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 natureofcities.com 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

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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’.

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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 König.to 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…”

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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 office.ecs@wur.nl 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 office.ecs@wur.nl 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: https://wurtv.wur.nl/P2G/cataloguepage.aspx

 

NJAS Special Issue: Social learning towards sustainability: problematic, perspectives and promise

‘Social learning towards sustainability: problematic, perspectives and promise’ is the title of a special issue of NJAS which I co-edited with my (former) colleagues Romina Rodela and PJ Beers. The abstract of the introductory paper with the same title reads as follows:

A common thread throughout this special issue is that sustainability is not a destiny one can eventually reach, but rather a continuous learning path towards transformation that should be profound (e.g. affecting moral standards and value systems), transversal (e.g. requiring the involvement of individuals, groups and collectives) and counter-hegemonic (e.g. requiring the exposure and questioning of stubborn routines). From such a vantage point debates about sustainability likely require transdisciplinary to transcend a singular disciplinary view-point and to allow for the consideration of different perspectives and types of knowledge. The aim of this special issue is to assess the added-value of a social learning perspective on research and action from at least three different ‘disciplinary’ perspectives: systems innovation, natural resource management, and environmental education. Each of these offers a particular perspective on learning, on change processes and evolving understandings of sustainable practices.

The proofs of this introductory paper with the following citation: Wals, A.E.J. and R. Rodela (2014). Social learning towards sustainability: Problematic, perspectives and promise. NJAS. 69, June, pp. 1-3 can be found here: WalsRodelaIntroNJAS.

NJAS cover Special Issue

The table of contents of the Special Issue can be seen below:

Table of Contents NJAS Special Issue

Table of Contents NJAS Special Issue

Greening in the Red Zone… Disaster, Resilience and Community Greening – now available!

Cover Greening in the Red Zone

Cover Greening the Red Zone

Ok – it has taken some time to appear but finally this much anticipated volume is available. My former colleague Marlon van der Waal and I have a chapter in it titled: “Sustainability-Oriented Social Learning in Multi-cultural Urban Areas: The Case of the Rotterdam Environmental Centre” which explores the utilization of social cohesion and diversity in creating more sustainable multi-cultural communities. Community greening is seen as a catalyst for sustainability-oriented social learning. Greening here is not the same as literally adding green to a community (trees, parks, gardens) – although that certainly can be a part of it – but rather as a metaphor for improving quality of life and a stepping stone towards sustainability. Social learning is introduced as a process that builds social cohesion and relationships in order to be able to utilize the different perspectives, values and interests people bring to a sustainability challenge. Although there are many perspectives and definitions of social learning it is defined here as: a collaborative, emergent learning process that hinges on the simultaneous cultivation of difference and social cohesion in order to create joint ownership, and to unleash creativity and energy needed to break with existing patterns, routines or systems. The author proofs – for a sneak preview – can be found here: GreeningintheRedZoneWalsWaal

The full reference of our chapter is: Wals, A.E.J. & van der Waal, M.E. (2014) Sustainability-Oriented Social Learning in Multi-cultural Urban Areas: The Case of the Rotterdam Environmental Centre. In: Tidball, K. & Krasny, M. (Eds.) Greening in the Red Zone. Frankfurt a.m.: Springer, p379-396.

Greening in the Red Zone as a whole makes a first foray into the intriguing and potentially important field of “greening” by painting a comprehensive picture of how greening might be useful after major disasters. The book brings together renowned experts and practitioners from around the world. On the publisher’s website we can read:

“Creation and access to green spaces promotes individual human health, especially in therapeutic contexts among those suffering traumatic events. But what of the role of access to green space and the act of creating and caring for such places in promoting social health and well-being? Greening in the Red Zone asserts that creation and access to green spaces confers resilience and recovery in systems disrupted by violent conflict or disaster. This edited volume provides evidence for this assertion through cases and examples. The contributors to this volume use a variety of research and policy frameworks to explore how creation and access to green spaces in extreme situations might contribute to resistance, recovery, and resilience of social-ecological systems.”

