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From: H.C.Perkins & D.C.Thorns
Category: Category 3
Date: 20 Mar 2000
Time: 14:11:34
Remote Name:



Harvey C. Perkins Human Sciences Division, Lincoln University E-mail:

David C. Thorns Department of Sociology University of Canterbury E-mail:

* Introduction

New Zealand’s urban environment comprises settlements with populations which range (by international standards) from small cities to small rural towns. These settlements are home to more than 80 per cent of all New Zealanders. They are therefore a centrally important part of our social, cultural and economic environment. This fact, as well as the natural and physical environmental aspects of urban New Zealand, was emphasised in the recent report of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment "The Cities and their People (PCE, 1998)". Consistent with the now dominant international discourse which locates sustainability at the centre of discussions about environmental management, the authors of the report place the question of sustainability at the heart of the debate about the present and future shape of New Zealand’s urban environment. In this report, drawing on the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development, they argue that:

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (PCE, 1998:2)".

The authors of the report also argue for a new national agency to provide support and coordination of research and information on urban sustainability. We see this as an invitation to develop a new urban planning and management project. Our purpose is therefore to examine the significance and relevance of the sustainability idea as a starting point for such a project. In doing so we want to highlight the implications of taking such an approach and to suggest that while there are some merits in doing so, it also creates a good number of difficulties.

At the outset we want to nail our colours to the mast, so to speak. We are both social scientists, one a social geographer and the other a sociologist. We therefore take the view that defining human social and community life naturalistically, as part of the bio-physical environment, or of ecosystems, is reductionist and ignores the significant social theoretical tenet that cities are a significant product of human culture. As Aasen (1992:7) pointed out:

"...cities are in fact not natural organisms: they are artificial, cultural constructions. If we treat human communities as part of ecosystems, we ignore the complex social and economic processes which produce and maintain cities and ...preclude the question of our cities and other aspects of our constructed environment from the serious consideration which they deserve."

In supporting this perspective we want to take nothing away from the view that urban planning should be actively concerned with much better management of the bio-physical environment and the sometimes quite dramatic and damaging impacts of human beings on that part of our environment. This is most important. We do, however, believe, that answers to environmental management questions, whether they be cultural, economic or bio-physical, are fundamentally social and therefore primarily political, rather than technical, in nature.

* Starting with sustainability and ecosystems thinking

The adoption of sustainability (particularly the “sustainable management” of the "Resource Management Act 1991)" and ecosytems thinking as a starting point for talking about urban planning and management has some important implications. These ideas are based on biological metaphors and therefore give privilege to natural science and associated technical responses to environmental problems (Macnaghten and Urry 1998). They are therefore both conservationist in a natural environmental sense, but also tinged with political conservatism when seen from a social policy perspective. It certainly comes as no surprise that these ideas have become popular in association with the rise of neo-liberal politics.

This latter point is very important because it lies at the base of the confusion over the usefulness and relevance of the sustainability and ecosystems ideas for urban planning and management. Essentially, in the concern to emphasise the bio-physical environment, New Zealanders have embraced a politically conservative stance toward collective modes of policy making and down-played the importance of urban and social planning. Let us illustrate our point by referring to recent urban policy making in New Zealand. The recent trends in urban policy, such as we have had, have been concerned with the short-term issues. They have been market driven and shaped by a belief that the policy framework should be guided by increasing individual choice. One of the drawbacks here is that the collective good – difficult though it is to define - represented by the long term needs of both human communities, and the bio-physical environment, has been sidelined or at best seem as a “management issue” rather than one of overall development. The prescriptions contained in the "Resource Management Act 1991 " and the new crop of city plans which are emerging as a result of the change to an effects-based planning system are evidence of this.

