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Sustainability experiments (in) transforming London

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

Innovative real-life ‘experiments’ have taken centre stage in practices and research concerned with aspired sustainable transformations of cities. However, how, why, and where precisely such experiments emerge – or not – is still under-researched. Often, cities are viewed as ‘homogeneous formations’ (Dodson, 2014) with little regard for their internal differentiation at, for example, neighbourhood scales. Demographic, socio-economic, and socio-cultural characteristics that shape the socio-spatially uneven emergence, evolution, and persistence of initiatives have been largely neglected. This PhD project aims to overcome some of these shortcomings by critically exploring the urban milieux of sustainability experiments. The aim is to contribute especially to the field of sustainability transitions. This stream of research forms the core of the dissertation’s theoretical framework, enriched through the application also of concepts and theories from the interdisciplinary field of urban studies, especially urban geography. 
The dissertation employs an ‘exploratory sequential mixed methods design’ in three main stages. It begins with qualitative data collection and analysis, followed by a quantitative phase, and a final phase integrating and linking insights and methods. Corresponding to this structure, the dissertation comprises three single-author papers. Paper 1 is an ethnographic case study of grassroots sustainability initiatives in Peckham, a transforming inner-city neighbourhood in London. It explores the relationship and mutual influence of these initiatives and their socio-spatial context as shaped by gentrification. It finds that these initiatives are best conceived of as expressions of material, socio-cultural, and political-economic ‘place-making’. The paper demonstrates that the distribution of costs and benefits associated with sustainability initiatives is not ‘neutral’. It thereby questions common, overly positive views of grassroots initiatives. Paper 2 ‘zooms out’ from the context- and locality-specific focus of the first study to examine on a metropolitan scale the correlation between experiments' emergence and the characteristics of the neighbourhoods in which they emerge. It employs spatial statistical analyses and draws on the case of a London-wide food growing initiative (‘Capital Growth’), instigated by a food charity and the city government, and constituted by hundreds of individual projects across the city. This study considers different temporal ‘stages’ of gentrification whilst moving beyond a mere gentrification-focus in pointing to the role also of income-deprived neighbourhoods as distinct urban milieux in which initiatives emerge disproportionately often. Paper 3 engages with the existing overemphasis of particular types of ‘green’ or ‘creative’ places, and the concurrent neglect of experiments in more ordinary urban geographies. Empirically, it also draws on the case of Capital Growth, using a sample of 350 of its projects, for which qualitative data was gathered. Combining this data with a detailed London-wide geodemographic classification, it examines the emergence, ‘sustainability’ objectives and interpretations, as well as the longevity of initiatives in diverging urban contexts. In sum, this empirically-grounded dissertation engages with the complexities and multiplicities of ‘the urban’ with the aim to enrich our understanding of sustainability experiments and to critically illuminate their potential role for urban transformations.
Original languageEnglish
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Award date1 Aug 2019

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