Some advance praise:

This book takes important steps in advancing understanding of what makes communi­ties bounce back from disaster or violent conflict. The authors’ findings that creating and caring for green space contributes positively to recovery and resilience add to the toolkit of those working in disaster and conflict zones. W. C. Banks, Director, Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, Syracuse University

Greening in the Red Zone is a highly relevant book. At a time when society is more separated than ever from the natural world, it offers additional reasons why our ongoing experience of nature is essential for the human body, mind and spirit. This book is both instructive and inspiring. S. R. Kellert, Tweedy Ordway Professor Emeritus, Senior Research Scholar, Yale University

This is a fascinating book that greatly elevates our understanding of how the perspective of humans as an integrated part of nature may contribute to the resilience discourse. I warmly recommend this book to anyone interested in how we may prepare ourselves for an increasingly uncertain future. T. Elmqvist, Department of Systems Ecology and Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University

Greening in the Red Zone is an important contribution to science and security policy and practice. This edited volume provides unique and novel approaches from a participatory, transparent, ecosystem-based perspective that puts those affected by disasters and conflict into positions of empowerment rather than weakness and dependency. This book is an interesting and timely contribution. C. Ferguson, President, Federation of American Scientists

Keywords »Community-based natural resource management – Greening – Post-conflict – Post-disaster – Resilience

If your interested in ordering this book you can go directly to the book’s website:

Just out: (Re)views of Social Learning Literature – A Monograph for Social Learning Researchers in Natural Resource Management & Environmental Education

Recently a monograph containing (Re)views of Social Learning Literature in the context of Natural Resource Management & Environmental Education was published by the Southern African Development Cooperation (SADC) in conjuntion with WESSA, Rhodes University, Wageningen University and the Environmental Learning Centre. On the cover page it states: “This monograph provides four different reviews on social learning literature. Rather than seeking to be comprehensive, the reviews provide views on the social learning literature, from different perspectives. The papers scope aspects of the social learning literature, providing access to a wide body of literature(s) on social learning. This monograph should be useful for researchers interested in social learning in the fields of environmental education and natural resources management.”

The monograph was edited by Professor Heila Lotz-Sisitka of Rhodes University and the result of collaboration between Wageningen University and Rhodes with support of SANPAD (the South Africa – Netherlands Partnership for Development funded by the Dutch government) and the UNESCO Chair on Social Learning and Sustainable Development. The full report can be downloaded here: Reviews on Social Learning Literature

The excerpt below comes from the foreword I was asked to write.

How can learning not be social? Isn’t all learning social? These are often the kinds of questions I get when I share my fascination with social learning. Arguably all meaningful learning is inter-relational (with others, including other species, with place and, indeed with oneself) and requires some level of reflexivity by mirroring the significance of one’s encounters with the inner sediments (frames, values, perspectives and worldviews) of prior experiences. The result tends to be a process of further solidification (freezing) or a loosening (unfreezing) or a modification (re-framing) or even the parallel occurrence of all three. So yes, the ‘social’  as inter-relational is crucial in most, perhaps all learning, that we engage in, but even though this is emphasised in social learning, this is not what sets it apart from related learning concepts such as collaborative learning, participatory learning, group learning, and so on.

It appears that in the context of working on inevitably ill-defined and ill-structured issues and situations (e.g. natural resource management issues or sustainability issues) there is an increased awareness that there is no one single perspective that can resolve or even improve such issues. Much social learning literature therefore refers to the importance of bringing together multiple perspectives, values and interests, including marginal and marginalised ones in order to be able to creatively and energetically break with stubborn routines that led to unsustainability in the first place. Despite the range of views on social learning that currently exist, the utilisation of pluralism and/or diversity in multi-stakeholder settings is often referred to as a key component of social learning. Now it would be naïve to think that just by putting people with different backgrounds, perspectives, values and so on together, this creative and energising process would automatically start. This is where another form of ‘social’ comes in: social cohesion, sometimes referred to as social capital. In order to be able to create a constructive dynamic that allows diversity to play its generative role in finding routine-breaking solutions to sustainability challenges, there needs to be sufficient social cohesion between the participating actors, even between those who don’t seem to care much about each other.  In much of the social learning literature stress is placed on things like: investing in relationships, deformalising communication, co-creation of future scenarios and joint fact-finding. The idea is that when people who don’t think alike, or even disagree, engage in a common task in a pleasant and safe environment, they will find their common humanity (which is considered a first step in developing the empathy for the other) needed to open up and engage with the other’s perspective. Creating such an environment is an art in itself and requires careful facilitation – another key topic area in social learning literature.

In the open-access publication acoustics-digital acoustics-digital(which appeared at the launch of the Wageningen University UNESCO Chair on Social Learning and Sustainable Development (Wals et al., 2009) we used the metaphor of an improvising jazz ensemble to capture the essence of social learning.

