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    Just Sustainabilities and the New Urban Agenda

    By Vanesa Castan- Broto, on 5 August 2016

    Originally published by Urban Transformations

    Will 2016 be an urban year in international development policy? In September 2015, the United Nations Assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to supersede the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). One notable feature was the introduction of an ‘urban goal’, Goal 11: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. Planning is at the centre of the new urban goal. It includes an explicit planning target, Target 11.3: “By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries.” Target 11.3 synthetizes a long history of international development thinking to make cities sustainable through planning.

    The target also emphasises the relationship between inclusive development and sustainability. In doing so, the target expresses explicitly the interconnection between social and environmental issues in planning. By emphasising capacity, the target also points to a fundamental issue in planning for sustainable cities: that institutions with the power to carry on sustainable action, or even to understand what sustainable action is, are frequently absent. The target specifies how planning has to be: it has to be participatory, integrated and sustainable. This last adjective emphasises that sustainability is both a characteristic of the output, i.e., a sustainable city, and of the process whereby that output is achieved: i.e. participatory, integrated.14157883749_8f55b61a29_k

    To a certain extent, Target 11.3 follows on from the guidelines of Chapter 7 in Local Agenda 21 that was later consolidated in the Habitat II agenda in Istanbul, 1996. The assertive formulation of Target 11.3, putting at its core both participation and integrated planning, suggests an association of planning and urban management with social and environmental justice objectives. As part of the preparations for the Habitat III conference in Quito 2016, UN-Habitat has promoted the slogan “the transformative force of urbanisation”. The slogan is designed to harness the energy emerging from positive views of urbanization which do not just see it as an unavoidable global phenomenon, but embrace it as a positive force with the potential to change unsustainable societies. The use of the word ‘transformative’, however, suggests a radical departure from business as usual scenarios, a deep structural change that will not only reconfigure cities but also, will reconfigure contemporary societies and economies towards a fairer world which respects its environment. Overall, the link between inclusive and sustainable cities, the emphasis on the sustainability of both processes and outputs, and the framing of planning as a tool for radical change towards a better society all point to a greater interest on achieving environmental and social justice in urban areas. The central question that should be asked in the road towards implementation of SDG 11 and in the preparations for Habitat III is: what kind of planning can bring about cities that are both sustainable and just?


    The protection of the Earth’s life-support system and poverty reduction are twin priorities for development. In relation to the new urban agenda, this is akin to achieving ‘just sustainabilities’ through linking social welfare and environmental protection (Agyeman et al. 2003, Agyeman 2013). Just sustainabilities approaches have the potential to reinvigorate notions of sustainability in the new urban agenda, helping link environmental concerns with the needs and perceptions of citizens, and their articulation in social movements.

    23090523285_5b350f70ae_kThe notion of just sustainabilities emerged as a response to the 1990s debates on sustainable development, and how sustainability goals in an urban context reproduced, rather than prevented, the conditions of inequality and environmental degradation. In urban planning, there has long been a concern about the limitations of using sustainability-oriented urban policies to address social justice issues (Marcuse 1998). Political theorists have questioned broadly where social justice and environmental sustainability are actually compatible (Dobson 1998, Dobson 2003). However, for proponents of just sustainabilities, social justice and environmental sustainability are interdependent problems that challenge existing power structures (McLaren 2003).

    The linkages between environmental change and social justice are apparent in empirical evidence of how environmental degradation and resource scarcity is experienced by the urban poor. Unsafe and inadequate water supplies, inadequate provision of sanitation and waste management, overcrowding, lack of safety, and different forms of air and water pollution continue to shape the lives of many citizens around the world (e.g. Hardoy and Satterthwaite 1991, Forsyth et al. 1998, Brennan 1999, HEI 2004, WHO 2009, UNDP 2014). For example, almost 10% of deaths in low-income regions are directly attributed to environmental risks such as unsafe water, outdoor and indoor air pollution, lead exposure and impacts from climate change (WHO 2009). Poverty and inequalities in access to resources and livelihood opportunities increase the vulnerability of the urban poor to climate change impacts and natural disasters (Revi et al. 2014). By 2030, the global demand for energy and water will likely grow by 40%, while for food it may increase by as much as 50% (ODI/ECDPM/GDI/DIE 2012). This is likely to further hinder poor people’s access to even basic resources. For example, the number of people without energy access is raising, regardless of infrastructure developments or urbanisation rates (IEA 2014).