The other social and urban policy problem underlying our present situation is a seemingly widespread loss of faith in, and commitment to, planning by governments at either national or local levels. Such an approach is seen to be reminiscent of state centrism, of regulatory and inflexible bureaucratic practices and a series of both residential design, planning and environmental disasters. It is, for example, blamed for having created “bulldozer developments”, which lacked sensitivity to social and cultural differences and created the high rise flats and unusable spaces which Coleman (1985) called “confused spaces”. Currently some of these developments are being retrofitted with height reductions and the removal of walkways and walls to “solve” the planning and design disasters of the past. Unless, however, our analysis is robust, sufficiently rigorous, and incorporates both physical and social considerations, our attempts at remedying past planning “failures” may simply reproduce our earlier mistakes. Abandoning planning and leaving the market to decide really isnote t much of a solution. There is clearly a need for central and local government urban planning. This, combined with sound urban research and the establishment of institutional structures to provide this focus in New Zealand, will help overcome the significant deficiency to which the Parliamentary Commissioner’s report rightly draws our attention.

Having come this far, it is also important to evaluate the influence on urban social policy of a conservationist orientation to environmental management. Taking this approach raises some interesting questions about, and contradictions in, the ways we understand, describe and manage the environments in which we live. In this context, many people value the sustainability and ecosystems approach because it seems to be emphasising the now popular notion that people are part of nature, not separate from it. This approach directs attention immediately to the long-term protection of the natural environment, on which we are all dependent. This is no bad thing. It is also important to understand, however, that there is a good deal of debate about the quality of our environmental knowledge upon which a protectionist approach might be based. These debates have been informed by developments in environmental ethics, philosophy and social science which among other things, question our capacity to control our world in the way that advocates of sustainable development seem to prefer. This questioning is part of a growing critique of the enlightenment paradigm of scientific knowledge which sought to provide a way of controlling nature through scientific discovery so that progress could be achieved. Such visions of progress were fraught with political and social debate, despite scientists’ optimism that they could provide progressive policy based on an objective, rational, value neutral, analysis within which the “facts” would speak for themselves. Contemporary criticisms, for example, those associated with the environmental movement, interpretative and post-modern epistemology and feminism, now highlight the limitations of these approaches because they failed to recognise the subjectivity of knowledge and the necessity to understand the context from which knowledge is derived. With the questioning of the scientific basis of knowledge has also come the questioning of human capacities to solve environmental problems using scientific knowledge and technology alone. Quite how we are to create sustainable cities if our grasp on knowledge of both social and natural environmental systems is uncertain raises some very interesting questions.

* Sustainable development versus sustainable management

In presenting ideas such as these in other fora our critics have suggested that our concerns have more to do with the narrow and weak definition of sustainability used in the "Resource Management Act rather" than the more broadly defined “sustainable development”. A great many more possibilities are contained in the sustainable development idea, we are told. The Parliamentary Commissioner’s report, for example, emphasises the potential role of sustainable development in the context of urban management in New Zealand. The reportote s authors define it this way:

"Sustainable urban development involves integrating the requirements of environmental management, social equity and economic opportunity into all decision making. Sustainable urban development is not a fixed state but a process of change in which use of resources, technological development and institutional change are managed so as to meet future as well as present needs (PCE, 1998:2)."

This raises two important matters for our reflection. The first of these is that the authors of the report seem to be advocating an approach which must span ecological, social, cultural and economic considerations. This is easier said than done and it is difficult to see how we can reach some balance between competing interests and policy concerns. This difficulty is compounded by our limited knowledge about interactions between social, cultural, economic and ecological processes (Poole, 1997). The danger of false determinations is considerable and this has been a constant problem in analyses of the city. In Chicago, for example, during the 1920s and 1930s there emerged a very influential strain of urban theory, called urban ecology, which relied on a na´ve mixture of plant ecology (ideas of invasion, succession, domination) and market economics to analyse the growth and segmentation of that city. The “ecological model” with its famous bulls eye imagery of the city that researchers produced became widely used but provided an “explanation” for city growth which was weak on human agency. The city was characterised as growing outwards, pushed by the sheer weight of numbers and the operation of the land market. This urban theory has been severely criticised and is not now considered to be valid. There was no room in this analysis for the influences of Chicago’s political and planning system – its planners, managers, mayors and real estate professionals; nor were community groups and social movements representing the interests of migrants and more established citizens, factored into the model. In a similar way, the debate about sustainability has a nasty habit of starting with abroad agenda but moving quickly to forms of ecological or environmental determinism. The Parliamentary Commissioner’s report, for example, by page three is suggesting that:

"The city can be considered as an ecosystem and ecological concepts can be used to understand urban sustainability issues and develop solutions."