“Chaos frequently emerges in an (improvising) jazz ensemble, but structure rules. Everyone makes up part of the whole and that whole is, if it sounds good, more than the sum of the parts. Every musician has his/her own experiences and competencies, but also intuition and empathy. The ensemble doesn’t know how
things will sound ahead of time, but its members instinctively know when things sound good. They have faith in one another and in a good outcome. Leadership is sometimes essential and therefore provided by one of the musicians or a director, or it sometimes shifts and rotates. The music is sometimes written down, though this is often not the case, and everyone simply improvises. If it sounds good, then the audience will respond appreciatively, that is to say, those who enjoy jazz music (and not everyone does…). People from the audience sometimes join in, changing the composition of the ensemble. The acoustics of the hall in which the music is played is important as well: not all halls sound alike and some have more character. A concert may also be recorded to serve as inspiration elsewhere, though this does not happen often…” (Wals et al., 2009, p.3).

Indeed social learning processes remind one of an improvising jazz ensemble. They too are intangible in a certain sense, and are therefore not easily controlled. Success often depends on the people concerned and on the manner in which they became involved. There are ideas regarding which direction the participants want to go and there are even recurring patterns, but the ultimate result comes about little by little. Sometimes, but certainly not all the time, the conditions are quite optimal and the process brings out the unique qualities and perspectives of everyone and results in surprisingly novel solutions and actions. Indeed, in social learning too the whole is more than the sum of its parts.This monograph, consistent with some key ideas underpinning social learning, brings together and confronts different views on social learning, in order to arrive at a better understanding of the potential and the limitations of social learning in the context of natural resource management, environmental management and sustainability.  The monograph represents one of the fruits of a collaborative effort between Wageningen University in the Netherlands and Rhodes University in South Africa. It represents a wonderful entry point into social learning for (young) academics not only in The Netherlands and South Africa, but all around the world, as some of the literature reviewed and the issues raised clearly transcend these two countries.

The full report can be downloaded here: Reviews on Social Learning Literature

Reference

Wals, A.E.J., van der Hoeven, N. & Blanken, H. (2009). The Acoustics of Social Learning: Designing learning processes that contribute to a more sustainable world. Wageningen/Utrecht: Wageningen Academic Publishers/SenterNovem.

Action Research & Community Problem Solving and The Acoustics of Social Learning

Recently I re-visited The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where I once was a PhD-student with the late Bill Stapp, considered the founding father of Environmental Education, as my mentor. During those years (1987-1992) we worked in inner-city Detroit schools to help make education more relevant and meaningful to students growing up under harsh conditions. Many of the neighborhoods surrounding the two schools that we worked with have changed in some ways (the crack houses have been demolished mostly, some abandoned lots have been converted into what is referred to as “Detroit Agriculture” and the kids we worked with have grown-up when gotten the chance or, more likely, have moved or passed away (the life expectancy of many of the youngsters in these ‘hoods’ was not all that high in the 1980-ties). Of course some things haven’t changed, for instance, there is still poverty and most education is probably still not all that relevant and meaningful (something that holds true for kids growing up in more affluent communities as well).

Driving past 8 mile road reminded me of the time we spent with teachers and students in re-designing the curriculum to allow for the kids to link their education to the issues that mattered most to them and for the teachers to link those issues to the curriculum they were expected to teach. In the end we came up with “action research and community problem solving” (ARCPS) – a cyclical learning process consisting of problem identification and analysis, generating ideas for action and change, selecting and design concrete action plans, actual implementation and evaluation of those plans – with action and reflection throughout the process.

As we talk about sustainability, transition towns, community greening, social learning, transformation and so on a lot these days, I realize that some of the work done back then is very relevant today – there’s one difference though: much of what was considered radical and out of the main stream back then is getting much more traction today which is why I am offering a key paper from that time here: Action Research & Community Problem Solving (full reference: Wals, A.E.J. (1994). Action Research and Community Problem Solving: environmental education in an inner-city. Educational Action Research, 2 (2), 163-183) and along with what in some ways is a modern version of ARCPS: The Acoustics of Social Learning. The latter publication is more recent (an available as open access) and center’s more on community-based and multi-stakeholder social learning in the context of sustainability but has similar premises and a similar cyclical reflexive learning process. This publication can be found here: Wals, A.E.J., van der Hoeven, N. & Blanken, H. (2009). The Acoustics of Social Learning: Designing learning processes that contribute to a more sustainable world. Wageningen/Utrecht: Wageningen Academic Publishers/SenterNovem.