Thoughts: How do cities brace for socio-ecological transitions?

The laundry list of limits that most cities are about to hit is long: transport networks are on their knees almost everywhere; resources are lost in waste treatments; densification and urbanisation have eaten up available plots and sprawl into the periphery, thereby increasing the pressure on transport networks; climate change poses unknown but nevertheless very real risks to urban forms; and in many places, land and real estate comes at such a premium that is only accessible to the rich – or the desperate.

Victims of their success

The drivers that have brought cities closer to these limits are their enormous success as hubs in the globalised economy and power structure. This success makes them so attractive that millions of people around the world continue to leave their rural homes behind and join the vibrant service economies of New York, Los Angeles, Munich, Frankfurt, Paris, Stockholm, Toronto or wherever you are reading this. To be sure, there is also a host of cities that haven’t managed to become hubs of the current system of globalised value chains and still struggle with a difficult heritage from the first or second wave of globalisation – think of Charleroi, Detroit, Saint-Etienne and a large number of urban agglomerations in the former Soviet Union (if you don’t know any of them, just ask your Eastern European neighbour where he was born). The bad news is that Charleroi and Detroit still face most of the limits that more successful cities experience – minus, perhaps, the premium on land – but typically have far smaller resources to invest in adaptation measures.

The fertile mess 

All this is of course nothing new. As Robert Charlebois* put it in the 1960s, we already knew about potential disaster from yesterday’s news. But what is new is a socio-political landscape in which some city-regions actually start to roll out transition programmes that few would have considered possible only a decade ago. While much can be criticised about the current hype around circular economy – above all the fact that its imprecise content basically allows agile businessmen to sell everything and the contrary as being “circular” – the place-based strategies that cities such as Amsterdam, Brussels or Paris have adopted at top political level are impressive in their ambitions and potential radicalness. Maybe we have reached a point where the mess is such that – and many would argue that the city of Brussels, the “Capital of Europe”, is already past that point –  we can seriously talk about embarking on significant transitions.

Maybe we have reached a point where the mess is such that – we can seriously talk about embarking on significant transitions

Two honest attempts at significant transitions

Notwithstanding the transition talk of notorious multinational corporations that are using the term as an n-th layer of shiny green to cover their business-as-usual, we see two honest attempts at significant social-ecological transition.

The first comes from bottom-up initiatives of motivated citizens that understand themselves as pioneers in preparing for a new society in which responsibility, engagement and collective action are being reinvented in a new socio-economic and ecological compromise. Spearheaded by the Transition Town Movement, these initiatives have developed countless vernacular narratives of how it could all work out if we started using our collective imagination, roll up our sleeves and just start doing stuff. The Transition Town Movement has had great successes, especially in bringing together communities and spread the idea that business-as-usual will almost certainly decrease urban quality of life. But it is much more adapted to small- or medium-sized towns in which civic collective action tends to find a more fertile ground than in the anonymous concrete jungles in which most of humanity has taken root these days. It has also yet to develop strategies for overcoming the path dependencies and institutional lock-ins that are situated at higher scales in the social-ecological systems that the likes of Rob Hopkins are aiming to transform. (Another temporary problem of the movement is a result from the strategic mistake to build its core narrative around “peak oil” that has lost some of its appeal in the context of Saudi Arabian dumping, American fracking and Iranian recovery.)

The second honest attempt at urban social-ecological transitions is still in its infancy but has arguably a far greater leverage than the previous one: local or regional public administrations using the shift of global power balances towards large urban agglomerations and taking the liberty of reconsidering their overall development strategy.

Mayor help you?

Public administrations might seem to be an improbable place to breed radical change, but there are several good reasons to think again. First, consider the central role that they have played historically in organising and steering radical transformations such as the planned urbanisation and development of car-based transport networks after WWII. At least some of the institutional lock-ins and path dependencies that cannot be cracked by bottom-up movements à la Rob Hopkins* can actually be addressed at the scale of large urban agglomerations, for instance those that concern mobility, waste/resources or cultural services.

Second, in contrast to national or supranational public institutions, local or regional administrations are much more exposed to the loss of quality of life that will be the consequence from business-as-usual developments. Local politicians at the helm of municipal administrations are arguably more motivated to take the risk of embarking on more radical departures from prevailing economic and developmental dogmas.

Third, local public authorities turn out to be in a good spot for bringing together different types of actors – including bottom-up transition movements, but also public utilities and other more systemic players that are part of the “regime”. They often enjoy the legitimacy and credibility of brokering between different interests and viewpoints. This is essential to overcome silo-thinking and imagining scenarios of how complex socio-ecological systems can be reconfigured.

