The Strategy of Sustainable City-Regions and the Just Sustainability Approach: Strong Sustainability and Social Equity

By Ernest J. Yanarella

The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN, has triggered nationwide protests against police brutality and demands for racial justice and social equity that have long been staples in the third wave of environmentalism in the United States. This strain in environmental studies and the wider environmental movement has taken the form of a critique of environmental racism and the advocacy and pursuit of environmental justice—and, more recently, “just sustainability.” As an approach to advancing social justice and sustainability, the strategy of just sustainability has gained increasing traction and may become hegemonic in the thought and practice of sustainability in academia and perhaps out in the field.

From its founding document, “The Sustainable Cities Manifesto” (1992) to From Eco-Cities to Sustainable City-Regions (2020), our research program has sought to promote the goal of strong sustainability through the formulation of a theory or strategy of sustainable city-regions with two primary components: (1) it would see the proper scale of sustainability as the city-region and (2) it defines sustainability as a “local, informed, participatory, balance-seeking process, operating within a Sustainable Area Budget, exporting no problems beyond its territory or into the future, and in so doing opens spaces of opportunity and possibility.” While social justice is not foregrounded in this comprehensive theory or approach, a concern for social equity—the third leg of the sustainability stool—is and remains an integral part of our theory, design, and fieldwork furthering sustainable city-regions.

In our first book, The City as Fulcrum of Global Sustainability (2011), we reported on our leadership role under the auspices of Oikodrom: the Institute of Urban Sustainability, in a major design and implementation project in Vienna, Austria, one seeking to overbuild the Westbahnhof railway station area. This was an ambitious undertaking commissioned by the City of Vienna and the National Bank of Austria over a five-year period (1994-1999). The surrounding run-down neighborhoods to the north and south of the railway terminal had become blighted and were widely regarded a “wound in the landscape,” bisected by the main entryway to this historic city for passengers arriving from western towns and cities in Europe.

Previously commissioned to other Viennese architectural design firms by public officials and planners, Oikodrom marshaled urban and sustainable architectural expertise in designing a Sustainable Urban Implantation (SUI) to be built over the railroad tracks. The SUI would weave together the divided neighborhoods using a Coupled Pan Space Frame to create business, residential, and public spaces modeled after a City-as-a-Hill. The goal was to maximize square footage and offer the promise of improving the standard of living and quality of life for current residents of these deteriorating subcommunities. In addition, this SUI was paired with agricultural partnerland to provision Vienna’s Fifteenth District—specifically, Mistelbach, a sparsely settled agricultural region in the Weinviertel to the north of Vienna near the Czech border, with an overall population of around 70,000. This rural component was intended to further social equity goals targeting this rural populace. Only the untimely election of a right-wing party official as Vienna mayor overturned bringing this design to fruition.

In the second of three works, this one on politics, power, and urban sustainability in Canada and the United States, Yanarella and Lancaster (2016) applied the Yanarella-Levine strong sustainability approach to survey eight heralded case studies. The Bamberton, B.C. case lent insight into the efforts of a major land developer, David Butterfield, to convert a moribund company town into a showcase of town sustainability. The intense politicking that ensued, pitting a tribe of native aboriginal people and other oppositional citizens against the developer, provided a revealing portrait of unique aspects of Canadian politics and culture. In this instance, the claims of the First Nations towards the Butterfield land development tract rested upon cultural, ancestral, and equity issues. Meanwhile, the main citizens’ action group led by ultra-conservative leader Anne Bromford saw the sustainable development project as a danger to its desire to maintain the quiet, rural character of the South Cowichan community and sought to immunize themselves from the corporate-driven ambitions of supposedly sustainable residential development.

In this first community battle over the future of the upper-middle and upper-class territory, the ability of the Aboriginal tribe to frustrate this project was palpable both in the legal standing of the First Nations throughout the political-legal process, as well as in the weighty constitutional requirements mandated by the federal government in addressing aboriginal claims.  Then, when a new developer and a scaled-back sustainable development plan emerged in the wake of Butterfield’s withdrawal from the original development project, a Malahat First Nations-Friends of Saanich Island coalition formed. The former argued for an ancestral interpretation of sustainability based upon a premodern understanding of community (and therefore identity) tightly woven into their understanding of the tribal landscape, while the latter was led by an even more libertarian leader (Balu Tatchari), who adopted tactics and a strategy built upon classic NIMBYism.

