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Accessible, green and fair
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Available Open Access under CC-BY-NC licence.

Sustainable urbanisation has moved to the forefront of global debate, research and policy agendas over recent years. Rapid urbanisation throughout China, India and many other low and middle income countries poses new challenges both locally and internationally at a time when urban areas worldwide are threatened by climate/environmental change.

This compact book is designed to make a signal contribution to the sustainable urbanisation agenda through authoritative interventions contextualising, assessing and explaining clearly the relevance and importance of three central characteristics of sustainable towns and cities everywhere, namely that they should be accessible, green and fair.

These three terms form key tenets of the work of Mistra Urban Futures (MUF), an international research centre on sustainable urbanisation based in Gothenburg, Sweden, and working through transdisciplinary research platforms there, in Greater Manchester (UK), Cape Town (South Africa) and Kisumu (Kenya). Additional platforms are being established in southern Sweden, Asia and Africa.

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This chapter examines how sustainability and green discourses and agendas relating to urban and peri-urban areas have arisen, evolved and been applied over time and in different socio-spatial contexts. It commences with a brief historical overview of the importance of health and wellbeing to the rise and embedding of urban planning as a discipline, and how early visionary efforts focused on green or public open space and garden cities. These have remained important planning foci but have been reinterpreted with changing times.

Initiatives to enhance urban sustainability through urban greening can be traced back to the 1980s, although its widespread emergence in discourse and practice is more recent. The diversity of meanings and associations attached to urban greening – indicative of its appeal in numerous contexts – is examined. Various ‘weak’ or instrumental approaches to urban greening can be distinguished from ‘strong’versions that imply more fundamental transitions and transformations. There are strong links to climate change issues (for example, Bicknell et al, 2009; UNEP, 2012; Castán Broto and Bulkeley, 2013; UN-HABITAT, 2013; Bulkeley et al, 2014; Hodson and Marvin, 2014). Moreover, the imperative of addressing climate change is a key driver behind the recent popularisation of city greening initiatives. Conventional thinking has bifurcated climate change actions into tackling mitigation versus promoting adaptation. Recent evidence shows that this is an artificial division and that carefully targeted interventions can achieve both and also provide health and other co-benefits. Paradoxically, too, a portfolio of individually modest and incremental interventions can have aggregate effects where the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts and hence has important transformative value.

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Sustainable urbanisation has moved to the forefront of debate, research and policy agendas over recent years. There are numerous reasons for this, differing in precise combination across countries and regions. Among the most important of these is a growing appreciation of the implications of rapid urbanisation now occurring in China, India and many other low- and middle-income countries with historically low urbanisation levels. Much of this urbanisation is emulating unsustainable resource-intensive patterns from high-income countries, with the demonstration effect enhanced by greater global mobility, globalisation of architectural and urban planning consultancies and construction firms, and the power of the media and information and communications technologies.

Similarly, the related challenges posed to urban areas and regions worldwide by climate/environmental change have now become more widely understood and the urgency of taking action increasingly appreciated, even in poor cities and towns. This constitutes remarkable progress from a situation of just a few years ago when such arguments fell on deaf ears since the problems were held to be too distant in the future compared to meeting immediate demands for scarce resources. Almost everywhere, the realities of fluctuating and unpredictable weather patterns, and especially the increasing frequency and severity of extreme events, as well as extensive loss of life and both economic and environmental damage, are changing perceptions among elected urban representatives, officials and residents alike.

A key marker of the increasing importance of urban issues is how they have risen up the international agenda. This is symbolised by the inclusion of a specifically urban Goal (no 11) – to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable – in the set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the UN at the 2015 General Assembly.

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Co-Production For Sustainability

Available Open Access under CC-BY-NC licence. Reporting on the innovative, transdisciplinary research on sustainable urbanisation undertaken by Mistra Urban Futures, a highly influential research centre based in Sweden (2010-19), this book builds on the Policy Press title Rethinking Sustainable Cities to make a significant contribution to evolving theory about comparative urban research.

Highlighting important methodological experiences from across a variety of diverse contexts in Africa and Europe, this book surveys key experiences and summarises lessons learned from the Mistra Urban Futures' global research platforms. It demonstrates best practice for developing and deploying different forms of transdisciplinary co-production, covering topics including neighbourhood transformation and housing justice, sustainable urban and transport development, urban food security and cultural heritage.

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In terms of the logic laid out in Chapter One, this chapter moves from the locally co-produced transdisciplinary research in individual city platforms to the even more experimental approach of comparing such local research approaches across varying urban contexts.

Understanding the potential uniqueness of cities and the specificity of the local are essential for knowledge production for sustainability. Local practices stemming from a specific climate and ecology, a specific geographic setting and urban morphology, a set of cultures and traditions, and local social networks, skills and habits interact with national and global agendas to produce different and contextualised solutions from which to learn also about universal problems. This implies that urban dissimilarity and difference are interesting features for research on urban sustainability that could potentially be captured through comparison. The organisational structure of Mistra Urban Futures, as presented in Chapter One, carefully considers the differences among the partnering platforms in terms of local stakeholder participation and agreements. Nevertheless, the raison d’être for this organisational structure calls for comparison between the different cities and their respective stakeholder arrangements. Comparison is embodied in the notion of the Centre as it spans different kinds of borders at global, continental and national scales. Consequently, comparison is a constant ongoing process in which each issue is positioned and debated. To pursue comparative research across the different LIPs, to produce further knowledge on sustainable development, was therefore an underlying aspiration that found expression in the structured propositions embodied in the Centre’s Strategic Plan 2016–19 (Mistra Urban Futures, 2015).

