Sustainability Citizenship in Cities: Theory and Practice – now available!


Australian colleagues Ralphe Horne, John Fien, Beau Beza and Anitra Nelson edited a fascinating book on ‘sustainability citizenship’ to which I was priviledged to contribute a chapter together with Frans Lenglet. Urban sustainability citizenship situates citizens as social change agents with an ethical and self-interested stake in living sustainably with the rest of Earth. Such citizens not only engage in sustainable household practices but respect the importance of awareness raising, discussion and debates on sustainability policies for the common good and maintenance of Earth’s ecosystems.

The publisher’s website describes the book as follows:

Sustainability Citizenship in Cities seeks to explain how sustainability citizenship can manifest in urban built environments as both responsibilities and rights. Contributors elaborate on the concept of urban sustainability citizenship as a participatory work-in-progress with the aim of setting its practice firmly on the agenda. This collection will prompt practitioners and researchers to rethink contemporary mobilisations of urban citizens challenged by various environmental crises, such as climate change, in various socio-economic settings.

This book is a valuable resource for students, academics and professionals working in various disciplines and across a range of interdisciplinary fields, such as: urban environment and planning, citizenship as practice, environmental sociology, contemporary politics and governance, environmental philosophy, media and communications, and human geography.

The chapter Frans Lenglet and I wrote is titled: “Sustainability citizens: collaborative and disruptive social learning” and emphasizes the role of learning and cultivating diversity and generative conflict in co-determining what it means to be sustainable within the everyday realities people find themselves. It is argued that in order to brake with stubborn unstustainabel routines – that are heavily promoted and strenghtened in a market, growth and consumption-oriented society, citizens will also need to develop disruptive capacity and engage in transgressive learning (see my earlier post about transgressive learning and the work within the ICSS project on T-learning led by Prof. Heila Lotz-Sisitka from Rhodes Univerity in South Africa). If you want to have a look at our chapter you can find it here: SustainabilityCitizenshipWalsLenglet2016 (for personal use). The full reference is:

Wals, A.E.J. & F. Lenglet (2016). Sustainability citizens: collaborative and disruptive social learning. In: R. Horne, J. Fien, B.B. Beza & A. Nelson (Eds.) Sustainability Citizenship in Cities: Theory and Practice. London: Earthscan, p. 52-66.

If you want to get a hold of the entire book visit:



The relevance of Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom to urban socio-ecology

jane+in+news+slideshowJane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom were both giants in their impact on how we think about communities, cities, and common resources such as space and nature. But we don’t often put them together to recognize the common threads in their ideas.

Jacobs is rightly famous for her books, including The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and for her belief that people, vibrant spaces and small-scale interactions make great cities—that cities are “living beings” and function like ecosystems.

Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for her work in economic governance, especially as it relates to the Commons. She was an early developer of a social-ecological framework for the governance of natural resources and ecosystems.ostrombook

These streams of ideas clearly resonate together in how they bind people, economies, places and nature into a single ecosystem-driven framework of thought and planning, themes that deeply motivate The Nature of Cities. In this roundtable we ask sixteen people to talk about some key ideas that motivate their work, and how these ideas have roots in the ideas of either Jacobs or Ostrom, or both.

The is a wonderful resource and platform for people interested in re-designing urban spaces to make them more liveable and sustainable. Every two months the site organises a Global Round Table that starts with input from scholars and practitioners from around the world. I was asked to provide an short input piece as well which can be found in the online discussion forum. In the past these roundtables  have been getting about 12,000+ readers, from 1000+ cities and 70+ countries and I encourage anyone to have go to visit and contribute at this roundtable by clicking on the link below.

Common threads: connections among the ideas of Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom, and their relevance to urban socio-ecology

For more of their ideas, directly from them, good places to start are:

Jacobs, J. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House, New York, USA.

Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, MA, USA

The Big Tent Rio +20 Communique on Sustainability, Knowledge and Higher Education

Recently I contributed to the 5th Living Knowledge Conference which was held in Bonn, Germany with a talk on “Science as community: Sustainability- oriented trans-disciplinary research” and by providing input to a drafting process that resulted in a communique on higher education’s role in moving towards a more sustainable world. This communique is to be presented and discussed at the Sustainability Summit in Rio which will be held in June (also known as Rio +20).

The “Big Tent” Group – also known as the Higher Education Treaty Circle – is a collaboration of regional and global networks of civil society and higher education networks with a total membership of over 5,000 universities and civil society research organizations. The group was created to make a joint contribution to the RIO + 20 United Nations Sustainability Summit and the parallel Global Civil Society conference on Sustainability taking place in June in Rio de Janeiro.

