In our newly published book, I and Loretta Lees, with other leading urbanists, explore the rise of sustainable development policies in London, and evaluate their relevance and role in sustaining people and the places and environments that they live in. The book shows how sustainable development discourse has permeated different policy fields in London, including transport, housing, property development, and education, and highlights the uneven impacts and effects, including the creation of new social inequalities and extending and deepening existing ones.
The book’s opening argument is that sustainable development discourse is part of a political struggle to assert values and, in ideological and practical terms, pro-market views, promoting privatisation and property investment, have gained centre place in shaping spatial development strategies in London. Advocates of the market model are engaged in the purposive construction of a post-politics to legitimise what various authors, such as Fry (2011) and Flint and Raco (2012), regard as a flawed model of, and approach to, sustainable development. Some of this reflects Vallance et al’s (2012, p 1695) observations that sustainable development discourse ‘may actually be working against the city and its residents. They note that the operationality of sustainability is shaped by a biophysical environmental focus with a consequence of policy makers ‘ignoring the social world in favour of manipulating the built form of the city’ (Vallance et al, 2012, p 1705). London’s politicians appear to approach sustainable development in a similar way, with the focus on technical and instrumental means to resolve problems defined, primarily, as biophysical, such as air and water pollution.
The difficulty here is the narrow definition of sustainable development, and a focus that, in conceptual terms, is unlikely to draw attention to what we regard as the fulcrum of what development is or ought to be about. This is social injustice in London, and the ways in which sustainable development discourse is part of the problem in perpetuating socio-economic inequalities in the city. The book suggests that the notion of sustainable development has been put to work by political and corporate interests to shape London’s socio-spatial development commensurate with extracting maximum profits from the commodification of everyday life. This is not to assert a capital logic, but to highlight how life opportunities in London, from healthcare to education and job opportunities, are co-constituted by de-democratising governance, a withdrawal of the state as guarantor of life, and people’s exposure to the vagaries of the market.
While the precise nature of the political agenda shaping sustainable development discourse is not easy to disentangle, some of its main features include:
• The heightening of technical and managerial modes of governance, in which, so some allege, the real politics of social (in)justice are supplanted, increasingly, by (post-) political rhetoric and practices. In this book, authors adopt a critical stance towards the understanding of sustainable development as post-political, or something that is alleged to be above and beyond dispute in relation to its values and objectives. Rather, it is suggested that sustainable development is highly charged, politically, and part of neoliberalising strategies in London to extend the commodification and commercialisation of the built and natural environment.
• In London, sustainable development discourse is committed to a ‘growth first’ logic premised on market expansion and encouragement of investment in land and property markets. To sustain London’s economy, and to enhance social wellbeing, it is argued that economic growth, including the stimulation of consumption, is required. Insofar that negative social and environmental externalities may ensue, these can be dealt with by appropriate planning and management. Such mentalities reflect the political framing of socio-environmental discourses around a scientific technocracy and the values of ecological modernism, with corporate organisation and governance at the vanguard of delivering sustainable futures.
• The privatisation of spatial development and a diminution of local states’ capacities to intervene in, and shape, the changing socio-ecological, economic and environmental geographies of places like London. This is likely to exacerbate a state of unsustainability by virtue of, for example, a reduction in housing benefits and other welfare benefits to poorer people, and greater income inequalities in London. This has the potential to undermine community cohesion, to fragment neighbourhoods and to create unsustainable places unable to provide the support mechanisms, such as affordable housing, to enhance habitability and social and economic opportunities.
The emergent ‘spaces of excess’ contrast with those of poverty, and are consistent with a future that regards unsustainable practice as natural and ‘a price worth paying’. Thus, from the lavish apartments at One Hyde Park in Knightsbridge, selling for millions of pounds, to the penthouse suites located on the top floors of the Shard, slippery terms such as ‘sustainable’ may be regarded as little more than a tool or means to legitimise ‘excessive urbanism’
The chapters in this book develop one or more of the above themes to highlight the contradictions in the development and deployment of sustainable development discourse in one of the world’s significant cities – London. As the dominant metropolitan centre, not just in the UK but also, arguably, worldwide, London is a place where the diverse dimensions of contemporary urban challenges are evident. The sheer size of London provides a much larger laboratory through which to explore the key concepts driving sustainable development, and the different ways in which these are shaping the city’s urban fabric and future.
Rob Imrie is Professor with a background is in geography, sociology, and planning studies and he has a doctorate in industrial sociology.
Sustainable London? The Future of a Global City is published by Policy Press and University of Chicago Press, 2014.