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Track 1: Urban sustainability

Session 1: Urban transitions towards sustainability: Visions and realities.




Sustainability has fast become a key concern of urban policymakers and citizens in acknowledgement of cities’ role in processes of climate change, particularly in connection with global trends of population growth and urbanisation. Many cities are putting forward ambitious visions in pursuit of more sustainable urban infrastructure systems and associated processes of production and consumption, including in the realms of mobility, energy, water and waste. More often than not, such ambitious visions of sustainability do not necessarily translate into measures that promote radical change in material infrastructures or social practices. This call for papers is interested in submissions that investigate this gap (or the potential absence of it) in the context of urban policymaking and practice for sustainability.

We invite a broad range of submissions that consider potentials, challenges and barriers in the successful governance of urban transitions towards sustainability. Of particular interest are papers dealing with transitions of both urban infrastructure systems and their associated practices, i.e. their material as well as social elements. The session broadly aims to discuss the overlap (or lack thereof) between urban policymaking and policy implementation for sustainability with the goal of generating insights on the differential capability of urban governance actors and networks to contribute to sustainable development across local, regional and global scales. 

Keywords: sustainability, transitions, urban governance, policymaking, infrastructure, mobility, energy, waste, water. 

Chairs: Paul Fenton and Fanny Paschek




The discursive dimension of sustainable building transitions


Bérénice Preller, University of Luxembourg, Department of Geography and Spatial Planning


In the last decade, the socio-technical transitions framework and more specifically the multi-level perspective (MLP) (Geels, 2002) has gained particular momentum within the climate change and sustainability literature (Lawhon, Murphy 2012). The openness of the framework in analysing

how (sustainable) change occurs, and what its multiple causes and mechanisms are, has been particularly alluring (Smith et al. 2010).


Within the framework of my work, I use the MLP as a starting point to understand transitions

towards sustainable building within two urban regions: Freiburg (DE) and Luxembourg (LU). Following several reports from international organisations (e.g. IPCC, UNEP, World Bank) the building sector has indeed been identified as a major contributor to human related greenhouse gas emissions, and has consequently become central to urban climate-change policies. Consequent applications range from the use of technologies, organizational innovations like waste management, comprehensive neighbourhood planning or even changes in the construction process (e.g. building cooperatives).


With this diversity of interpretations in mind, I wish to locate my use of the MLP within more recent

contributions, which have criticised a too naïve approach of politics and power within existing empirical contributions. Indeed, the relationships between the currently dominant institutionalised actors and their practices and proponents of sustainable innovations (technological, organisational, social,) plays a key role in shaping the direction of a transition. This contribution will therefore make use of environmental discourses (Hajer, 1997 und Dryzeck, 1997)  to  retrace  how  the  vision  of  a  transition  towards  sustainable  building  has  been communicated and legitimated by specific actors within both case studies.


Community  currencies:  A  response  to  dire  economic  circumstances,  or promoters of urban sustainable development?


Phedeas Stephanides, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia


With   economic   restructuring   often   being   considered   as   a   fundamental   pre-requisite   for sustainable development (e.g. Jackson 2011), research on alternative currencies has attempted to demonstrate their significant role in delivering socio-economic and environmental sustainability. Importantly, with urban centres providing fertile ground for them to flourish (cf. North and Longhurst 2013), it can be argued that these novel social systems constitute key drivers for urban sustainability transitions. Accordingly, irrespective of sustainability currently falling outside policy agendas in recession-laden regions, this paper hypothesizes that the simultaneous growth of the alternative economy may still push an urban sustainability transition forward through processes of niche diffusion. By presenting ethnographic data on three community currencies developed in recession-laden Athens (Greece), the paper argues that they can, indeed, contribute to sustainable development at the local scale in place of simply being deployed as survival tactics by facilitating, for instance, localised consumption. Nonetheless, the data also highlight the barriers faced in delivering  sustainability,  demonstrating,  amongst  others,  the  overlap  between  urban  policy- making for sustainability and such grassroots experimentations, and the difficulties faced by these niches with regards to: a) internal niche-development processes, b) up-scaling in delivering sustainability at a broader scale, and c) challenging unsustainable practices.   Consequently, the paper argues that for these systems to become more effective in supporting sustainable consumption in the long-run in place of acting as expedient technologies during the crisis, the wider mainstream infrastructure should work more synergistically with them, providing spaces for what Mason and Whitehead (2012) call ‘Transition urbanism.


Re-municipalisation of energy utilities amid Germany’s low-carbon transition

Jonas Torrens, SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex

A wave of re-municipalisation has been sweeping Germany: between 2007 and mid 2012, 190 energy concessions (mostly on distribution) have returned to the control of local public authorities and 60 new local utility companies were created (Hall et. Al 2013). This trend is likely to continue, and may significantly affect the ongoing Energiewende, as more that 50% of electricity distribution are now done by public utilities. Yet, its implications have not been investigated through the lenses of sustainability transitions. While expanding on Geels (2013) and Hodson (2010), I intent to address two questions. First, how is this process shaping the role the cities are playing in the Energiewende. Second, how do the new utilities engage with community energy projects and other technological niches. At this stage of the research, I will present the conceptual framework and research design. The current process of re-municipalisation is  a  challenging  subject  for  conventional  transitions  studies  methodologies,  as  it  is rapidly unfolding in a variety of local contexts, with little historical evidence. In order to remain relevant, transitions studies should be able to engage with ongoing institutional shifts that affect the governance of low-carbon transitions.


