Taking Action

New Imaginaries

Key to this project is the concept of ‘creative destruction’, where in the midst of a crisis there lies an opportunity to address practices that were unsustainable, and to investigate new and necessary imaginaries to drive future policies with the potential to change attitudes to consumption and sustainability.
We therefore think of the imaginary as a space of potential practices which ‘go against the grain’ of prevailing thought. While thought might be drawn to technological solutions, it also includes a space for discourses on emerging environmental thought on sustainability, ‘post-growth’ economics, ‘green’ consumption, downsizing and concepts of ‘enough’ (Hamilton 2003, Skidelsky & Skidelsky 2013, Ryan 2009). Therefore, we look not only to technology to transcend the economic and environmental crises, but we question our assumptions and norms around consuming for pleasure, and are invited to think about the detritus left behind by our consumption practices. This imaginary not only needs to encompass models of sustainable economic practices, but also necessary and new ideas and ways of thinking about sustainable environmental models.

Informing Policy

The project conducted an assessment of selected international, regional (EU) and national (IE) policies. This was to assess how international policy can be interpreted at regional and national level. It found that key pressures between economic and environmental matters is, by and large, not resolved through policy. Indeed, as the IPCC itself noted, there has been an increase in the rate of GHG emissions despite a corresponding increase in policy instruments in this area (IPCC 2013, 2014a, 2014b, & Morgan 2016). This, the project has suggested, is in part due to a lack of consideration of the systemic issues pertaining to the current economic model.

The project aimed to inform policy by way of a review of planning literature, specifically urban planning, where tensions between spatial planning, corporate actors, public remits and societal pressures are concentrated. It observes that amongst current discourses are that of ‘spontaneous decarbonization’ (Davis 2010) and ‘autonomous’ or ‘automatic’ adaptation to climate change (Whitehead 2013: 1358). Such perspectives assume that free-market conditions will naturally and spontaneously support decarbonisation and GHG reductions. However, rather than acknowledge that the free market is inherently crisis-prone, these discourses advocate more freedom in the market with respect to climate change. This research is critical of such approaches and observes how ‘already existing neoliberalism is actually the source of the financial and planning problems confronting adaptation regimes rather than the basis for their resolution’ (Whitehead 2013: 1361).

Notwithstanding the issues with dominant narratives in influential policy arenas, there does exist scope in planning discourse to explore positions beyond ‘business as usual’ solutions to behaviour change. Analysis of solutions from other regional and local areas are helpful in fostering an overall planning and policy landscape that looks beyond market-based, neoliberal, or techno-finance fixes. Assessing the entire gamut of potentialities is important to transcend the typical top-down or bottom-up approaches in isolation. Rather, in articulating potential solutions across the entire range of actors and institutional remits from international best practices, to the regional, national and local, this research suggests that a more robust awareness of multi-scalar opportunities can be afforded at any level. Indeed, a move beyond the siloing of opportunities has the potential to widen the discourse beyond techno-finance fixes to work towards robust transition policies that are also socially progressive, foster equality, and increase resilience during transition.

Indeed, some progressive policy and best practice was found at an EU level, whereby a curtailment of advertising, encouragement of the ‘circular economy’, and measures to foster community cohesion were positive interventions. It also found that local currency initiatives were a small-scale way of loosening the dependence on international finance and its concomitant instabilities. A key area of remunicipalisation was found to be an effective way of moving away from the neoliberal policy of privatisation.

Developing Solutions

In light of the policy and planning issues identified above, the research identified the potential to develop solutions that move beyond the ‘siloing’ of environmental policy. It found some evidence of best practice to positive effect, such as the curtailment of advertising, encouragement of the ‘circular economy’, and measures to foster community cohesion that move the citizen away from unsustainable behaviour. The materiality of carbon-based transport, for example, is predicted to bring about a ‘reverse globalisation’, whereby the cheap production of goods in the global south will no longer be guaranteed as the ecological costs of transport are increasingly accounted for (North 2010). Thus, planners may, sooner than later, be required to deal with the end of the ‘cheaps’ (food, energy, raw materials, labour) that historically facilitated development in the global North (Moore 2011). At a more local level therefore, there exists scope for experimenting with initiatives that support and encourage citizens towards a lower carbon footprint and more sustainable daily practices. Indeed, such initiatives at a local scale can encourage a connection from citizens to publics and politics, and the fostering of collectives that transcend individualised discourses on carbon reduction and behaviour change towards sustainability (McGuirk et al 2015).

Local collective initiatives such as the Grow Your Own (GIY) movement can therefore have a role to play in planning for sustainability. This GIY movement foregrounds and supports the production of local food instead of long-chain production. At a planning level, such movements can be supported through low-cost allotment provision, where fallow or disused land is repurposed to facilitate citizen GIY practices. There are thus many elements to the ‘virtuous circle’ in which planning can strategically encourage sustainable behaviour. Likewise, the Transition movement is an emerging approach to adaptation and sustainability (Mason and Whitehead 2012). The movement offers counters to the neoliberal securitisation and erosion of freedom through voluntary participation and consensus-building (Whitehead 2013: 1364). Local currency change experiments have assisted in rethinking how local economies can be transformed from those dependent on surrounding areas, to relative stability and autonomy. By transforming denominations of coins and notes into, for example, hours of labour, alternative currencies can alter discourses of economics, challenging its assertions that money is to be controlled by states and banks alone (North 2007, 2010). A reworking of the discourse is therefore possible when our traditional understandings of money creation, distribution and control are challenged by alternative currency practices (North 2007).

The research has therefore identified solutions that move beyond the constraints of the current policy and planning prescriptions to investigate how emerging initiatives can help foster bottom-up approaches to sustainability.
It has revealed that a significant turn to remunicipalisation has emerged in utility provision globally, particularly with respect to water (Pigeon et al 2012). From the global North in areas such as Paris, France and Hamilton, Canada, to Malaysia and Tanzania, a significant move to reinstate water into public control has emerged.


Morgan 2016 (forthcoming) The techno-finance fix: A critical analysis of international and regional environmental policy documents and their implications for planning. Progress in Planning.

Davis, M. (2010) Who will build the ark?, New Left Review, January/February, pp. 29–46.

Whitehead, M., 2013. Neoliberal Urban Environmentalism and the Adaptive City: Towards a Critical Urban Theory and Climate Change. Urban Studies, 50(7), pp.1348–1367.

North, P., 2010. Eco-localisation as a progressive response to peak oil and climate change – A sympathetic critique. Geoforum, 41(4), pp.585–594.

McGuirk, P. et al., 2015. Urban Carbon Governance Experiments: The Role of Australian Local Governments. Geographical Research, 53(1), pp.39–52.

Mason, K. & Whitehead, M., 2011. Transition Urbanism and the Contested Politics of Ethical Place Making. Antipode, 44(2), pp.493–516.

North, P., 2007. Money and Liberation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Pigeon, M. et al., 2012. Remunicipalisation, Amsterdam: Transnational Institute.