013. Husby is the sort of multi-ethnic place which the media seems to liken gleefully to the problématiques Parisian bainlieues.

What did I find there? Well, it’s certainly not as pristine as other parts of the city.  But I didn’t get any sense that Husby had been left to rot: it has the appearance of being looked after well, there are plenty of local services, and in places it’s straightforwardly pleasant. On the surface, at least, a far cry from the worst parts of cities in the UK:

Husby 1Husby 2Husby 3Husby 4

 

Stockholm, 22 June 2017

View of Aswan

Aswan

I’ve spent most of the last week at a workshop on ‘Rebuilding Communities for Resilient and Sustainable Development’ in Aswan (Egypt).  A marvellous event – many thanks to all involved in organising it.

So then: resilient and sustainable… Does it matter that these two terms seem to have become inseparable? That sustainability even seems to be increasingly playing second fiddle to resilience?

Policy-makers at least seem happy enough to speak of resilience and sustainability in the same breath. One of our first workshop exercises, however, was to think more closely about how they differ and relate to each other. Our group contrasted the two concepts in terms of time (sustainability as linear; resilience as iterative) and space (sustainability as extensive and global; resilience as inward-looking and local). We agreed that their relationship is not so much hierarchical (with one perhaps being a necessary condition for the other), as fundamentally characterised by mutual tension.

This tension is reflected in their different registers of societal organisation: while sustainability has always been oriented towards state-centric solutions, resilience looks more to ‘bottom-up’ agency. Depending on your perspective, then, resilience usefully fills a gap in the discourse of sustainability; or its rise can be read as problematic evidence of the ongoing ‘roll-back’ of the state. In any case, abandoning the ideal of sustainability in favour of resilience seems uncomfortably close to relinquishing the hope that our formal institutions of representative democracy can ever be revived.

While I tend towards hoping that our institutional democratic life can be revived, I also wonder if this type of ‘anti-neoliberal’ perspective is rather parochial. What does it really mean in places where there is no general assumption, or expectation – or illusion – that the state somehow ‘stands above’ the messy informality of everyday life? Where the state is clearly demarcated from the public only in terms of its elitism or authoritarian capacities? If Egypt falls into this category of place, it is certainly not unique; informal processes seem to dominate the conduct of everyday urban life around the world, including – to an extent not always recognised – in western countries. In fact, I would argue that the question of how sustainability policy-making might better encompass informality is a key one.

By ‘encompassing informality’, I don’t mean just improving living conditions for the marginalised or reducing ‘corruption’. Rather, I argue that there is a need for more direct acknowledgement in sustainability planning that real cities are held together by informal relations, and characterised by unpredictable, emergent and often transgressive public behaviour, as much as by compliance with formal regulations and dominant norms.

However, I’m not certain that this need is satisfied by the ways in which informality has been embraced in recent years as a source of inspiration for policy-makers and built environment professionals (ranging from the romanticisation of the self-organising principles of the slum through to the rise of ‘crowdsourcing’ in the west, and the adulation of ‘swarm’ or ‘hive’ intelligence). In practice, such thinking typically seems normatively underpinned by a goal of efficiency which necessarily excludes predetermined definitions of right and wrong. There would seem to be only a fine line between taking inspiration from informality on the one hand, and purposefully slumifying our collective future on the other.

 

Aswan, 16 December 2015

 

 

Design after planning

Might it be possible to go beyond the limitations of liberal-modernist policy-making and urban planning if we start thinking of governance at different scales as a process of design?

If you find this sort of question interesting, you may want to consider submitting an abstract for a one-day interdisciplinary conference we’re holding at the University of Westminster on Friday 5 February, 2016.

We have three confirmed keynote speakers – Filip De Boeck (KU Leuven), Nathaniel Tkacz (University of Warwick) and Erik Swyngedouw (University of Manchester), and plan to have three panels on:

  • disaster and risk design
  • designing with emergent urban systems
  • resilience versus sustainability

To find out more, or to sign up for updates, please visit the event website.

We have not yet released tickets for the event, but there will be no charge for attending (or registration fee for speakers).