Whilst we accept that the report’s authors are not suggesting that these are necessarily the determining factors, it is perhaps privileging one set over the others, in the emerging debate.

The second important issue we can draw from the Parliamentary Commissioner’s discussion of the idea of sustainable development is that we are engaged here in a 'process ' not a static set of considerations. Thus the ground will keep moving and it is therefore imperative that we develop both mechanisms for ongoing research and analysis, and an effective engagement with the wider community. Here there is the need to engage with discussions about the nature of citizenship and representation, capacity building, enablement and community empowerment which are also part of the Habitat 11 agenda for action.

In order to assist in the discussion about the future of New Zealand’s cities and towns it is important to both clarify and reflect upon the way that this debate is constructed in both the international and local literature. Clearly, the question of what sustainable development actually is and can be has not been resolved. The metaphors we use to shape our debates are powerful conditioners of our thinking and can be both exclusionary as well as inclusionary devices depending on how they are employed. The question we would therefore like to consider a little further is “what is sustainability?” Is this a concept which can be left uncritically at the centre of the emerging discussion, does it provide a robust foundation for the restructuring of both our thinking and our urban practices?

* Critique of the idea of sustainability (2)

The centrality of the notion of sustainability within broad international debates and fora has now become well established (The Brundtland Report, WCED, 1987; Habitat II, 1996; Becker, Stress, and Wehling, 1997; Burgess, Carmona and Kolstee, 1997; Callicott and Mumford, 1997; Lele and Norgaard, 1996; Williers, 1994). According to Wood (1993:7 quoted in Wall, 1997:43) the sustainable development variant of this notion has gained so much support because:

"It appeared that sustainable development was an idea whose time had come, reflecting a convergence of scientific knowledge, economics, socio-political activity and environmental realities that would guide human development into the twenty-first century."

In addition, Wall (1997:43) paraphrasing Wood (1993:7) noted that sustainable development had the capacity to empower more than just the dispossessed. One important reason for the idea’s rise to prominence was because:

"It lends legitimacy to the free-market economy, belief in trickledown economics and the benefits of technological progress. It offers a wide range of opportunities for action at all levels, and new institutions, policies and programmes which may be initiated under the guise of sustainable development provide significant opportunities to expand power bases, acquire additional resources and enhance prestige on the part of bureaucrats and administrators."

It would be hard to argue that this latter point has not played at least some part in the adoption of sustainability thinking by the New Zealand Government.

Even though the adoption of the concept is now widespread there is no consensus about its meaning. Concerns have been raised from a philosophical point-of-view with Godlovitch (1997:13 and 18) arguing that the concept misrepresents the nature of the world and people’s relationship to it. He suggests that sustainability as a guiding precept is flawed, first, because “as a feature of things… this is not the way the world works” and second, because “...dwe know too little about ourselves and what we want, and about the way the world works to prescribe confidently any stable technical or ideological fix”. In his words:

"The contrast between the Nomic and Prudential dimensions mirrors the contrast between the Objective and Subjective points of view (Godlovitch, 1997:18).

The Nomic stance [or Objective point of view] works against sustainability as a feature of things because we suspect this is not the way the world works. The Prudential stance [or Subjective point of view] works against sustainability as a realizable or even appropriately identifiable goal because we are bound to suspect that we know too little about ourselves and what we want, and about the way the world works to prescribe confidently any stable technical or ideological fix (Godlovitch, 1997:13)."

Other writers from the social sciences and humanities have raised similar issues. Timothy Luke, for example, raised a number of unresolved questions pertaining to sustainability:

"Sustainable for how long? A generation, one hundred years, one thousand years?; Sustainable for whom? Present generations, all future generations, all species of this generation, all species for all future generations?; Sustainable at what level? Families, cities, nations, globally, economies?; Sustainable under what conditions? Present western standards of living, small subsistence communities, some future ‘Star Trek’ culture?; What ought to be sustained? Personal income, social and cultural diversity; GNP, bio-diversity, individual consumption, personal freedom and choice, material frugality (Luke, 1995:21-22 quoted in Kerr, 1931 977:2)."

