Insights from the UrbanA Wiki on Sustainable Just Cities

We need creative combinations of mainstream and radical approaches, of grassroots action and policies, to transform cities towards justice and sustainability, say Karlijn Schipper and Flor Avelino. In this blog they share insights gleaned from the knowledge commons of city-makers and city-thinkers they helped co-create as part of the Urbana project.

A community garden in London, UK
Cities are complex and contradictory. On the one hand, they are the scene of persistent injustice and unsustainability, exacerbated by COVID-19 lockdowns. On the other, they are home to a multitude of initiatives – participatory budgeting, energy cooperatives and community gardens, for example – which strive for sustainability and justice.
Urban injustice and unsustainability need transformative change
Worldwide measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have highlighted and exacerbated urban inequalities and injustices. Enforced isolation and physical distancing have been unsafe or nigh impossible for vulnerable groups of people. The homeless, the poor, those who suffer from domestic violence, and people who live in overcrowded conditions or inadequate housing have been rendered yet more vulnerable. As argued by Leilani Farha, former UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing: “Housing has become the front line defence against the coronavirus. Home has rarely been more of a life or death situation”.
Local governments have responded with short-term policies: for example, by providing emergency shelter for the homeless in empty hostels and public facilities, like swimming pools. Such measures can be considered ‘crisis innovations’, but they are not long-term solutions to the housing crisis.
Beyond housing, the COVID-19 pandemic brings into sharp focus how injustice and unsustainability is ingrained in other urban infrastructure — in energy, water, mobility, food and health.
Long before COVID-19, innovative city-dwellers had already started working to make urban systems more just and sustainable, through diverse approaches to housing and other issues. Many of these initiatives explicitly seek to reclaim the city as a common space to serve the collective good.
No matter how plentiful and diverse these initiatives are, however, their existence alone is not enough to tackle urban societal challenges. The persistent and interconnected nature of urban injustice and unsustainability requires systemic, transformative change – what we call sustainability transitions. Alternative urban initiatives can play an important role in these transition processes, but only if they have enough transformative potential to challenge, alter and replace underlying structures.

Illustration by Saskia Haex.
Diversity of approaches to sustainable just cities
The UrbanA Wiki on Sustainable Just Cities shows how much is already happening in cities. Examples range from strategies to revitalize and green neighborhoods, to participatory budgeting, fab labs, energy cooperatives, alternative indicators to measuring growth, dance and rap youth groups, community gardens and local food networks, and more. Many of the approaches are not isolated examples but are part of broader movements or translocal networks which span the globe. Many have been studied and compared in numerous research and innovation projects and have inspired initiatives elsewhere.
These initiatives address injustice and unsustainability from different angles. Some address consumer behaviour and lifestyles, others create new partnerships or set up complementary community currencies. Some prefigure alternative ideas and practices, thus making possible by doing. Others take provocative action in order to challenge injustice or develop new narratives to counter dominant and toxic ways of thinking and talking about issues.
The potential transition impacts of these diverse approaches include:

  • optimising the status quo
  • creating space for alternatives to emerge
  • creating connections and synergies between different types of power
  • mainstreaming practices
  • institutionalising new practices into formal policies
  • breaking down old patterns, for example, by divesting from unsustainable production processes.

The approaches as listed in the Wiki on Sustainable Just Cities clearly differ in their attitude towards the status-quo and towards change. Some address power relations in a radical way. Others are more mainstream or are trying to become more mainstream.
A key feature of some approaches is that they enable other initiatives to emerge: for example, experimentation labs and democratic innovations that create space for different actors to connect and share knowledge, and the development of  financial practices and instruments that enable initiatives to be funded.
Another feature of the approaches is the diversity of lead actors. Some are community-led movements, while others are led by governments, entrepreneurs or foundations.

Illustration by Saskia Haex
Although many initiatives would like to tackle both environmental sustainability and social justice, most lack an explicit strategy for doing so. As we learn from co-learning and knowledge-brokerage, fairer processes do not automatically have positive benefits for the environment, and  the equal distribution of costs and benefits of sustainability interventions are often assumed or aspired to but not always achieved..
For example, urban community gardens, urban farming and local food production are bottom-up approaches that aspire to improve food provision and green cities, as well as to promote inclusive communities. Urban agriculture and the simple act of gardening are not only ways of providing food, and access to food. By building community and supporting personal recovery from trauma, they have wider social benefits. In the wiki, we consider community gardens as part of the shift from ‘sustainable’ to ‘regenerative cities’. However, one can’t assume the regenerative potential of urban community gardens to integrate both ecological sustainability and social justice. Indeed, they can unintentionally add to green gentrification, and, depending on how they are organised, make some residents feel excluded.

Illustration by Saskia Haex
Where lies the transformative potential?
From our transitions perspective, what is most important is exploring how, and to what extent, approaches can be transformative. It is their potential for transformation that is key. However, we do not want to judge whether they are transformative. Rather, we want to consider how they contribute to challenging, altering and replacing unsustainable and unjust structures and institutions. Approaches are never inherently transformative: it is the way in which they are developed and the combination of approaches that make the difference.
The transformative potential of approaches, and how radical they are, may very well lie at their intersection and in how they collaboratively challenge power, rather than in the isolated approaches themselves. For instance, a co-housing initiative where people are already putting into practice their vision on a small scale could also be involved in the right to housing movement, demanding structural government change and support. Or a co-living initiative that is based on a right-to-housing approach may also experiment with participatory budgeting. Financial approaches that respond to the need for and the wish to build regenerative, equitable and democratic economies are particularly important.
It is the combination of approaches with different focuses and strategies that produces transformative potential. Therefore, we need creative combinations of mainstream and radical approaches, of the grassroots and of policies to transform cities towards justice and sustainability.
A transition perspective also means acknowledging that the very notions of justice and sustainability are laden with inherent ambiguities, tensions and political contestations. They are not objective criteria to implement, but rather orienting principles to guide processes of societal transformation, or, as we call it, transitions. The transformative potential of approaches to contribute to more sustainable just cities is therefore inherently political, and something that we need to keep striving for, contesting, questioning and debating.
Knowledge commoning as a way of supporting transformative potential
UrbanA is building a knowledge commons in order to recognize, appreciate and make visible alternative approaches to sustainable just cities. The defense of existing commons, and the creation of new ones, is both a strategic and a practical action for more sustainable and just forms of social, economic and political organisation worldwide, providing alternatives to profit-oriented business and centralized state government, as noted by Tom Henfrey, UrbanA team member, and Justin Kenrick in 2017.
UrbanA is nurturing a Community of Practice of city-makers and city-thinkers to shape this knowledge commons together. As part of this endeavour we are using the open source WikiMedia software to share and co-create the Sustainable Just Cities database.

Illustration by Saskia Haex
By upholding a commons-based approach to creating, sharing and ‘owning’ translocal knowledge on sustainable just cities, UrbanA is developing knowledge which is ‘alive’, adaptable, open-source and co-created by many people who hold different types of knowledge. We call this actionable knowledge. It is created in a way that is ‘just’ in its process, distribution, outcomes and recognition. Also, by being itself adaptable and changeable and able to absorb many voices, this knowledge understands transformative change.
Want to get in touch with the UrbanA Community?
Check out our upcoming events and join our dedicated chat on the Communities for Future  platform or simply send an email to You can also subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Youtube.

September 22, 2020