In pursuit of just sustainability

We are confronted with the challenge of developing cities and societies that respond to the key challenges of our age – climate change, resource scarcity, poverty and inequality. In essence, what is being called for is a transition towards just sustainability. Despite assertions that it is possible to develop in a way that is concurrently socially just and environmentally sustainable, in reality, achieving this alignment has proved elusive.

The GCRO’s 12th Research Report, In pursuit of just sustainability, furthers the discourse on just sustainability and demonstrates that while a crucial objective, building environmentally sustainable and socially just societies is neither simple nor straightforward.

The report is the product of a research collective that brought together researchers from different backgrounds to explore just sustainability in the Gauteng City-Region (GCR). Each member of the collective undertook case study research, and together the collection is designed to show how just sustainability plays out across different sectors within a single geographical context – the GCR. The research deliberately engages with how different perspectives and logics influence assessments and outcomes related to just sustainability. The case studies grapple with what is ‘fair’ and ‘just’ – positions that are influenced by individual perspectives, values and belief systems.

The report consists of seven chapters:

Chapter 1: In pursuit of just sustainability, by Christina Culwick Fatti, lays out the justification for this volume, presents an overview of the GCR, and describes the evolution and logic of this research collection. The chapter also reflects on the report’s relevance in furthering just sustainability in both theory and practice.

Chapter 2: Just sustainability in cities, by Christina Culwick Fatti, explores the interaction between social justice and environmental sustainability, how just sustainability could be conceptualised, and interrogates some of the practical challenges in building just and sustainable cities.

Chapter 3: Using complexity studies to think through issues of environmental sustainability and social justice in the South African coal expansion programme, by Emily Tyler and Brett Cohen, unpacks the environmental and social impacts of the Khanyisa project (a project within the Coal Baseload Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme). Their study shows how the entanglement of environmental sustainability and social justice can be interrogated through engaging a complexity lens. They argue that the process of simplification, while useful to influence high-level political agendas and policies, is unhelpful at the project scale and can in fact be used to undermine real progress towards just sustainability.

Chapter 4: Parkhurst’s ‘Go Green Initiative’: Governance, sustainable urbanism and social justice, by Margot Rubin, explores Parkhurst’s attempt to go off grid as the community-level response for trying to withdraw from government services because of the instability of the national grid. The consequences of this move, while improving the suburb’s environmental footprint, undermine the City’s ability to cross-subsidise poorer households – thus entrenching inequality in resource distribution.

Chapter 5: Deconstructing sustainability and justice in government housing developments, by Christina Culwick Fatti, presents an empirical analysis of government housing in Gauteng, and explores a range of factors that influence social justice and environmental sustainability outcomes. The study highlights that terms such as ‘well-located’ and ‘compact urban form’ – which are assumed to align social justice and environmental sustainability – are not singular concepts and can be interpreted in various ways, each leading to different conclusions.

Chapter 6: The ‘conceptual smoothing’ work of ‘environment’, ‘social’ and ‘road’ in the performance of e-tolling and the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project, by Lisa Kane, presents the history, justifications and motivations around Gauteng’s freeway upgrading project and associated e-tolling scheme between 2007 and 2017. Through this exposition, she argues that although the project was based on international evidence and could in theory be argued as furthering environmental sustainability and social justice goals, the particularity of the post-apartheid context rendered the scheme neither just nor sustainable.

Chapter 7: Why should we build cycling lanes? For what?’ Building a socially just bicycle programme in an unequal city: the case of Johannesburg, by Gail Jennings, lays out the entanglement of motivations and rhetoric around utility cycling and the investment in bicycle infrastructure in Johannesburg. On paper, utility cycling and investing in bicycle infrastructure furthers both sustainability and justice imperatives; however, Jennings argues that the City of Johannesburg’s bicycle programme achieved neither of these objectives.

While the challenges to achieve just sustainability as revealed in the case studies have a particular context in the GCR, the environmental sustainability and social justice conundrums are emblematic of the challenges faced by many urban centres around the world. The research does not argue for the uniqueness of the GCR in this regard, but rather that the large number of relevant examples in just one small corner of the world, clearly demonstrates the pressing need to engage issues of just sustainability in a deeper and more robust way. Each chapter argues against narrow interpretations and approaches that have the potential to undermine real progress towards just sustainability. The attention that this volume pays to complexity, nuance, subjectivity and contradiction is critical in the South African context, given the need to avoid lock-in and accommodate socio-economic diversity within policies, planning and practice.

This Research Report is an output of GCRO's Just sustainability transitions project.


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