The very nature of the concept means that its is highly political (Kerr, 1997). As Torgenson (1995) put it:

"Despite continuing attempts to reduce the notion of sustainable development to technical terms, the discourse of sustainablilitysustainability thus contains ambiguities and uncertainties which, in a public context of differing interests and perspectives, renders the discourse inescapably political (Torgenson, 1995:12 quoted in Kerr, 1997:3)."

This means that the application of sustainability in policy terms often leads to a good deal of confusion. Currently, great faith appears to be being placed in the Habitat 11 Declaration which supports partnerships between local government, community groups and business and commerce to “empower” cities and urban authorities to generate the basis for sustainable development. This leads to a concentration upon enabling strategies but these can be based around a number of different principles including those of markets and communities (Burgess, Carmona and Kolstee (1997). Recent UNESCO (Perez de Cuellar 1996) and Habitat 11 edocuments express strongly the need to give voice to the dis-enfranchised, of the need for new institutions and partnerships to guarantee accountability and the development of a culture of responsible citizenship. This is raises questions about urban governance and citizen involvement.

We need also to appreciate that there are substantial competing interests subsumed within the e sustainability debate”. There are the conflicts exist between individuals and groups pursuingthe biophysicalbio-physical81 /ecological and imperatives and the economic/market driven imperatives as the current controversy over native forest protection and logging on the West Coast of the South Island demonstrates.ones The former have a relatively long time horizon, the latter a very short one. There is the fact that Rresources are unevenly distributed both globally and locally and that changing this requires the confrontation of established power and privilege in such areas as ownership of financial and industrial resources, of land and in 81 respect to how the ways land and wealth is passed on through inheritance. Inequalities of access and power also exist between women and men, between dominant and excluded or marginalised groups, between the employed and the unemployed, the housed and the homeless and thus raise the issues of whose life styles and opportunities are being sustained in any development programme.

The determination of values, policies and practices is the outcome of contestation and struggle rather than consensus and agreement on the basis based on of some underlying and universal or intrinsic set of values such as those often implied in the ideas of sustainability and sustainable development. It is important to note that intrinsic values, when seen in social terms, are always negotiated rather than absolute. As time passes, we change our minds about which values are of most significance. Decisions about the shape of the desired sustainable future become ones around which there is conflict and the demonstration of unequal power relations rather than societal consensus both within and between nation states.

* Conclusion

In their discussion about the relationship between humanity and nature, Burgess, Carmona and Kolstee (1997:9) had this to say:

"…it seems likely that it is the historical task of humanity to reconstruct nature (for good or bad). It is increasingly recognised that this reconstruction has to occur in a ‘sustainable’ fashion, though effective definitions of sustainability are as elusive as those of globalization. Marx (Groucho not Karl) once remarked: What do I care for posterity? What’s posterity ever done for me? Short term rationalisations of this type inspired as much by institutionalised poverty as by greed, can have disastrous consequences for the environment. Yet decisions of this type are made by millions every day."

This statement both points to the ambiguity of the sustainability idea and to the complexity of the problems facing those who advocate policies based on that idea. Our own view is that long term thinking should be encouraged, but that adequate natural environmental protection will not occur until questions of social and economic equity and equality are answered. Full bellies, adequate incomes, good housing and a sense of belonging that comes from productive work, fulfilling leisure and community participation are essential antecedents to people taking a real interest in natural environmental protection in both the course of their daily lives and in their support for environmental politics. Seen in these terms urban social planning and management become important agents in the pursuit of natural environmental management goals and as ends in themselves. An approach such as this immediately demands a different perspective on planning and urban development than that favoured by present-day neo-liberals. It also requires a much broader and much more social and cultural characterisation of urban life than that contained in present sustainability and ecosystems-oriented approaches. Any new organisational structure to be formed thus must reflect this broader understanding

Much needs to be done in New Zealand before such changes can occur. We particularly need a broader vision which incorporates a clearer recognition that social, cultural, economic and ecological concerns lie at the heart of urban development and that the resources required extend beyond the bio-physical to the human. A good place to start might be the widening of the pool of ministries which advise the government on its Agenda 21 commitments. The “resource ministries” currently include: Environment, Conservation, Agriculture, Fisheries and Forests, Te Puni Kokiri, Research, Science and Technology, the Prime Minister’s Department, Health and Commerce (for tourism). A more balanced approach would see the inclusion of such Departments as Social Welfare, Labour, Education and Internal Affairs, the Ministries of Youth, Women’s Affairs and Housing, and quangos such as Creative New Zealand and the Hillary Commission for Sport, Fitness and Leisure. Unfortunately, there is little sign at the moment that such an enlightened broadening of the policy agenda is about to emerge.

