Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Uncivil cities

In 2005, I was a witness as a Barcelona resident of a worrying emphasis on ‘incivility’ as a problem. All of a sudden, things that were part of daily life in urban public space, especially in a Mediterranean capital, such as street drinking, skating, prostitution or game-playing, took centre stage and became the object of a deafening policy and media debate. Those things, that we may have seen as annoying but normal, or even been the ‘perpetrators’ of, very quickly became a public problem and portrayed as a clear sign of the decay of Western civilisation. Almost overnight, graffiti and homelessness became punishable offenses, among many other, varied things. Something had changed in the Barcelona of ‘amigos para siempre will you always be my friend’.[1]

Soon after this happened, a copy of Urban Studies’ double issue on ‘(In)civility and the city’ fell in my hands, giving context to the events I had just lived. Incivility was becoming a global issue and different bodies in different countries were looking for tools to pursue a law and order approach to city life. These efforts received different names in different places, but were essentially all part of a global process to turn deviant behaviours into offences and thus turn them into a police matter.

The Barcelona case, however, seemed to have its own dynamic –the role played by the annual neighbourhood festivities, seen by some media as bacchanalia of incivility, or the government crisis the Socialist government at the time was going through, as well as an evident conservative turn experienced by the generation that had lived and been protagonists of the transition to democracy, who now demanded that their ‘right’ to enjoy a clean and non-degraded public space, to rest and to be tranquil and to not be ‘disturbed in the exercise of the freedom of circulation.

I became curious in the interplay between local and global dynamics, and the reason of this ‘defining up’ of deviancy. The international literature gave me clues that resonated with the Barcelona experience, but only in broad terms. The ins-and-outs of the Barcelona case did not match those described in the international literature. Trying to make sense of ‘asynchronic synchrony’ was the main driver behind the paper, written with the hope to get international authors to question some of their assumptions or generalisations, as well as to encourage other to explore similar local processes and contribute them to our scientific field.

Using a combination of urban studies literature, public policy process and transfer theory and media discourse analysis, the paper retraces the policy process of what was called the Civility Ordinance of Barcelona, finally passed on 1 January 2006, in an attempt to contribute a detailed account of the local determinant factors. These are put in light not only of similar processes elsewhere, specially the UK, but also in broader debates on the local security agendas in the 90s and 00s. By presenting a mainly empirical picture, the paper aspires to inform other comparative studies on the role of security and deviancy in urban environments, and on the political role of cities under globalisation.

Now that several years have passed since these schemes were implemented in different countries and cities, and so we can begin to evaluate their impact –and probably validate Bannister and Kearns’ hypothesis, quoted in the paper, that the emphasis on tolerance and respect through civility results in an erosion of tolerance and respect-, and in a time when urban anxieties are centered on the crisis and radicalisation processes, understanding the problems of the civility approach can act as a timely warning sign.

Gemma Galdon-Clavell.

Barcelona, May 2015

[1] One of the landmark songs of the Olympic Games of 1992, symbolising tolerance, friendship and openness.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Mobile transitions: Exploring synergies for urban sustainability research

by Julia Affolderbach and Christian Schulz


When starting our research on green building initiatives and urban low-carbon strategies in Canada, Europe and Australia, we came across the promising complementarities of the Transition Studies approach on the one hand, and the more recent debate around Policy Mobilities. Given our primary interest in political, institutional, regulatory and organisational innovations and their impact on the greening of the building sector, the Social Studies of Technology (or “Transition Studies”) provided us with a useful heuristic to explore the interplay between niches for innovation, evolutions of the established regimes and changes of the general context conditions (“landscape”). But we also had to acknowledge the insufficient conceptualization of space in this approach, in particular when it comes to supra-national relationships, knowledge flows and long-distance influences. Here, the Policy Mobility approach allowed us to operationalize the extent to which local policies and actors’ behaviour are embedded into wider networks of constant policy exchange and learning processes, but also selective adoption and reinterpretation (mutation) of trend setting approaches. A combination of the two approaches gave us the opportunity to study both the localised settings and their impact on green building innovations and the relational articulation of urban sustainability programmes at the international level. The paper thus tries to contribute to the advancing conceptualization of space in the Transitions Studies literature, and – given its sectorial focus – to feed case study results from economic geography into the scholarly debates around the notion of Policy Mobility. We are convinced that a further engagement of the two approaches might not only reciprocally inspire the enrolled communities of researchers, but that it could also open new perspectives for both academics and practitioners/decision makers.

Provision of knowledge and evidence on the actual pathways and biographies of successful urban policies provides a basis to reconsider existing strategies without overrating the importance of local framework conditions in order (1) to facilitate the exchange and critical conversation with practitioners and decision makers in other city regions and (2) to develop a systemic understanding of influential levels and scales, without reifying the latter.

A wide range of topics regarding sustainable transitions might serve as test beds for this recombined approach including the multi-facetted energy policy aspiring for low carbon transitions (encompassing the decentralized use of renewables, low/zero/plus energy buildings, district heating, smart grids), transport and mobility issues, food security and urban farming, and more organizational issues such as community planning, co-housing, or solidary economies, and local sharing schemes. All of these are identified as highly innovative fields showing dynamics of rapid and international dissemination as well as re-adaptation of promising concepts.


Photo: Sebastian Fastenrath (used with permission)