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Characterizing and evaluating rival discourses of the ‘sustainable city’: Towards a politics of pragmatic adversarialism

Griggs, Steven; Hall, Stephen; Howarth, David; Seigenuret, Natacha


Steven Griggs

David Howarth

Natacha Seigenuret


© 2017 Elsevier Ltd For many, shifting economic and social contexts have created the conditions for a radical reappraisal of the orthodox image of the ‘sustainable city'. However, in assessing such potentialities, there is insufficient knowledge about the way in which local actors construct, live out and are gripped by this signifier. This article responds to this deficit by exploring how key actors engaged in urban development actually interpret the challenges of the ‘sustainable city'. In part, using a Q methodology study in Bristol and Grenoble, we discern and construct three distinctive discourses of the sustainable city, which we name progressive reformism, public localism, and moral stewardship. Our findings challenge previous critiques of sustainable urbanism. We observe no consistent support for mainstream conceptions of sustainable urban development, but neither do we find significant support for entrepreneurial or radical green localist discourses of the sustainable city. Instead, we identify a common indifference to the tenets of ecological modernization (and, by extension, entrepreneurialism), and a shared skepticism of local self-sufficiency. We thus argue that such discourses offer uncertain foundations upon which to construct new visions of the ‘sustainable city'. In our view, this is because of the transformation of the ‘sustainable city’ from a relatively fixed idea into a floating signifier, coupled with the practices of local practitioners as policy bricoleurs. We conclude that efforts to develop new visions of ‘sustainable cities’ are best served by fostering an agonistic ethos of ‘pragmatic adversarialism’ amongst strategic leaders and stakeholders, which foregrounds politics and the right to difference.


Griggs, S., Hall, S., Howarth, D., & Seigenuret, N. (2017). Characterizing and evaluating rival discourses of the ‘sustainable city’: Towards a politics of pragmatic adversarialism. Political Geography, 59, 36-46.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Feb 8, 2017
Online Publication Date Mar 1, 2017
Publication Date Jul 1, 2017
Journal Political Geography
Print ISSN 0962-6298
Publisher Elsevier
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 59
Pages 36-46
Keywords cities, sustainability, urban politics, discourse, political ecology
Public URL
Publisher URL


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