The Sustainable Chattanooga, TN program—the focus of Chapter 5 in the 2016 work—was originally located in the “most polluted city in the United States” in 1969. It can be perceived as a splendid illustration of the hegemonic power of the downtown business community led by the corporate-oriented Chamber of Commerce and abetted by a succession of pliant city mayors.  This alliance was eventually all but stymied by the rise of the Tea Party and its local expression in Chattanooga and Hamilton County. As the Chamber of Commerce assumed leadership of the city-county’s sustainable green program, it generated enormous political attention from the Clinton administration; gained sizable capital to symbolically paint its downtown green; and influenced other industrialized cities seeking a sustainability veneer by publicizing its strategy dubbed the Chattanooga Way.

The social injustice dimension stemmed from the pollution of the Chattanooga Creek and the Tennessee River during its industrial era, the neglect of such despoiling during its subsequent deindustrialization, and the generation of significant health risks for some 5,000 inhabitants (98% African-American). The individuals exposed to health risks lived on two residential tracts known as Piney Woods and Alton Park, bordering the most polluted waterway in the southeast.  The story of the City of Chattanooga’s lethargic cleanup pace amidst its declarations of advancing urban sustainability and its capital-intensive redevelopment of its downtown area and Chattanooga’s political and economic elites demonstrated their success in passing on the problem to the EPA and the Superfund beginning in 1994 when Chattanooga Creek was put on the national priority list.  It thus comprises a sordid narrative of political hypocrisy so often found in cities on the make, steered by political and economic elites in league with one another, and dedicated to personal profit over the community’s best interests and our ecosystem’s protection. 

In our most recent book (2020) focusing on China’s extensive eco-city building and quest for an ecological civilization, our case study of Kunming/Chenggong’s eco-district construction—expounded upon in Chapter 4 of the text—involved a critical assessment of Chinese researchers’ three conflicting interpretations regarding peasants’ attitudes toward state expropriation of their rural land and destruction of their collectively-owned villages. The main features of this case—”capital accumulation through dispossession” and “green leap forward”—squarely impacted the issue of social justice. These rural villager-local state negotiations had a bearing on these “land-lost” peasants’ subsequent quality of life.

The peasants’ challenges stemmed from the yawning gap between the monetary and apartment resettlement packages they received and the market value of their land-lost collective property. This property would later be leased to land developers for a handsome profit to the local state. As we demonstrate, despite the Chinese government’s promises to build the “new socialist countryside,” the role of the peasantry in Chinese economic and social development has continually foundered on the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) class and entrepreneurial biases in the context of its “market socialism” policy. As a result, the two waves of bottom-up rural reconstruction movements in the 1930s and in the early 2000s have been strongly resisted and greatly undercut by the CCP’s heavy-handed and clever maneuvering.

What these summaries from our research program underline is that the pursuit of social equity as a central objective of strong sustainability must be comprehensive in its identification with the victims of social injustice. Globally, that list includes the Chinese and other peasantry, the aboriginal peoples, African Americans, Latinx immigrants, Canada’s First Nations, Native Americans, Australia’s aborigines, Europe’s African and Middle Eastern immigrants, etc. It also suggests that any robust sustainability approach need not be branded as such (e.g., environmental justice, just sustainability) to incorporate within its strategy a genuine commitment to fostering social justice.  After all, social equity has long been one of the legs of the sustainability tripod or triple bottom line, even though corporate versions of this dimension have blunted its critical edge.  


From Eco-Cities to Sustainable City-Regions

Ernest J. Yanarella, Professor Emeritus, University of Kentucky and Richard S. Levine, Professor Emeritus, University of Kentucky and CSC Design Studio, US

Read Chapter 1 here.

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