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The Alternative? Rethinking sustainability

From critique to contribution

You don’t need to go far or deep in an examination of the urban condition to find critique of existing ways of organising, developing or ‘doing’ cities in the 21st century. Scholars are increasingly arguing that current systems have failed to deliver ‘radically democratic, socially just and sustainable forms of urbanism’ [1].  It is a call frequently and eloquently articulated by community organisations and activists – some perspectives on these issues have already been published on Platform – by Mark Burton, Caroline Downey, Alex Whinnom, Paul Haywood, Dan Silver and Amina Lone and others.

There are a number of scholars readily constructing critique of contemporary cities. Powerful arguments have been offered concerning how market-driven rationalities, vested interests and economic growth coalitions have permeated different domains of life, from sustainability to climate change, regeneration to cultural policy. 

Critique is all well and good. Understanding what is wrong is, after all, the first step in being able to imagine alternative futures. But the task does not stop there. Applying a medical analogy, diagnosis needs to be followed by prognosis and – ultimately - treatment.

The task is to excavate the possibilities for alternative, radically emancipatory forms of urbanism that are latent yet systematically suppressed [2]. 

A second step is to consider alternatives. What should be done differently? A critical urban theory needs to be linked with practice if transformation of the urban condition is the ultimate aim. Here we are urged to play a role in ‘exposing, proposing and politicising’ [3] options and possible futures for a more sustainable urbanism. 

Raising visibility; a role for research?

These thought-lines are central in the development of the Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform (GMLIP) at the University of Salford Manchester - part of the Swedish Mistra Urban Futures centre. The Mistra Urban Futures vision starts with the normative statement that ‘existing pathways are not sustainable’ - our Swedish colleagues have argued that we need to create the conditions for fairer, greener and more dense cities. 

For us in Greater Manchester, the first task is to understand pathways and explore options. We have developed partnerships with the Low Carbon Hub, the Social Action Research Foundation, Creative Concern and the Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisations to explore options for how we govern sustainability in the city-region, how the third sector can have a greater voice and how policy can take account of different sources and kinds of knowledge.

What can a platform like the GM LIP do? Raise VISIBILITY, let different VOICES be heard and support alternative VALUES for urban transformation. 

It also means a commitment to raising the visibility of alternative forms of sustainable urbanism and asking how they challenge existing ways of working, seeing, doing and living in the city. Supporting the development of Platform provides an infrastructure for this aspiration. The hope, over time, is that Platform will provide a space for turning up the volume on different debates in the city.

But what is an alternative? Our starting definition [4] is an initiative which may have some or all of the following characteristics – it: 

• aims at producing social, cultural and ecological benefits, rather than purely economic ones;
• emphasises non-linear ecologies of practice;
• is context-sensitive but has wider lessons for others to learn from;
• links everyday practices with system-wide implications;
• is open and participatory;
• emphasises collective over divisible aims.

This is work in progress. We are interrogating the concept of alternatives informed by a number of different initiatives across the city-region. This includes looking at buildings, spaces and infrastructures; creative and cultural projects and community activism; heat networks and local food projects; international festivals and community arts projects.

A series of interesting questions emerge: 

  • Are ‘community’ or ‘grassroots’ initiatives synonymous with ‘alternative’, simply because of who is involved, or who owns the agenda?
  • Can initiatives from larger, ‘mainstream’ organisations also constitute alternatives?
  • Do community or grassroots initiatives always challenge the status quo or can they actually reinforce existing pathways, if so how?
  • From all the multitude of initiatives that are blossoming in the city-region, which suggest alternative pathways for change at a systemic level – and what are the implications?

The Alternative?

Each short article in this initial series will provide a profile on a particular organisation or initiative. There will be two types of article. Some articles will draw primarily on publicly available information, outlining what the initiative is, its aims and aspirations and main characteristics. We will then suggest why and in what ways the initiative might be interesting for the broader analysis of alternatives and what issues it raises. Other articles will be more in-depth, based on deeper qualitative and ethnographic research: interviews, observations, meetings, workshops and event attendance.  

Our hope is that through interrogating the concept of ‘alternative’ and increasing the visibility of different initiatives we can make a modest contribution to the possibility of a more unified call for Henri Lefebrve's ‘right to the city’,  from multiple community and grassroots initiatives [5]. This is not a call in which difference or dissent is eradicated, but in which coalitions of social movements and interests might find an 'equivalence' of purpose [6] in the transition to a more sustainable urban future.

The Series

Find out more

This article is part of a working paper and academic publication in development drawing on the work and experiences of the Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform. It also draws on a recent presentation given at the University of Oxford’s Flexible Cities seminar.

For more information - or if you would like to contribute to ‘The Alternative?’ series yourself,  please contact Beth on

[1] 'Cities for People, Not For Profit’ (2012) Neil Brenner, Peter Marcuse and Margit Mayer, page 2. Routledge Publishing.

[2] ibid, Neil Brenner, Chapter 2, page 19. 

[3] ibid, Peter Marcuse, Chapter 4.

[4] For some previous work, see Beth Perry, Tim May, Simon Marvin and Mike Hodson, (2013) Chapter: Rethinking Sustainable Urbanism (p.157) in Hans Andersen and Rob Atkinson, ‘The Production and Use of Urban Knowledge’. Springer Publishing.

[5] For a piece by the brilliant David Harvey on the 'right to the city', see here.

[6] Mark Purcell (2008) ‘Recapturing Democracy’. Routledge Publishing.

Image credit: Yinka Shonibare MBE, Climate Shit Drawing (Triptych), 2009. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Yorkshire Sculpture Park.