Sustainability: familiar term, new approach

The enlightened city research agenda centres on the interrelations between notions of postsecularity, radical difference and sustainability. New critical thinking on the notion of “sustainability” lies at its heart and requires careful analysis.

new_crops-chicago_urban_farm Source: Urban farm, Chicago (click here).

The 2015 sustainable development goals (aka Transforming Our World: the 2030 agenda for sustainable development) and the recent October 2016 Habitat III (the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development) talks in Quito, Equador alert us to the ever-prevalent and contested narrative of “sustainable urbanization”.

The sustainability literature is replete with critical studies, questioning the authentic transformative potential of this narrative. Criticisms often rest on the continual instrumentalization of the discourse, serving to tame the radical, contestatory potential of the participants to challenge deeply entrenched power relations and global inequalities.

The central objective of our research agenda is to reach beyond currently restricted understandings of the links between inequality, social and cultural difference and spatial injustice, which have tended to approach the interrelations between these issues in narrowly empirical and largely quantitative terms. Our guiding principle is that only progressive and enlightened regeneration that reconciles postsecularity, radical difference and sustainability can reduce spatial injustices and achieve territorial cohesion across European space. The principal focus will be progressive postsecular politics of hope, spatial justice and urban regeneration within a regional context.

The underlying premise is likewise both empirical and normative in nature. Martin Luther King Jr. said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. In light of this premise, the growth of social and material inequality in Europe in recent years is salutary. According to Oxfam, between 2009 and 2013 the number of Europeans experiencing “severe material deprivation” rose by 7.5 million to 50 million people. Almost a quarter of the EU population – 123 million people – are at risk of living in poverty. These growing inequalities in Europe threaten the social cohesion and sustainability of its cities, which may provide fertile grounds for various forms of radicalization and extremism.

Urban and regional regeneration, sustainability politics, the right to the city and the urban commons are types of spaces where postsecular ethics and politics are coming about. These spaces are most visible in welfare and care through services and advocacy work around homelessness and anti-poverty action, refugee support and mobilizations for more socially just regeneration approaches involving religious and ethnic minorities. Recent work by Chris Shannahan on urbanism, religion, poverty and activism provides valuable insights on broad-based organizing for social justice like UK Citizens. ENLIGHTEN will collect new data on these dimensions in cities across the consortium of countries in Europe.

peoples-climate-march-em-sign-300x225 Source: Religious communities: lead, don’t follow on climate justice (click here).

The project incorporates recent scholarship that addresses the contested politics of sustainability (the capacity to endure), and the ways in which notions of sustainability can be entirely in keeping with neo-conservative and neoliberal ideologies that, for commentators like Erik Swyngedouw, work to depoliticise contemporary forms of injustice. However, this project challenges the somewhat totalizing conceptions found in the ‘postpolitical’ literature, instead preferring to identify spaces of political possibility emerging in the postsecular spaces of European cities and regions. For this reason, we focus on: (a) processes of democratic decision-making and progressive engagement with citizens; (b) reaching “alternative publics” based on solidarity and equality, as well as (c) challenging discrimination and persistent stereotypes in urban and regional progressive and sustainable regeneration actions.

Our assumption is that only progressive regeneration that reconciles postsecularity, radical difference and sustainability in the public sphere can tackle spatial injustices and achieve territorial cohesion within cities and regions but also across European space.

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