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:



Education for people and planet: Creating sustainable futures for all – GEM-2016 soon to be launched


Starting in 2016 a new series of UNESCO reports, the Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Reports, will monitor the state of education in the new framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The new series replaces the earlier Global Monitoring Report (GMR) series. I was brought on board the GEM 2016 Team last December to provide input on the thematic part of the report – especially to provide feedback on the relationship between education and achieving sustainability.

The report has been titled: ‘Education for people and planet: Creating sustainable futures for all’. It is a very comprehensive and well-researched report that seeks to be geographically balanced in its analysis and examples. There are two parts: a thematic part and a monitoring part. My role was mainly limited to providing feedback to the thematic part which covers 5 ‘Ps’s: Planet, Prosperity, People, Place and Partnerships. The thematic Part 1 of the Report focuses on examining the complex interrelationships and links between education and key development sectors. It determines which education strategies, policies and programmes are most effectively linked to the economic, social, environmental and political priorities of the new sustainable development agenda.  Part 2 establishes a much needed a monitoring framework for education post-2015, and examine key financing and governance challenges for the post-2015 era.

You can read the concept note that underpins the report here. 

The GEM 2016 report will appear in multiple languages.

Sign up to receive the report in your inbox as soon as it’s released.


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

Transformative Learning for Sustainability: Special Issue

Ariane König and Nancy Budwig have edited a cutting edge Special Issue for the Journal Current Opinions of Environmental Sustainability on Transformative Learning for Sustainability and more specifically on ‘New requisites to universities in the 21st century’.


This Special Issue focuses on how universities engage in sustainability issues by staging transformative learning opportunities. The special issue features ten case papers from five continents illustrating the changing relationship of learning, research and practice in such programmes. The issue includes a paper on the Luxembourg Certificate in Sustainability and Social Innovation and an introductory overview by Dr Kö which I will contribute in May with a talk on “Sustainability transitions in society: changing science/citizen relations with citizen science for social learning“. The University of Luxembourg has made the entire special issue open access which means that anyone can download all the papers for free, including the one I co-authored with Heila Lotz-Sisitka, David Kronlid and Dylan McGary on Transgressive Learning which you can also download the paper here: transgressiveSocialLearning Transgressive Social Learning

Highlights from the paper are:

  • Pedagogies are required that are not constrained by current use of limited concepts, or by disciplinary decadence.
  • Concepts such as resilience are problematic if they hold unsustainable systems and patterns in place.
  • Disruptive capacity building and transgressive pedagogies are needed for a more sustainable world.
  • Transformative, transgressive forms of learning requires co-learning in multi-voiced and multi-actor formations.
  • Higher education should provide possibilities for engaged, lived experience of transformative praxis for students.

“Beyond unreasonable doubt – learning for socio-ecological sustainability…”


As my ‘special professorship’ has been converted into a ‘personal professorship,’ (I know this is confusing to academics from around the world but I don’t want to use up valuable blog-space to explain it) I was invited to give a second inaugural address titled: Beyond unreasonable doubt –  education and learning for socio-ecological sustainability in the anthropocene in the Aula of the Wageningen University on December 17th 

The special day happened to be the warmest December 17th on record… quite fitting for the talk and the cover of the accompanying booklet (with people sitting on an terrace a cold Fall evening in Gothenburg under so-called ‘space heaters’).

A short introduction to the new Chair has been placed on youtube:

Transformative Learning for Socio-ecological Sustainability in less than 3 minutes

Here’s the back flap text of the booklet is now available:

‘For the first time in history one single species has succeeded in living in a way on planet Earth that disrupts major natural systems and forces in such a way that our survival is at stake. A transition is needed to break with resilient unsustainable systems and practices. Such a transition requires active civic engagement in sustainability. New forms of education and learning, including ‘disruptive capacity building’ and ‘transgressive’ pedagogies are urgently needed to foster such engagement.’


