Between mainstream and alternative: urban social sustainability

In summary, eco-urban and smart agendas have coalesced into urban constructs that can be termed smart eco-cities in that they combine elements of green planning and digital innovation with a focus on greening the municipal and wider economy. And yet, criticisms of these types of approaches to sustainable urban development are widespread. Briefly, critiques point to the fact that today’s smart eco-cities, and mainstream notions of the green economy, represent ‘business as usual’ scenarios. Thus, the economic and political bases for the generation of the urban and environmental ‘problems’ that the smart eco-city is meant to solve are not tackled at root. The smart eco-city, then, has been presented as a way of dealing with the symptoms of unbridled economic growth. At the same time, many smart and eco-urban projects have been critically analysed in light of their clearly commercial or profit-driven characteristics (Luque-Ayala and Marvin, 2015). Scholars have highlighted how notions of a smart and eco-urban future are more often than not produced by coalitions of powerful actors (corporations, governments, consultants and others) (Hollands, 2015; McNeill, 2015; Ren, 2017; Wiig, 2015), often with little or no reference to local or grassroots contexts. Similar critiques are made of eco-city and eco-urban projects as examples of green capitalism and a desire to find financial returns in new (eco-)markets (Rapoport, 2014). In urban planning terms, the disjuncture between digitally augmented cities and physical urban space has also been highlighted (Aurigi, 2013).

Critiques of ‘business as usual’ scenarios in the smart eco-city are largely centred on the ecologically modernising character of smart and eco-urban initiatives, which rely on logics based in the market, regulation and technology to deliver desired outcomes. In turn, outcomes are often conceptualised as economic, technical, technological and governance-based — they are rarely defined in terms of citizens or citizenship (Joss et al., 2017). An ecologically modernising smart eco-city (based on the ideals of economic growth and gradual technological improvements delivering more environmentally amenable outcomes), therefore, can be seen as playing a part in reshaping and rethinking the city for the future, but in specific ways constrained by the logics of profit, the bottom line and the drivers behind the agency of powerful corporate and policy actors. A key critique of smart eco-cities rooted in visions of transitions towards the (ill-defined) green economy, then, is that these approaches and new projects do little to deal with the core reasons behind the development of unequally distributed socio-environmental externalities in the first place. In so doing, they risk deepening and replicating these problems, while generating new ones.

The core issue remains the rootedness of smart, eco-urban and green economy approaches in deeply modern visions of the city as a product of distinct binaries (such as that between nature and the city). The institution and reinforcement of these binaries effectively functions to fetishise specific aspects of the city, while overlooking or eliding others. Thus, eco-urbanism can be described as fetishising the environment, while smart urbanism fetishises technology and technique (Ellul, 1973). Cities’ social dimensions — arguably harder to conceptually grasp than digital infrastructure networks and flows of CO2 and energy — remain absent in this dualistic perspective.

What is to be done? It is clearly desirable to move beyond facile dualisms and binary oppositions in conceptualising and operationalising sustainable urban development. And yet what is striking, as noted by Hemani and Das (2016) in their discussion of urban .sustainability in India, is the lack of focus on the human element in projects aiming to bring about smart and eco-urban futures. A focus on urban social sustainability as a reference point from which to contextualise smart urbanism and eco-urbanism may be a fruitful way of both thinking about, and shaping, cities of the future. This is because holding the human city at the core of, and as a starting point for, urban sustainable development may help to reframe both technology and environmental goals. This reframing has the potential of becoming progressive and inclusive when urban development is carried out with human welfare in mind. It is clear that the details of how this can work in practice needs research, theorising and operational examples, but the current literature on urban social .sustainability (Dempsey et al., 2011) provides useful entry points into attempts to turn smart eco-urbanism into a more socially sustainable vision of future urban development. While the smart eco-cities of the contemporary era are expressions of elite power and agency, one wonders what the smart eco-cities of the future could look and feel like if the starting point was planning for the most vulnerable citizens and for enabling human development.

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