13 November, 2014

FLSHASE Key Area “Sustainable Development”

Sustainable development (SD) was recently declared a Key Area at the Faculty of Language and Literature, Humanities, Arts and Education (FLSHASE), University of Luxembourg. To give weight to this, members of the Faculty were invited to meet, introduce their work and research approach, generally get to know each other, and engage in the beginning phases of developing a teaching and research framework that could speak to SD. The last event was attended by roughly twenty researchers. As homework, everyone was asked to prepare a written statement around the question of how we each engage with SD in our own work. The following is our response, and we look forward to reading the others (!) In this process of writing this, we also realized that the statement is perhaps also useful as a Zwischenbilanz of our work, in general, and would therefore make a good addition to our blog. Bonne lecture!

Our original encounter with SD in our research was as a normative orientation in urban planning, whereas across the globe the urban is recognized as the logical site of sustainability intervention. Our entry to the subject was the observation that SD was a normative orientation in Luxembourgian spatial planning. Later, we observed it as well in Swiss spatial planning. Together, these formed the backgrounds and purposes of two CORE projects funded by the Fonds National de la Recherche (FNR) and the UL: SUSTAINLUX and SUSTAINGOV. We have researched SD throughout these endeavours and have found the topic of SD rather multi-dimensional.
   Why planning? Nowadays, local policy and urban planning are widely accepted as one appropriate scale of sustainability intervention. Rydin (2010, 136) identified three reasons why this is so: first, planning can permit new forms of urban development that can reshape cities towards sustainability goals; second, new development can underpin urban change with sustainable technologies and infrastructure; and third, development proposals are often approved by governmental planning offices which are therefore the primary body in control over change towards sustainability or not. The ever widespread notion that the planet is becoming urbanized has also further fueled the idea that urban spaces are increasingly important focal points of intervention (Rydin 2010). However, in practice things tend to be more difficult to settle, than it initially appears.[1]
   Two issues are coming to our mind in particular. Firstly, SD figures prominently across European and North American policy documents. Here, we see not only a plethora of attempts at realising SD, but also a plethora of problems at the level of implementation. A recent special issue of Interface in Planning Theory & Practice, guest edited by Carr provides an overview of these contradictions.[2] Contributions from members of the Geography Institute addressed some operationalizations of SD that have taken on hegemonic form in urban planning policy in recent years. They showed how these approaches have, in practice, produced not only new sets of problems to be dealt with, but have also achieved very little headway in terms of addressing fundamental underlying problems that triggered the call for SD in the first place. Sometimes the SD is too fuzzy and blurred in its articulation (Evrard, Nienaber, and Roos). Sometimes the approaches are too top-down and insensitive to specific local variations (Becker). Hesse argued that planners and activists (alike) can be so fixated on the orthodoxies – such as density – that the point is missed altogether. Similarly, McDonough challenges the normative notion that a sublime balance of integrated parts, in the name of SD, can be achieved. Lastly, SD in times of post-Fordist, post-crisis political economic patterns of urban restructuring, such approaches have also increasingly been driven by market forces – another problem (Krueger).
   The contributions show that, to date, no recipe for SD exists, in fact. Rather, current forms of intervention expose, at best, various dilemmas, and at worst, that only certain actors – such as landowners, developers and central state administrations – can expect to benefit from these exercises. They, thus, point not only to issues of mere political interest and conflict, but also the hidden agendas that may frame SD. Secondly, we have buttressed our approach to SD with several conceptual approaches such as policy mobility, scale theory, SD in the context of enclave spaces, and SD as an empty signifier. In terms of policy mobility Carr (2013) has contributed to the body of literature that examines how SD ‘travels’.[3] This work builds on previous conceptual contributions that have shown that policies cannot be cookie-cuttered across space at will, as some proponents of new modernism or business improvement districts seem to deem. Rather, policy transfer and implementation is a contextually grounded process rooted in locally specific socio-political and economic arrangements. With respect to SD, it is, at most, implemented asynchronously across various geographies, and often not implemented at all.
   In a Special Issue of Local Environment, Carr and Affolderbach addressed SD in terms of scale theory and actor networks.[4] One problem of SD is the contradiction between foundational change on a global scale with locally bounded initiatives. While the global cannot address and deliver SD at the local level, the same problem arises in its opposite as the local cannot, in isolation, generate global change. The contributions showed that local initiatives must be viewed in association to the wider multi-scalar networks that enable and disable them. Together, the papers were conceptually anchored critical case studies that exposed the limited reach of networks, the spatial unevenness, and social externalities that unfold and diverge at wider scales of analysis.
   This work was also relevant to scale theory. Building on previous international work, Affolderbach & Carr showed a ‘blended scales’ of governance in Luxembourgian SD policy.[5] Similarly, Hesse examined scaled SD in a paper exposing the power dynamics involved in urban and regional planning that aims to be sustainable.[6] Luxembourg, as a small state, develops as a political-economic niche in a network of international flows. In urban geography, there is an emerging literature looking at such enclave spaces. These are posing a particular challenge to SD in various regards.
   Most recently, Carr examined SD as an empty and master signifier. The work builds on authors who argued that, albeit void of content, that the naming of the empty-signifier, in this case SD, performs a “quilting” function around which policy-makers can orient in attempts to bring order out of disorder. Davidson argued that SD was a signifier capable of redirecting policy agendas. Most importantly, they would be redirected away from social problems. Carr takes this one step further and shows that SD is, in this sense, indeed a policy-maker’s discursive ordering device that can redirect discursive spheres, but that this also has spatial and embodied implications. In this sense, SD can have implications in terms of power.
   Fourth, we deal with SD as a locally relevant discourse. According to the interviews that we conducted during SUSTAINLUX, many in Luxembourg date local environmental governance back to Rio, the Green Party, the planning law of 1999 and respective planning documents. However, for one thing, Luxembourg also has a long history of natural resource management, and by extension, environmental policy.[7] Like many European cities, the role of fresh water infrastructure, waste disposal, and forestry has long been closely linked to the development of the state apparatus and economic development policy. Sustainability was anchored in forestry legislation of the Grand Duchy as early as 1840. Today, policy debates around SD centre either on local radical social movements or on national objectives of climate change, energy reduction, and smart mobility. Concerning the latter, efforts have concentrated most recently on the design and enforcement of a particular land use arrangement in the name of SD. On this, Hesse (2014) recently published a critical commentary in the daily newspaper Luxemburger Wort, titled “Plan ohne Land”.[8] A copy is available here.