    Incorporating notions of justice in environmental policy and planning emphasises both the distributional impacts of environmental degradation and resource scarcity and the need to adopt decisions that emerge from a fair and open process of policy-making. This also requires broadening the notion of justice beyond a narrow distributive conceptualisation with a recognition of how environmental problems are experienced by diverse groups of actors – especially those which are disadvantaged and struggle to make their views known – the extent to which they are represented and participate in environmental decision-making, and how environmental policy influences people’s opportunities for fulfilment (Schlosberg 2007).


    Civil society organisations and local community organisations have already made substantial contributions to demonstrating and acting upon the nexus between social justice and environmental sustainability, which have in turn inspired the ideals of just sustainabilities (Agyeman et al. 2002). These are initiatives that recognise the need for people to participate in environmental decisions; the imperative to meet people’s basic needs’ and the normative requirement to preserve the integrity of nature for future generations (Faber and McCarthy 2003). Justice-oriented discourses are already inspiring environmental action for climate change in urban areas (Bulkeley et al. 2014, Bulkeley et al. 2013). Yet, addressing the environmental crisis will require a concerted action between public, private and civil society actors for a sustainability transition.

    Demonstrating that just sustainabilities have purchase to deliver an urban future that is both just and sustainable will require operationalising this notion within current governance possibilities. In particular, following Rydin’s (2013) pioneering work on the future of planning, there is a need to think how just sustainabilities can help challenge and redefine environmental planning. Just sustainabilities emphasises the “nexus of theoretical compatibility between sustainability and environmental justice, including an emphasis on community-based decision making; on economic policies that account fiscally for social and environmental externalities; on reductions in all forms of pollution; on building clean, livable communities for all people; and on an overall regard for the ecological integrity of the planet” (Agyeman and Evans 2003; p. 36-37). It adopts an expansive notion of environmental justice which also recognises the just practices of everyday life (Schlosberg 2013). In doing so, it calls for a to move away from current dominant paradigms of growth, using planning as a means to address social and ecological concerns within an unsustainable and unjust economic system (Rydin 2013).


    In this vein, just sustainabilities may be thought as the attainment of four conditions simultaneously:

    1. Improving people’s quality of life and wellbeing;
    2. Meeting the needs of both present and future generations, that is, considering simultaneously intra- and intergenerational equity;
    3. Ensuring justice and equity in terms of recognition, process, procedure and outcome; and
    4. Recognising ecosystem limits and the need to live within the possibilities of this planet (Agyeman et al. 2003).

    There is already a body of empirical evidence about the practice of just sustainabilities (Agyeman 2005, Agyeman 2013). However, does it represent a viable perspective for sustainable planning agendas? Does it have relevance beyond the environmental justice movements from which it has emerged? Can it be integrated into current practices of environmental planning? These are open questions which will unfold as the New Urban Agenda begins to be implemented on the ground. The concept of just sustainabilities emerges as a positive discourse that can support action to deliver urban transformations. Clearly, there are tools available to deliver just sustainability action in urban environmental planning and management, but their applicability, effectiveness and impacts depend on the context in which they are implemented. More ambitious efforts are needed in the New Urban Agenda to redefine urban development possibilities and the way environmental limits are experienced in different cities. Local governments will play a key role in developing strategies to challenge growth-dependence paradigms and to enable collaborative forms of environmental governance.



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    Vanesa Castán Broto is a senior lecturer and co-director of MSc Environment and Sustainable Development at the DPU. Her work spans a range of issues in developing cities, including disaster preparedness, climate change adaptation and energy supply. Vanesa is also Principal Investigator of the Mapping Urban Energy Landscapes (MUEL) in the Global South project at Urban Transformations.