If you want to receive the booklet containing the accompanying text to the lecture then send an email to with unreasonable doubt in the ‘subject’ and put your name and address in the body of the message and we will post you one.
 If you wish you can still attend, sort of,  the event by going to:
Here you can see the entire ceremony which starts at minute 9 with an introduction by our Vice-Chancellor (Rector Magnificus) Arthur Mol and with me starting the speech (battling the flu but hanging in there – I think/hope) at minute 15. Sometimes the animations I used do not fly-in on WURTV for some reason but fortunately they did in the auditorium). But it’s of good quality and you can advance the timer if you wish to.


Focus of the new Chair in transformative learning for socio-ecological sustainability

In short the new Chair in transformative learning for socio-ecological sustainability explores three important questions: 1) What sustain’abilities’ and responsibilities we need to develop in learners? 2) What learning spaces or ecologies of learning are most suitable in developing those abilities? and 3) How can the cultivation of these abilities, responsibilities and spaces be designed and supported? In other words, the main focus of the chair lies on understanding, designing and supporting learning processes that can help citizens understand complex socio-ecological issues through meaningful engagement and interactions with and within the social, physical and virtual realities of which people are part and the development of the capacities they need to contribute to their resolution.

The addition of ‘socio-ecological’ to sustainability is intentional, as much work done on sustainability nowadays tends to focus on economic sustainability, often without people and planet in mind. In a way sustainability has lost its transformative edge ‘sustainability’ during the last decade as the much of the private sector embraced it as a marketing opportunity. Adrian Parr (2009) even suggests that sustainability has been hijacked and neutered. While economics inevitably is part of the sustainability puzzle, the need to (re)turn to the ecological boundaries in which we have to learn to live together, as well as to the well-being and meaning of life issues for all, has prompted me to make the social-ecological more prominent in the description of this Chair. Therefore, I am particularly interested in understanding and supporting forms of learning that can lead to the engagement of seemingly unrelated actors and organizations in making new knowledge and in taking the actions necessary to address socio-ecological challenges.
Note 1: The booklet containing the inaugural address will be posted to you for free (as long as supplies last) when you email with “Unreasonable doubt” in the subject area and your name and postal address in the body of the text).
Note 2: The inaugural address can be followed live via WURTV where it will also be archived:


Milestone in an evolving field: International Handbook of Research on Environmental Education


2013 marks the year in which the world’s largest and most diverse educational research organization – the AERA – jointly with Routledge, published the International Handbook of Research on Environmental Education (Stevenson, Brody, Dillon & Wals, 2013). The field of Environmental Education has roughly existed for just under 50 years and has over time developed its own research, research networks and research journals. The AERA commssioned the editors in 2009 to compile this Handbook as a part of AERA’s Handbook Series on Education Research.

The International Handbook of Research on Environmental Education describes the important concepts, findings and theories developed by the research community and examines the historical progression, current debates and controversies, missing elements from EE research agenda, and the future.
The environment and contested notions of sustainability are increasingly topics of public interest, political debate, and legislation across the world. Environmental education journals now publish research from a wide variety of methodological traditions that show linkages between the environment, health, development, and education. The growth in scholarship makes this an opportune time to review and synthesize the knowledge base of the environmental education (EE) field. The purpose of this 51-chapter handbook is to illuminate the most important concepts, findings and theories that have been developed by EE research and critically examine the historical progression of the field, its current debates and controversies, what is still missing from the EE research agenda, and where that agenda might be headed.

You can find the orginal proofs of chapter 1 here: Stevenson, B., Brody, M., Dillon, J and Wals, A.E.J. (2012). International Handbook of Research on Environmental Education_Ch01_1pp In: Stevenson, B., Brody, M., Dillon, J. and Wals, A.E.J. (Eds.) (2012) International Handbook of Environmental Education Research. London: Routledge, 1-12

The Handbook can be order through Routledge or any on-line bookseller. Here’s a link to the Routledge Handbook page which also contains the Table of Contents. Should you be working for a university you may want to recommend the Handbook for you library.