[1] Rydin, Y. (2010) Governing for Sustainable Urban Development (Washington, DC, Routledge).
[2] Carr, C. (guest ed., forthcoming): Raising Sustainability. Forthcoming in Planning Theory & Practice, Interface.  Becker, T. (forthcoming) Boosting and Mobilizing Sustainability: Why European Sustainable Urban Development Initiatives Are Slow to Materialise. Planning Theory & Practice, Interface. Evrard, E., B.Nienaber, and U. Roos. (forthcoming) Territorial Cohesion as a Vehicle of Sustainability. Planning Theory & Practice, Interface. Hesse, M. (forthcoming) Distorted Density: Where the Views of Developers and NGOs on Sustainable Urban Development Intersect. Planning Theory & Practice, Interface.  Krueger, R. (forthcoming) Overcoming Politics with Markets? The Co-Production of Sustainable Development in Urban and Regional Planning. Planning Theory & Practice, Interface. McDonough, Evan. (forthcoming) Sustainable Urban Development and the Challenge of Global Nodes and Spatial Integration: Madrid-Barajas Airport and Development on the Periphery of the Global City. Planning Theory & Practice, Interface.
[3] Carr, C., 2013. Discourse Yes, Implementation Maybe: An Immobility and Paralysis of Sustainable Development Policy. European Planning Studies 22 (9): 1824–40. doi:10.1080/09654313.2013.806433.
[4] Carr, C. and J. Affolderbach. 2014. Rescaling Sustainability? Local Opportunities and Scalar Contradictions. Local Environment 19 (6): 567–71.
[5] Affolderbach, J., and C. Carr. 2014. Blending Scales of Governance: Land Use Policies and Practices in the Small State of Luxembourg. Regional Studies. doi:10.1080/00343404.2014.893057.
[6] Hesse, M. 2013. Das ‘Kirchberg-Syndrom’: Grosse Projekte im kleinen Land. Bauen und Planen in Luxemburg. DISP - The Planning Review 49 (1): 14–28.
[7] Carr, C., Hesse, M., Schulz, C. Sustainable Spatial Development in Luxembourg. Under preparation for « Luxembourg Studies/Etudes luxembourgoises », book series publ. by Peter Lang, Frankfurt et al.
[8] Hesse, M. 2014. Plan ohne Land. Luxemburger Wort, p. 16, Analyse & Meinung (16.11.2014).

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