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Ultimately, to achieve holistic sustainable urbanism, the dimensions of accessible, green and fair cities all need to be considered alongside each other, contextualised, and also assessed for synergies and trade-offs. (James Waters, Chapter Two, this volume, p 48)

Sustainable development is an interlaced concept and translations tend to provide it with sets of interdependent definitions, as the now classic division into the three dimensions of social, economic and environmental sustainability. While these definitions intersect with and enrich each other and aim to construct a holistic vision, they also project a set of embedded conflicts. As such it is possible to trace a triangle of conflicts, each one as a tension of values; the tension between economic and social sustainability as a property conflict – a conflict between the private and the public; the conflict between economic and ecological sustainability as a resource conflict – the conflict between people and nature, or between the ‘city’ and the ‘wilderness’; and the tension between social and ecological sustainability as a development conflict – as environmental concerns, for example, increasing inequity between the global North and South, when demands from the global North for environmental protection in the global South hinder economic growth and public investments (Campbell, 1996).

These tensions reveal struggles of values and power and drag sustainable development into differing political domains. Are these embedded conflicts an unavoidable and inherent problem of sustainable development, in the ambition to structure development along separately defined but holistically connected concepts? Does the holistic vision provide a practicable framework for organising actions, or does it, by contrast, open escape routes for nice labelling of toothless paper products and unholy alliances? This book investigates the triple characteristics of ‘accessible’, ‘green’ and ‘fair’, leaving out the economic as a separate part of the construction (where ecology could be read as green, and social as fair), although forming an important element of both accessible and green.

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This chapter examines the extent to which a human rights approach offers a framework to increase accountability for the policies that perpetuate child impoverishment. In doing so, it considers some of the practical limitations to this framework with specific reference to the issues of ‘justiciability’ and ‘progressive realisation’. Finally, it explores how social scientists may utilise human rights frameworks in poverty research, as well as the methodological issues that arise from this approach.

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All international comparative urban research is complex and challenging. Hence, attempting to undertake it in countries situated in different regions, particularly bearing in mind the many structural differences and inequalities between the global North and South (as very loose and diverse categories), adds another challenge since relative priorities may differ considerably. For example, in relation to food supply and security, reducing obstacles for informal urban and peri-urban producers and retailers and dealing with the implications of supermarketisation are priority issues in the Southern countries where Mistra Urban Futures has city platforms, whereas the priority issues in the Northern countries centre on enhancing local production of healthy food and reducing the consumption of unhealthy foods, as well as cutting transportation distances and hence food miles and associated emissions.

The challenges are amplified when the global comparative research is undertaken using transdisciplinary co-production (used in this book as a short-hand term that includes co-design and co-creation) rather than conventional academic research teams that to a greater or lesser extent share epistemological and methodological understandings, despite often profound differences between disciplines and in institutional, resourcing and local contextual circumstances, practices and power relations. As reflected in the preceding chapters assessing the pioneering efforts in this regard, transdisciplinary co-production teams seeking to compare locally defined and appropriate projects and research processes within the same research theme in each participating Local Interaction Platform (LIP) face several additional internal and external challenges. Some of these reflect the locally specific nature of transdisciplinarity in each LIP, while others pertain to possible differences in the numbers of partners undertaking the co-production, the particular methods used, differences in the nature of the respective empirical projects, and both interpersonal and interinstitutional power differentials within and across the respective research teams.

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Co-production of knowledge as an approach has evolved since the 1970s. The objective has been to bring different stakeholder groups together in an attempt to improve outcomes, whether of services or research, and their legitimacy and to overcome often longstanding antagonisms and wide asymmetries of power by working or researching together (Jasanoff, 2004; Joshi and Moore, 2004; Mitlin, 2008; Polk, 2015a).

Co-production is generally seen as good for society, at least in relevant fields of research, as co-production is more equitable and includes more diverse voices and perspectives than traditional research (Durose et al, 2018). In the particular context of sustainable urban development, the terms co-production, co-creation and co-design have emerged to inform new expectations of project design, where the beneficiaries or users of a given intervention also participate in its design, research and implementation. Co-creation and co-design are gaining currency because they draw attention to the joint definition of shared problems and the design of an appropriate methodology, as well as undertaking the actual research, whereas co-production is sometimes used to denote only the actual research being undertaken jointly, on a design and methodology formulated by one or two participants, usually academic researchers. In this book, for convenience, we use co-production as a shorthand term to embrace all these variants.

The co-production approach to both research and service provision is now widely used in diverse situations in both the global South and North. In development contexts, co-production is often presented as a means of identifying and incorporating local and/or traditional forms of knowledge into development, thus moving beyond the problematic a priori valorisation of either local/traditional or generally Western scientific knowledge.

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