Sustainable development is our major challenge today. What is even more challenging is to achieve both sustainability and social justice. In this adapted excerpt*, François Mancebo shares some considerations regarding sustainability and social justice, and suggests that sustainability policies should focus more on the social process of decision-making to combine everyone’s well-being and social justice.
Fostering a sustainable future in a changing world is a crucial challenge for contemporary societies. But how can we do this practically? One of the more challenging aspects is addressing simultaneously social justice and sustainability. The doxa considers that social justice and sustainability are perfectly synergistic, but they are not. Planning for one may produce redlines in the other: Sustainable policies often increase social injustice. In fact sustainability and justice are like two rival brothers, and this is particularly true in urban areas. This chapter focuses on the sharp processes of spatial differentiation and the many-fold conflicts between urban sustainability and social justice. Ultimately, the challenge is to design a new social contract addressing the social process of decision-making.
How Sustainability may Foster Injustice…
By 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities, so that combining social justice with sustainability is particularly crucial in urban areas. As shown by Elizabeth Burton in a large sample of UK towns, technical solutions may join with legal requirements in increasing social injustice (Burton E., 2001). Consider the particular case of sustainable housing: As far as sustainable housing is concerned, the reason why sustainable cities and ecological neighbourhoods are mostly inhabited by wealthy people is simple: In the beginning, these categories were targeted because they could afford the higher construction costs and they were decisive in the formation of new trends. Such a choice was supposed to make easier the democratisation of the access to this type of living, as a larger demand would make possible lowering construction costs due to economies of scale. The Swedish cases of Hammarby Sjöstad (Stockholm) or Västra Hamnen (Malmö) illustrate this approach. (Olander et al. 2007) However, this democratisation did not happen. Construction costs inflated steadily, as developers, constrained by drastic environmental specifications, played the “style and class” card to increase their capital gains. Anyway, as higher as it can be, there are a limited number of ecological dwellings, and their attractiveness is strong. So, the law of supply and demand increases the rent rate and the sell rate, regardless what the construction cost is. This new upward pressure on prices brought by sustainable housing usually proves catastrophic. The name of a “sustainable” neighbourhood is clearly inappropriate when a neighbourhood becomes socially inaccessible and socially vulnerable people have to relocate to outlying areas.
Thus urban sustainability policies should focus on an inclusive approach, rather than to keep on creating “attractive” green housing spots and amenities, without taking into account the dynamics of the whole urban fabric.
Imported Sustainability: The Big Issue
When a place looks sustainable by giving to other places the burden of its transition to sustainability – exporting pollution and undesired products (waste and nuisances) or polluting activities, and even people, siphoning their resources and energy – this place is not really sustainable. It benefits from what David Pearce calls imported sustainability (Pearce et al. 1989), which is the case when a city transfers the cost of its sustainability onto adjacent or distant regions. It is very tricky to deal with this problem since, if we want to define a study area large enough to include imported sustainability, its limits will differ according to which aspect of sustainability we focus on: the functional area and the employment area of a major industrial centre does not coincide, nor do they with the geographical area affected by the pollution (physical, chemical, air and water) and nuisance due to this industrial centre.
Thus, imported sustainability is a big issue and a major bias against the implementation of sustainability policies. The only solution is defining sustainability policies on areas large enough to internalise the imported sustainability bias – for example, including suburban, peri-urban and dependent rural or natural areas in the case of urban sustainability – while taking into account all the relations between the human beings and the environment where they live. (Mancebo F., 2013)
• First is the scale of the neighbourhood. A place based level. At this level the physical impact of the urban projects, even if they are conceived at the agglomeration level, is maximal. The phenomena observed at this scale can be considered “local”.
• Second is the scale of agglomeration in urban planning. This represents a cluster of adjacent neighbourhoods working together. It gives a good insight of the urban policies, on the one side, and of the urban lifestyles, on the other side. This level plays a strategic role in sustainable urbanisation. It is appropriate to observe the coordination between multiple actors producing policies aimed at transforming the urban fabric. It is at this scale that sustainability policies are defined.
• Finally, there is the scale of the hinterland, which reflects the agglomeration of environmental footprint. It is defined so as to include most of the fluxes of the urban metabolism. This level, which can be called “regional”, is crucial to describe imported sustainability.
What Can be Considered a “Good” Environment?