* References Aasen, C. T., 1992, 'The urban sustainability question. New Zealand cities, culture and planning', keynote address to New Zealand Planning Institute 1992 Annual Conference, Planning Quarterly 106: 15-19.

Becker, E., J., T., Stress, I. and Wehling, P., 1997, Sustainability: A Cross-Disciplinary Concept for Social Transformations, MOST Policy Paper No 6, UNESCO, Paris

Burgess, M., Carmona, T. and Kolstee, R. (eds.), 1997, The Challenge of Sustainable Cities-Neoliberalism and Urban Strategies in Developing Countries, Zed Books, London.

Callicott, J. B. and Mumford, K., 1997, Ecological sustainability as a conservation concept, Conservation Biology, 11(1):32-40.

Coleman, A., 1985, Utopia on Trial, H. Shipman , London.

de Cuellar , P., 1996., Our Creative Diversity , UNESCO, Paris.

Godlovitch, S.,1997, Things change: Holding course in the flux, Unpublished paper presented at the Lincoln University Sustainability Seminar Series, Department of Human and Leisure Sciences, Lincoln University, Canterbury, New Zealand

Habitat 11, 1996, The Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements, United Nations Commission on Human Settlements

Institute for Social-Ecological Research (ISOE), 1997, Sustainability as a Concept of the Social Sciences, Germany.

Kerr, S., 1997, ‘Resource management as politics: The slow shuffle towards a dissertation proposal’, Paper presented at the Lincoln University Postgraduate Student Research Conference,d July, Department of Human and Leisure Sciences, Lincoln University, Canterbury, New Zealand.

Lele, S. and Norgaard, R. B., 1996, Sustainability and the scientist’s burden, Conservation Biology 10(2):354-365.

Luke, T. W., 1995, Sustainable development as a power/knowledge system: The problem of “governmentability”, in F. Fischer and M. Black (eds.), Greening Environmental Policy: The Politics of a Sustainable Future, New York, St. Martins Press.

Macnaghten, P and Urry, J. 1998, Contested Natures, London, Sage. dttm-2045054157

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment 1998 The Cities and Their People Zealand’s Urban Environment, New, Wellington.

Poole, I., 1997, ‘Socio-economic and structural changes in New Zealand: an overview’, in Environmental Implications of Socio-economic and Structural Change in New Zealand, Report of a Workshop Sponsored by the Science of the New Zealand Environment Committee, October, 1996, The Royal Society of New Zealand Miscellaneous Series 40.

Wall, G., 1997, ‘Sustainable tourism – Unsustainable Development’, in Wahab, S. and Pigram, J. P. (eds.), Tourism Development and Growth: The Challenge of Sustainability, Routledge, London and New York.

Williers, B., 1994, Sustainable development: A new world deception, Conservation Biology 8(4): 1146-1148.

Wood, D., 1993, ‘Sustainable development in the third world: paradox or panacea?’, The Indian Geographical Journal, 68:6-20.

World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), 1987, Our Common Future, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(A paper presented to the Workshop on Urban Sustainability run under the auspices of the Royal Society of New Zealand, the National Commission for UNESCO and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Wellington, October 7, 1998).


(1). Research for this paper was conducted as part of a combined University of Canterbury and Lincoln University study of the meaning of house and home in New Zealand. The authors gratefully acknowledge financial support from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology.

(2). Our critique of the sustainability idea is consistent with our concern to address its relevance for urban planning and development. It is important to note that similar concerns have been expressed by conservation biologists. Essentially, just as we argue that sustainable development seems not to comprise a viable prescription for urban management, several writers in the biological sciences question its usefulness as a guide for natural environmental conservation (see, for example, Callicott and Mumford, 1997; Lele and Norgaard, 1996; Williers, 1994).

Last changed: March 13, 2002