Why sustainability cannot and should not be taught: a call for reflexivity, transformation and deep learning in turbulent times

This academic year I have the honour of participating in the academic community of Gothenburg University as the Adlerbert Research Foundation’s Guest Professor. Gothenburg University, as does the other well-known university in Gothenburg, Chalmers University, aspires to integrate sustainability science and education in all its 7 faculties. The two universities already share a Centre for Environment and
Sustainability (GMV) and Chalmers has a special Sustainability Vice-Chancellor, John Holmberg who is also a UNESCO Chair in Education for Sustainability in Higher Education. During my last visit to Gothenburg in this new role I participated in a workshop on Teacher Education for Sustainable Development? which was introduced with the following text:High expectations of formal education’s contribution to sustainable development are expressed in a series of policy documents from UNESCO, through the proclaimed Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014). This is also highlighted in Swedish policy documents for education (National Agency for Education). The Swedish Higher Education Act states that “In the course of their operations, higher education institutions shall promote sustainable development to assure for present and future generations a sound and healthy environment, economic and social welfare, and justice”. What implications does this have for a higher education program such as Teacher Education?

Julie Davis of the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia and I were asked to provide input for the workshop by providing a ‘provocative’ introduction. Mine was titled: Why sustainability cannot and should not be taught: a call for reflexivity, transformation and deep learning in turbulent times

Needless to say that the title raised some eyebrows. But here’s what I tried to say. We cannot know what sustainability is. We don’t live long enough to be able to say that what we consider to be sustainable today turned out to be sustainable in the end. Also, what might be sustainable in Gothenburg, Sweden might not be sustainable in Kampala, Uganda. To complicate things further even when considering all the (scientific) knowledge available today there is no universal agreement about what, given what we know today, might be the most sustainable way of living.

So how then can we educate for sustainability? – a question already raised 20 years ago by my Canadian colleague and friend Bob Jickling.  In my contribution I problematized this dilemma from an education perspective by arguing that even though we do not and cannot know what sustainability is we have a moral responsibility to always be looking for ways of living that are more sustainable than our current ways.The current state of the Planet demands this. Given this dilemma it would be inappropriate or at least un-educative to use education to prescribe learners how to live their lives or to condition them to behave in a certain way.

Rather than focussing as educators on sustainability as a ‘destiny’ or an ‘end point’ it may be more fruitful and certainly more educational, to focus on the type of learning and the type of capacities that are needed to break away from unsustainable routines which are all around and generally known. Using concrete examples, I proposed strenghtening social and transformative learning in ‘cross-boundary environments’ seeking to develop people’s sustainability competence as an alternative. Some of these ideas can also be found in my inaugural address of a few years ago: Message-in-a-bottle-Learning-our-way-out-of-Unsustainability(pdf connected to the hypelink). I have attached the slides I used here: ESD-TE Workshop Gothenburg U November2012.

Julie Davis talked about: Working the system: Taking a systems approach to embedding education for sustainability in teacher education in Australia

Here’s how here contribution was listed in the workshop outline: Much has been written about the need to ‘re-orient teacher education towards sustainability’. Yet, research indicates that, generally speaking, teacher education institutions are not preparing pre-service teachers to teach education for sustainability. This presentation reports on a staged study that commenced in 2006 in Australia that has sought to understand how change is implemented and becomes ‘mainstreamed’ within teacher education institutions. Stage 1 involved an international literature review and interviews to examine efforts to re-orient teacher education towards sustainability; consequently, a systems-based model for change was developed. In Stage 2 (2008), this model was piloted across 5 teacher education institutions in Queensland, Australia, aimed at engaging teacher education institutions and a range of stakeholders within a teacher education system to work simultaneously to bring about change. Findings indicated that systemic change is enabled if there is both conceptual and personal capacity for change, and that trust, respect and ownership are central to re-orienting teacher education systems. Stage 3 (2009) involved another 5 teacher education institutions that used the model to begin the task of reorienting their teacher education systems. This stage identified 5 enabling actions: collaborative curriculum change; building a sustainability ethos; connecting disparate sources of sustainability education content; better support for integration between programs; and utilising experiential teaching and learning approaches. Stage 4 (2011) is underway, aimed at deepening and extending the change experiences, with an emphasis on building a national network to drive systemic change for education for sustainability.