To combine social justice with sustainability, it is fundamental to understand the linking between the societies and the ecosystem where they live in at the different spatial scales. Human societies are complex adaptive systems, composed of individual agents who have their own priorities, and who value the macroscopic features of their societies differently. Resolving those competing perspectives is at the core of transition to sustainability. (Mancebo F., 2013)
It is therefore important to determine what is a “good” environment for the communities involved: one in which the improvement of environmental conditions stricto sensu (water quality, air, biodiversity, prudent use of resources, land, energy, and etc.) will lead to improved living conditions; one in which technical devices and ecological processes – included in areas large enough to take into account imported sustainability – will lead to improved living conditions and new lifestyles. It also means that a place-based approach is fundamental to determine this “good environment”, which may differ significantly between persons and communities. A polluted environment can be a place where life is good. Just think about the price of a square meter in the very centre of a very noisy and polluted Manhattan, Paris or London. Conversely, an environment with clean air and water can be quite intolerable as evidenced by windswept, segregated social-housing blocks settled in the middle of nowhere.
Toward Joint-Construction of Sustainability Policies
There is a general equity principle, which we could also call fairness, at the heart of sustainable development. (Cairns J., 2001) To determine what a “good” environment is, it is necessary to arbitrate between preserving the environment for the future generations (what we can call intergenerational equity), and preserving social justice and quality of life today (what we can call geographical equity). By definition, sustainability policies should meet both, but they don’t.
On behalf and with the excuse of intergenerational equity – making the world a better place in the future with cleaner air and fighting global warmth, for example – “exemplary” buildings, devices are often favored within reputed “smart cities”, to the detriment of more holistic approaches, such as reestablishing the inclusiveness of the urban and social fabric, which address primarily geographical equity. It is so much easier to go popping-up buildings or housing estates, without paying attention to the surroundings, than to consider the dynamics of the city as a whole. In many cases, vegetation, green technologies and exterior wood facing, camouflage very classical housing estates totally disconnected from their surroundings. There is no way to foster sound communities in such a context. The identity of place is usually extraordinarily weak for the people living there.
To combine sustainability issues and social justice, it is thus necessary first to make sustainability policies acceptable to the current populations, and naturally these populations are prone to favoring their interests – here and now – to issues placed in a distant future.
Thus fostering sustainability means involving everybody in the decisions and the definition of the policies, not only of their neighbourhood but also of the city as a whole. The point is co-producing collective decision through the interaction between society and science (Jasanoff and Wynne 1998), in an attempt to legitimise sustainability policy-making. This should include non-market organisations, local communities and individuals able to form self-determined user associations, in the continuity of Elinor Ostrom’s work that showed that user communities with neighbourhood governance could manage common resources more efficiently than the market or institutional structures. (Ostrom 1998) The objective here is sitting everyone at the table, so that all the inhabitants understand that these affairs are also their affairs.
Sustainability policies should focus more on the social process of decision-making to combine everyone’s well-being and social justice. A city, a village, a countryside does not arise from the sole will of architects, planners, surveyors, and politicians. They have to be nurtured and molded by their inhabitants, and such a process needs time. Quite differently from the frenetic timeline and knee-jerk reactions that elected officials and planners, guided by their own short-term interests (the next election, compliance with construction deadlines and etc.), impose on sustainability policies.
Promoting collective appropriation of sustainability policies implies that those who will be affected by them are involved in the process of decision-making, right from the beginning. When they are disconnected from the inhabitants and local communities’ needs, desires and definition of what a “good environment” is, these policies fail to meet their objectives. It is thus impossible to determine whether a place is sustainable or not only by considering the factual date of environmental indicators. Instead, sustainability is an inclusive notion, which integrates social, cultural and economic aspects of the concerned societies. It means considering that the environment, far from being pure transcendence, is embedded in the societies.
In 1987, the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, which is the source of sustainable development, mentioned that its objectives were “to reduce inequality and poverty without damaging the environment granted to the future generations”. (WCED 1987) It is time to go beyond the mantra, and do it in real life.
The article is an adapted excerpt from the article “Insights for a Better Future in an Unfair World: Combining Social Justice with Sustainability” in the book Transitions to Sustainability, edited by François Mancebo and Ignacy Sachs (2015, Springer)
About the Author
François Mancebo is the Director of the International Research Centre on Sustainability (IRCS) and the Director of the Institute of Regional Development, Environment and Urban Planning (IATEUR). Full professor of urban planning and sustainability at Rheims University, he is at the origin of the Rencontres Internationales de Reims on Sustainability Studies, an annual event (www.sustainability-studies.org). His research aims at determining the conditions of transitions to sustainability, and particularly the linkage between sustainability polices and environmental and social justice. His latest book is Transitions to Sustainability, published by Spinger in 2015.
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8. Pearce D., Markandya A., Barbier E. B., 1989, Blueprint for a Green Economy, Earthscan Publication.
9. WCED, 1987, Our Common Future, Oxford University Press.