Via an on-line contribution platform I was able to include a few lines myself including one that states that “Universities have a responsibility to look after the well-being of the planet, not as stand-alone beacons of knowledge, but as places where wisdom of communities, eco-systems and the academy work together in partnerships for a world that is more sustainable and just”.

The focus of the communique is on how civil society and universities can co-create radically new knowledge together.

Canada’s Budd Hall from the University of Victoria says, “This is the first statement agreed upon by so many higher education networks calling for a deep examination of the need to re-examine whose knowledge counts and how we can co-construct new disciplines for a new world”

I am pasting in the current communique for you to read, comment on and, if you like, to share with others who might be intrrested and/or might need to know.

RioCommuniqueOnSustHEI-Final-May 20

Communiqué on Sustainability, Knowledge and Democracy* (Released on May 12 in Bonn, Germany at the 5th International Conference of the Living Knowledge Network)

This statement is the product of a global dialogue and discussion process hosted by the Living Knowledge Network.

It is an initiative of the ‘Big Tent’ Group of international networks which includes: Asia Pacific University Community Engagement Network, Centro Boliviano de Estudios Multidisciplinarios, Commonwealth Universities Extension and Engagement Network, Community Campus Partnerships for Health, Global Alliance on Community Engaged Research, Global University Network for Innovation, Living Knowledge Network, PASCAL International Observatory, Participatory Research in Asia, and the Talloires Network with additional contributions participants at the 5th International Conference of the Living Knowledge Network.

We begin by expressing our deep concerns about:

The continued destruction of our common home, our planet Earth, Our over dependence on technological solutions that may result in misleading claims about positive impact on the environment, Ways that the dominant global economic system with its unitary focus on economic growth results in increased inequality, loss of jobs, alienation from both land and each other, The persistent exclusion of the dreams, potential and contributions of the socio–‐economic bottom billion people of our world, and Stressful and unhealthy lifestyles leading to physical and mental health problems;

We are witnesses to massive expressions of aspiration and deep change as seen in the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements.

We are aware and supportive of work being done to engage with civil society and its organisations in the co–‐construction of new knowledge in many spaces such as the Science in Society Programme of the European Commission, UNESCO and the Global University Network for Innovation.

We are also aware that while certain developments in science and technology have been complicit in the creation of planetary problems, evidence shows that communities and research institutions working together play a significant role in the attainment of sustainable development.

We respectfully contribute our ideas to spaces for engagement and action on issues of planetary survival, including, but not limited to the United Nations Rio + 20 events Higher Education Treaty Circle process and the Horizon 2020 programme in Europe

We call for action to:

1. Challenge existing paradigms, structures and practices, by: a) Recognizing that knowledge and expertise exists outside of the institutions of higher education. Communities and the earth itself are intellectual spaces where knowledge is created. Decolonizing our minds and our institutions is one significant step to acting on this awareness, b) Acknowledging that ‘community’ or ‘civic’ engagement, has to mean more than just people. Community includes the environment and all the rest of nature, c) Promoting the concept of an ‘Ecoversity’ whereby higher education institutions themselves are transformed into integrated holistic communities and where research, teaching and action functions are no longer separate, d) Breaking down the silos of knowledge creation and moving to co–‐creation of knowledge between the university and community–‐new approaches for a new world, e) Being open to ideas such as appointing community scholars, and creating smaller universities, and f) Increasing policy and funding for collaborative research between civil society and higher education institutions.

2. Increase the accountability of higher education by: a) Shifting accountability from authorities and funders to citizens, involving community at all levels of Higher Education governance, b) Linking our academic work with environmental social movements and to related movements against poverty, towards a solidarity economy, c) Ensuring that people have an understanding of the interdependencies between environmental, social and economic forces and the skills and abilities to meet sustainability challenges, and d) Moving beyond eco–‐branding by holding institutions accountable for the trademarks, brands and media around sustainability that they display.

3. Understand the connections of our local practices within a global framework by: a) Acknowledging that in this inter–‐connected world, ecological disturbances in one eco–‐zone can spread rapidly throughout the world, b) Promoting new mechanisms of global governance and democratic accountability with multi–‐stakeholder perspectives, and c) Supporting the development of higher education theories and practices that nurture a global public good.

