The city must change: “It’s time for sustainable and just alternatives”

Flor Avelino standing outside in greenery

What does a sustainable and just city look like? “A city where equality, inclusion and sustainability are the starting point”, according to Flor Avelino, theme lead within the Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities & Citizens (VCC). In her research and teaching, she focuses on the role of power in transitions towards more sustainable and just communities. “When I encounter unjust and unsustainable signs, I can get quite infuriated.”

You are theme lead Sustainable and Just Cities. What does a sustainable and just city mean to you?

For me, a sustainable, just city is about equality, inclusion and socio-ecological resilience. It is about how current generations of people, as well as future generations and other creatures, can live together. This includes not only ecological issues, but also cultural and socio-economic equality.

To what extent is your research focused on Rotterdam? 

I don’t focus solely on Rotterdam, or any other single city. I’m particularly interested in translocal networks and movements. These are locally embedded movements that are also connected at a regional, national and global level. In our TRANSIT research project on social innovation, we studied 20 of such movements and how they are translocally connected.

One example of such movements is the Impact Hub network of social entrepreneurs who work together in 100 cities around the world. We studied that network at a global level, but we also specifically researched the Impact Hubs in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. I find these kind of translocal initiatives fascinating and incredibly hopeful because I think that they can help us break through the false dichotomy between local solidarity and internationalism. 

How would you like to contribute concretely to sustainable and just cities?

We started the event series Just Sustainability Transitions in which we want to address the relations between sustainability and justice. We invite various speakers: researchers from multiple disciplines and universities, and activists and social entrepreneurs from civil society organisations. Our target group is broad: we want to reach researchers, students, entrepreneurs, policymakers, activists and other critical thinkers and involved citizens. 

With this event series, I want to emphasise the translocal perspective where the city is vital to realise things. Think, for instance, of a network like Fearless Cities, in which cities take up social challenges themselves when national politics fail to do so. At the same time, I pertinently don't want to exclude everything that is not the city. A just and sustainable city is, by definition, also about the city's relationship with its environment. The big question is precisely how the city relates to other places. Where does our food come from? Where do we get our energy from? Who can live and work in the city and who cannot? Which creatures are exploited and excluded by a city? 

How do you make this tangible in the field of education?

I have been working at DRIFT during the last 15 years, a research institute that specialises in sustainability transitions. In 2013, we launched the Transition Academy, where we offer different forms of teaching and training on transitions and social innovation to a broad audience of policymakers, entrepreneurs, activists and researchers. I recently became an associate professor at the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB), at the department of Public Administration and Sociology. I think teaching is one of the most relevant and fulfilling aspects of academia, but I also see many challenges in the current academic education system. 

What challenges do you see for academic higher education on sustainability and justice?  

I think the biggest challenge is that disciplinary thinking is still very dominant at most universities. Interdisciplinary cooperation in education is difficult, as disciplines and institutes have to compete for student numbers to survive financially, especially since there are constant budget cuts in education. Yet, I also see many exciting developments and collaborations in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary education, and I am excited to see how this will develop in the coming years.

My dream is to one day develop an integrated and fully-fledged interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary bachelor and master programme focused on transformative social innovation and just sustainability transitions. Students would then also be challenged to conduct action research in the city and its surroundings and learn by doing how challenging and exciting change can be in practice.

What kind of city would you like to live in?

A city that works for everyone and where green spaces and other basic services are accessible to everyone, not just to the wealthy. And where the people who work in the city are also able to live there. It is absurd that there are more and more cities where the majority of the people who work there cannot afford to actually live there. 

Furthermore, I would like to live in a city where there is ample room for discussion and diversity, not only in ethnicity and religion but also in opinions and lifestyles. Where the city square, as a place and a metaphor for spontaneous everyday encounters, gets more space. A place where people are literally and figuratively confronted by each other, where they co-exist while also entering into constructive debate about what the city should be. 

More information

Vital Cities and Citizens

With the Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens, Erasmus University Rotterdam wants to help improve the quality of life in cities. In vital cities, the population can achieve their life goals through education, useful work and participation in public life. The vital city is a platform for creativity and diversity, a safe meeting place for different social groups. The researchers involved focus on one of the four sub-themes:

•    Inclusive Cities and Diversity
•    Resilient Cities and People
•    Smart Cities and Communities 
•    Sustainable and Just Cities

VCC is a collaboration between Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB), Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC) and International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).

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