03 October, 2016

Royal Geographical Society - Institute of British Geographers - Session Follow-up, entry from Prof. Dr. Susannah Bunce

Continuing some follow-up reporting on the great session we had at the Annual Conference of the Royal Geographical Society with Institute of British Geographers in London earlier this month, we present here the notes from our discussant, Prof. Susannah Bunce, whose book, Sustainability Policy, Planning and Gentrification in Cities is forthcoming in 2017 with Routledge.

Discussant - Feedback and Thoughts on Sustainability and Research given at the session entitled, "Be constructive! Situating sustainability research at the nexus of positivism and reflective positionality," held at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference 2016, London, U.K.

by Susannah Bunce
Department of Human Geography and City Studies
University of Toronto Scarborough, Canada.
A common theme in the papers today is the search for a balance between - and the tensions inherent in - data/metrics-driven, model-oriented policies based on scientific rationalizations and/or deductions AND more place-based, contextual, intuitive and inductive, process-oriented practices. This is a tricky balance. In reference to Becker/Krueger/Hesse’s informative paper presented today on the science-policy interface, sustainability, as a dominant policy agenda, is particularly vulnerable to the production of essentialist models that can be deposited in areas of the globe in a de-territorialized, placeless way. For example, the “One Planet” sustainable planning model that was developed by Bioregional (a UK-based entrepreneurial charity that was contracted to do the sustainable design for Beddington Zero, the UK’s first master planned zero carbon community) and the World Wildlife Federation has now formed the basis for master planned communities in Australia, France, Tanzania, Luxembourg, the United States, and Canada. Becker/Krueger/Hesse comment about ‘experts’ involved in policy mobility and transfer (a sort of ‘cult of personality of policy mobility’) is important here too – not only are sustainable development models transferred but so are individual ideas of experts as well. Richard Florida’s creative city/creative class idea, which Krueger has discussed in his previous work, and the work of architect/planner Joan Busquets, responsible for the sustainable urban regeneration of Barcelona’s waterfront - which Becker/Krueger/Hesse mention in their paper - are just two individuals whose ideas have moved around the globe and have been adopted at different scales of government, policy, and planning. Joan Busquets, for example, was quickly contracted by Toronto’s waterfront redevelopment agency to reproduce a similar vision for Toronto. Having just visited Barcelona’s waterfront for the first time, I can honestly say that Toronto’s waterfront looks and feels very different from Barcelona (!) For one thing, the temperature does not fall to -20 Celsius in the winter, as it can do in Toronto, making Toronto waterfront visits during the winter not entirely enjoyable. Most waterfront residents in Toronto from November to April stay inside heated condominium buildings and rush between home and work, which also does not necessarily evoke an image of a sustainable waterfront.

Yet, as Blackstock/Waylen/Matthews/Giampietro point out, metrics are, indeed, important. I appreciate their idea of using metrics to tell a narrative. Data provides information that progressive government agencies and institutions, scholars, and media sources require in order to challenge, resist, and suggest alternatives to certain and other so-called evidence-based decisions and phenomena. Data about the story of climate change, for example, provides crucial information that is necessary for governments, academics, and media to disseminate, particularly in light of prevalent climate change denial discourses and debates over the severity of climate change – a discourse that features strongly in the upcoming American presidential elections, for example. The previous federal Conservative government in Canada, which withdrew Canada from climate change agreements, refused to attend climate change conferences, de-funded and silenced federally employed scientists, and promoted instead an economic growth model based on intensive oil production in one particular region of the country, also demonstrates how integral scientific environmental evidence is within a larger political-ecology and economy of governance in order to combat this type of damaging economic growth.

But, returning to the topic of balance, how do we mitigate the recent turn to a neo-positivism and neo-rationalism that reflects a broader neoliberal and post-political emphasis on management, evaluative performance, and demonstrative results? How do we respond to the increasing prevalence of metrics and models that tell us how to best develop, and how to ‘do more’ with less support? We now see evaluative metrics and models that assess performance and output everywhere, from sustainable city indexes to global city rankings to publication output ratings in academia, and to non-profit NGOs who now, more than ever, need to develop evaluative models and strategies in order to demonstrate performance achievements to their funding agencies in order to justify the acquisition of more resources. This negatively impacts upon ‘softer’, more qualitative and relational associations that cannot be measured and modeled, particularly in relation to policy implementation at the local scale and community-based work. For instance, how do we measure the quality of resident engagement in the restoration of a local watershed? Or, should we even do this? Can people feel free to collaborate and engage without models and measurements and focus instead on building relational associations and process-oriented results? This perhaps is a question of scale, place, and context: that it would entail a move away from positivist, rationalist, top down policy mobility, models and data in certain situations and focus, instead, on local knowledge, community engagement, and more organic solutions. I particularly like Becker/Krueger/Hesse’s advocacy of honest policy and policy that is not afraid of failure: That we learn through failure. Perhaps resisting the ostensibly perfect knowledge of the expert from another city that briefly touches down to provide their expertise in favour of local knowledge – both formal and informal practices of localized knowledge.

Lastly, I think of the idea of citizen-science: local, place-based engagement, and collaborative exchange of formal and informal knowledge, often between scientists and local residents, around science-based and environmental projects. What ‘de-growth’ scholars have referred to as ‘post-normal science’ (“a shift of decisions from ‘communities of experts’, like scientific communities and advisory councils, to decisions by ‘expert communities’” Kallis, Demaria, & D’Alisa, 2015, p. 9). Counting fish, insects and wildlife, habitat restoration, flood watching, etc. - a focus on socio-ecological transitions and different ways of learning. A notion that Bina/Pereira/Costa-Pinto mentioned in their paper, which perhaps policy-makers could learn from. A focus on a quality of process not just results, as Blackstock/Waylen/Matthews/Giampietro suggest. This is more in keeping with anti-essentialist ideas, which Becker/Krueger/Hesse refer to, and community oriented practices promoted in the work of J.K. Gibson-Graham, who Becker/Krueger/Hesse also refer to in their paper. In this way, science and sustainability work together as a process of commoning or as a process of building local environmental commons. There is no certain answer, but this may be a way to tease out different approaches to unpacking these tensions in different scales, spaces, and contexts. Blackstock/Waylen/Matthews/Giampietro mentioned that if one wants to critique something they also need to suggest an alternative – my question is: What is that alternative or alternatives? Is the suggestion of alternatives just reproducing the rationalist/positivist approach? How might a practice of reflexivity alter this approach?

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