In closing

We live in turbulent times; our world is changing at accelerating speed. Information is everywhere, but wisdom appears in short supply when trying to address key inter–‐related challenges of our time such as; runaway climate change, the loss of biodiversity, the depletion of natural resources, the on–‐ going homogenization of culture, and rising inequity. Universities have a responsibility to look after the well–‐being of the planet, not as stand–‐alone beacons of knowledge, but as places where wisdom of communities, eco–‐ systems and the academy work together in partnerships for a world that is more sustainable and just.

Change we can believe in and beliefs we can change – a personal journey

In the end transformative learning is about changing people: changing the way they think, act and the things they value in life. When I started to study Environmental Studies at Wageningen University (  back in the eighties of the last century, I thought differently though. I naively thought that technology would clean up the world, in combination with strict environmental laws and legislation. The rapid decline of our natural resources, the chronic and acute disasters happening across the globe demanded quick and swift action, and if necessary an ‘eco-totalitarian regime’ to make sure that the Earth could going with us human beings still around.

It took me about a year or two as a student to realize that, although important, if only to buy us more time, new technologies, laws, legislation, etc. are quick-fixes and end-of-pipe solutions that do not really address the root causes of un-sustainability, environmental decline and ecological disasters. This realization led to a gradual move from the natural sciences towards the social sciences. I started taking all courses taught there with the word ‘environmental’ in it: environmental sociology, environmental communication, environmental history, environmental psychology (which unfortunately became extinct in Wageningen), etc. and ended up doing an internship in environmental education (teaching environmental sciences in a Chicago suburb) and a thesis on ‘systems thinking and constructivist approaches of learning in the context of environmental education’. The questions that intrigued me then and still do today included: how do we reconnect people with their (non-virtual) environment? How can people become critical of their own lifestyles and the giant forces that shape their material values (900 billion $ is spent on advertising per annum globally)? How can people begin to see the intricate ways in which the way they life affects the lives of others elsewhere and, indeed the lives of other species? How can we bridge the gap between awareness (knowing that we need to change) and action (actually making changes in our everyday lives?

One thing that I did back then in Chicago during my internship at Oak Park & River Forest High School, was to help start a network of high school students and teachers who wanted to do more against environmental degradation and the loss of nature: caretakers of the environment international ( This network reached its 25th anniversary in the Summer of 2001 and has involved and inspired thousands of teachers and students around the globe. It not only gave me that ‘yes, we can feeling’ it also taught me the power of passion and connectivity. For me personally it provided a launching pad for my academic career. After I graduated in 1987 I was determined to get my PhD at a university with a strong reputation in Environmental Education at the time: The University of Michigan. I was lucky to get a Fulbright scholarship and moved to Ann Arbor.

At the University of Michigan I also experienced the power collectives and community engagement.  My advisor Bill Stapp always considered everybody an expert in something and counted on everyone’s ability to make a statement. Before you knew it you were the one speaking to a group, an audience, a seminar, etc. He hardly every took the center stage himself, always putting his students in the middle. I am still grateful for that because it gave me the opportunity to become comfortable when speaking in public or presenting something. He too had this ‘yes we can!’ attitude that was borderline naïve but at least it led to science with societal impact (as opposed to science merely for impact factors high ranking journals…). Perhaps the most ambitious plan he had was to start a global network of schools monitoring the quality of their watersheds. We spent an entire six ECTS graduate course designing this network, including on finding the funding to get it started. And we did: a few months layer the Global Rivers Environmental Education Network (GREEN) was launched on four continents and almost every student taking the course became engaged in a number of teacher workshops in places they had not imagined ever going to. This network still exists and is run by a USA-based NGO called Earth Force (

But in the end I returned to the valley of the Wageningen Social Sciences in hopes to start my own strand of education and research in the spirit of Bill Stapp. I got a job as researcher within the Agricultural Education Group (now Education & Competence Studies) teaching environmental and sustainability education courses and doing research on a range of topics including: action research & community problem-solving, whole school approaches to sustainability, biodiversity education, multi-stakeholder social learning, and sustainability in higher education. Eventually this led to a Professorship in Social learning and Sustainable Development supported by UNESCO. I still try to fumble my way towards a more sustainable way of living, although the gap between theory and practice is still way too big, also in my personal life.

I figure if I can reach five students a year in a meaningful way that orients their careers towards sustainability (instead of towards becoming more effective vandals of the Earth, as David Orr suggests, which most careers unwillingly contribute to…) and if those students will go on to effect those around them in this direction as well then I have real impact however modest it may still be.