Cornering complexity

We think that local or regional authorities need to develop a set of new skills and instruments in order to be successful with more disruptive programmes. Co-creating some of these skills and instruments is a central research goal of an on-going research project called TURaS in which researchers from different disciplines – including Adrian Hill, Stephan Kampelmann, Eva-Maria Stumpp and Julia Hartmann from OSMOS – are working with public authorities from 10 city-regions from different corners of Europe on what we refer to as “Integrated Transition Plans”.

The process of developing Integrated Transition Plans is structured into four steps that do not necessarily follow a chronological order – think of them as basic building blocks that should all be at hand if the transition is to take shape. The general framework of this “four corner” framework is based on the planning literature and experience as researchers and practioners of Eva-Maria, who has previously worked with complexity forethinker Horst Rittel at the University of Stuttgart’s Institut für die Grundlagen der Planung, and Julia, whose experience includes commercial planning bureaus in London and strategic housing development for the German city of Thübingen.FullSizeRender-2The first building block is “system analysis”. Without at least a rough analysis of the boundaries and main elements of the system you are looking at, embarking on a major transition is rather irresponsible. But the kind of system analysis on which the plan should be based depends very much on the local context. For instance, a water system is not assessed in the same way as a transport system: it does not operate at the same scale, and different disciplines have developed distinct vocabularies and methods to elucidate their functioning. OSMOS and TURaS research has focused on developing a central tool for system analysis which is the representation of complex systems through narratives and sketches. We experienced that simple graphical or verbal representations are highly instrumental for constructive discussions about what the system encompassing and how it organises different flows, artefacts, places etc. For the system representation to be successful, it needs to strike a balance between, on the one hand, technical detail and wealth of information, and readability and clarity of relationship on the other hand. An inspiring example of system analysis has been provided by the City of Rotterdam, one of the partners in this research, which has worked with scientists and different municipal departments to develop so-called Delta scenarios in which information on urbanism, flood risks and economic development is combined to analyse the current and future risks for the city.


The second building block is “vision making”. This will involve a challenging combination between creativity, imagination and political commitment to change. Creating a narrative about a future configuration that does not yet exist should of course involve evidence-based forecasts and models, but it will necessarily also involve a leap of faith. Creating a convincing and workable vision to build upon is typically not a strength of local public authorities, but some local politicians have been successful visionaries (find example?). Our research has focussed on the kind of setting and group dynamics that can foster the emergence of visions, including the type of documentation that is necessary to capture the essence of ideas that come up in workshops. For example, the vision making for the case of a site in the town of Manziana in Italy was the central objective of a two-day workshop with a broad range of local stakeholders in order to imagine a sustainable reconversion of an abandoned industrial asset (link to Manziana blog). The vision in the Integrated Transition Plan of the Stuttgart region, another partner in the project, reinterpreted the (scarce) open spaces of the region as necessary counterpoint to the grey infrastructure in the form of an accessible and productive “landscape park”.

The third building block is “strategy”. Getting this building block of an Integrated Transition Plan right involves and altogether different set of skills and tools than the two preceding ones. Defining a successful strategy implies having one idea on the current state of the system and another one on the vision you want to achieve – and finding viable path between them. System theorists like Donella Meadows* suggest to focus on focusing on the points of systems that provide the most leverage for change. While working on the Integrated Transition Strategy for transport and water in the greater Ljubljana region, the regional development agency – yet another research partner – identified that empowering 27 municipal authorities that together form the Ljubljana region was a winning strategy for envisaging a sustainability transition for the entire region.

Finally, the fourth building block concerns “implementation”. It is crucial to not that this is not an end-of-pipe item that can be addressed after having after gone through system analysis, vision making and strategy. To be sure, any plan is absolutely ineffective if it is not implemented. The challenge is to incorporate the nitty-gritty of translation plans into action from the very beginning of the work on an Integrated Transition Plan. The Stuttgart region has done so successfully in its ambitious plan to reinterpret open spaces as a “landscape park”. Specific implementation projects, such as building a bridge or connecting different biotopes through green corridors, have been anticipated from the very beginning of the planning process, which meant that all preceding steps – including the co-creation of a vision and the formulation of a strategy – very deliberately designed as constructive steps towards tangible action in the field.


While there is certainly no one-size-fits-all recipe for how local and regional authorities can engage in Integrated Transition Plans, the skills and instruments the TURaS researchers and public authorities have co-developed can increase their chances for success. Incidentally, the process of co-creating Integrated Transition Plans is in itself a successful transition from a paradigm in which different cities compete in fierce competition and researches are confined to ivory towers, to one in which cities learn from each other with the support from researchers.