Sustainable mobility in the city – a study of Basel, Göttingen and Odense 

Paul Fenton, Linköping University

How can small-medium sized cities achieve high levels of walking, cycling and public transport whilst reducing use of cars? And how can such cities achieve further emission reductions by integrating renewable fuels and alternative forms of propulsion into their mobility strategies? This project makes use of qualitative research methods to explore how three European municipalities organise processes to devise strategies and plans to achieve sustainable mobility. Issues addressed by the research include the organisational processes and forms of participation used to develop strategies, select and implement measures, and gain political and societal support for transitions. What kind of methods or tools may be required to conduct research and draw meaningful conclusions from such analysis? Is it possible to compare apples and pears? And how can other small-medium sized cities, with lower performance in sustainable mobility, learn from these examples?

Urban cycling in transition - A case study of London

Fanny Paschek, Department of Systems Management & Strategy, University of Greenwich

Urban transport policy documents evidence European cities’ high aspirations to transition from car-dependence, by making cycling ‘an integral part of the transport network’ (Greater London Authority, 2013) in order to move ‘to the next level as a bicycle city’ (City of Copenhagen, 2011). These transformative ambitions should not be underestimated and deserve particular interest from researchers of sustainability transitions in transport.

This research focuses specifically on the London transportation system and the opportunities and barriers for cycling to become once again a mainstream utility mode therein. To better understand the potential for a successful transition this paper draws on the multi-level perspective (Geels, 2002) to situate the urban mode of cycling within the wider London transportation system. Adopting a strategic-relational approach (Sum and Jessop, 2013) the project further seeks to explore the interaction of strategic selectivities at structural and agential levels and their impact on cycling policy-making and practice in London. The research thereby draws attention towards the ability of both regime and niche actors to read and strategically exploit or circumnavigate structural barriers and opportunities in order to produce (and re-produce) the dominant transport regime and its inherent logics or effectively contest same respectively.

The socio-spatial politics of sustainable transitions: Linking sustainability initiatives to urban regeneration and gentrification

Irene Håkansson,    Geography, King’s College London    


This PhD project is part of the EP7 research project PATHWAYS – transition to sustainable low-carbon societies. One of PATHWAYS’ objectives is to identify factors that enable or disable sustainability transitions on a level of local, innovative initiatives within key domains like agro-food, land-use, and electricity. Against this background, I critically investigate and compare cases of sustainability initiatives – such as London’s food-growing network Capital Growth and the community energy initiative Brixton Energy – in the context of urban regeneration and gentrification. I aim to show how and to what extent the emergence, establishing and success or failure of these initiatives are affected by such prevalent urban processes or, conversely, have themselves an effect on such processes. The overarching research questions are: How do sustainability initiatives relate to the socio-spatial politics of urban regeneration and gentrification? What implications do these relations have for sustainability transitions? I am currently conducting a pilot study on the above named initiatives while refining my theoretical framework, which combines theories of sustainable transitions with conceptions of urban space and place(-making), theories of gentrification, and conceptual approaches on socio-spatial justice deriving from urban political ecology. The challenge ahead will be to develop the multi-method research approach that I anticipate for comparing cases across domains and across urban localities with differing degrees of gentrification/regeneration. Both “bottom-up” socio-spatial aspects of initiatives such as their neighbourhood inclusiveness, and “top-down” spatio-material aspects of regeneration projects and policies (e.g. the New Southwark Plan for South London) must be captured, along with existing gentrification indicators like changing land values.


Farzaneh Bahrami, Laboratory of Urbanism, EPFL (École polytechnique dérale de Lausanne)

Discourses, images and imaginaries ;  towards a post - car world ?

The emergence of the car had radical spatial and social consequences. It also generated diverse visions for cities of the future, from dense urban centers with well-ordered high rise building blocks which dismissed the street as the social territory of the city to leave room for free circulation of the motor-car to visions related to decentralization, disappearance of the city center.


Today reducing individual motorized mobility is widely debated. Several indicators, such as modal shares in mobility practices, reduction in car ownership and increasing lack of interest in obtaining driving licenses suggest that the century of car dominance - at least in developed countries - is already behind us. But to what extent are urban experts accounting for the limited but visible transition from car-dominated systems towards alternative models of mobility? What models of urbanity are imagined to support such a transformation?

What new forms are possible for territories that have been modeled for over a century by the car and how to adapt the physical and material space to the new spatial practices?

Looking into how the advent of the car fundamentally changed urban conceptions and how its character of dominance has been exerted, we attempt to explore the shift-provoking trends in discourses, images and imaginaries towards new systems of mobility in which individual- motorized mobility is not central.


Raphaël Stephens, INRA Paris, France

Alternative Food Networks, the agro-food system and relocalization: sociotechnical perspectives in Ile-de-France

This paper communicates insights drawn from a previous study on «Alternative Food Networks» (AFNs) in the Paris metropolitan region. The research examines the complex relationship between AFNs and the broader Parisian agri-food sociotechnical regime they involve within. The Multi Level Perspective (MLP) conceptual framework is employed to theorize relations between AFNs as «niche» actors and established «regime» actors which dominate agri-food supply chains. The concept of regime is particularly useful because it subsumes a broad range of actors involved in fossil-fuel dependent conventional modes of production and supply chains such as producers, distributors and retailers; agri-food unions and public teaching and research institutions; public and private catering; and planning regulations, among others. Niche AFNs are conceptualized as challengers to this dominant regime, through practices involving organic farming, short food supply-chains, speciality foods and socially responsible charters. The role of urban and regional policy and planning initiatives is considered key in encouraging AFN development. A review of some of these initiatives is conducted, as well as the structural constraints they face (land-access and preservation, logistics and political representation). Similarly, insights are drawn to show how AFNs are themselves organized and collaborate with one another to address these core constraints hampering their development. The emergence of « reflexive » governance processes between AFNs and certain core regime actors, in particular in the urban policy and planning realm, is theorized, as a powerful new governance form for the transition to more sustainable food chains.