London, 5 November 2015

UPDATE 5 APRIL 2016:  videos from this event are now online: https://designafterplanning.wordpress.com/videos/

 

Dialogues of Sustainable Urbanisation cover

A few months ago, I saw a call for contributors to a ‘book of blogs’. The idea was to create a “collection of short blog posts crowdsourced by, and from, our networks of social scientists working on sustainable urbanisation issues”. The editors – Jenna Condie (University of Western Sydney) and Anna Cooper (University of Salford) – were hoping for at least 50 contributions of up to 1,000 words, with no particular restrictions on content within the overall theme. It seemed like a good initiative, and I was curious. So I signed up, dutifully wrote my bit, and the whole thing has just been published.

In the event, more than 120 people from around the world agreed to take part, and the book has ended up containing around 70 short pieces. There is a varied mix of contributions – mostly I think from early-stage researchers, but also from established academics – grouped together into 11 sections: ‘Definitions of Sustainability’, ‘Urban Governance’, ‘Engaged Citizens’, ‘Urban Divides’, ‘Movement and Mobilities’, ‘China’, ‘Making Places’, ‘Environment’, ‘Low Carbon Futures’, ‘Alternative Economies’, ‘Digital Futures’.  The whole process took seven months from the original call up to publication.

Co-editor Jenna Condie reflects on the experience in the final section of the book: “The ‘traditional’ communication platforms of email and the mail lists of international organisations have realised this book into being. Without those networks, the range of posts would have been narrower and the contributions less varied. Whilst mail lists are great for sharing information, they function less well as dialogical spaces. We need more social online spaces to get to know one another given that we are located across the world, living great distances apart with many interests in common. The web presents a wealth of opportunities for networked researchers to create environments for dialogue, discussion, and research. Still, researchers need to want to get involved in those online discussions by putting their identities ‘out there’, and in turn, reap benefits from doing so.”

Will it succeed in its aim of encouraging dialogue? Blogs seem to work well as half-way houses for writing, without the pressure of peer review: they are public enough to make you put effort into what you write, and the process of writing helps you clarify your thoughts.  I admit that I get lots of ideas from other people’s blogs, but I’m concerned that I pilfer these rather than enter into dialogue with their authors. And, of course, there’s no guarantee that anybody will read or take seriously what’s written in a blog; perhaps they are more useful for the writer than anybody else. Anyway, it will be interesting to see what happens with this.

There’s a link to the pdf here, or you can read it as an e-book from a link here.  A print version should be available soon as well.

8 August 2015, Cornwall

Tomorrow's City Today

If you’re interested in urban sustainability, I’d like to invite you to a conference I’m co-organising.  We have a superb line-up of international speakers (academics, policy-makers and practitioners) as well a report launch to tempt you along.

Date: Friday 12 June 2015

Time: 10:00 am – 4:30 pm

Venue: Fyvie Hall, University of Westminster, 309 Regent Street, London W1B 2HW

Although sustainability principles are now firmly entrenched in urban policy making around the world, no clear agreement has ever emerged about what precisely the idea means or how it might be put into practice – and we seem to be further than ever away from the goal of building a sustainable future. Some critics argue that its lack of agreed definition leaves it open to abuse and encourages a ‘business as usual’ approach. So might some form of ‘standardisation’ lead to greater accountability and more substantive progress in future?

In fact, the evidence suggests that a process of standardisation may currently be taking place. Recent years seeing a global proliferation of different types of eco-city ‘frameworks’, which serve to define urban sustainability in particular ways. Many of these, crucially, aim to be replicable – and are implemented – in different locations internationally.

But, looking forwards, how might a process of standardisation work? How should these urban sustainability standards be defined and audited (and by who)? What critical questions need to be asked? And should we welcome this trend as a basis for future policy and practice development? Some would argue that any form of standardisation serves to stifle innovation in what should ideally be an open-ended process of real-world experimentation and ongoing critical reflection.

The report, which will be launched in the morning, draws on three years of cross-comparative research conducted by our Leverhulme Trust-funded international research network.

The provisional programme is shown below.  You can download a full version here, and book tickets on Eventbrite here (there’s no charge for attendance).

FINAL PROGRAMME:

Tomorrow's City Today FINAL PROGRAMME (19 May 2015)

3 March 2015, London

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