‘Sustainability is not just about the environment’

When it comes to sustainability it’s not just about the environment says PhD candidate Lucy Oates. There’s also a social aspect to consider.

PhD candidate Lucy Oates: “My research is primarily about looking at how to transition to a more sustainable urban future.” (Photo: personal collection)

“My research is primarily about looking at how to transition to a more sustainable urban future. It’s specifically focussed on the way that we deliver urban services. The basic urban services that form the foundation upon which cities are built and function are water, waste, energy, transport and housing. I’m looking at how to deliver these things in ways that are both socially and environmentally sustainable. Discussions around sustainability tend to be dominated by the environmental aspect, which is obviously very important, but it’s no longer possible to proceed just in an environmentally sustainable manner. If we want to meet goals like the Paris Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we must also recognise that there needs to be a social aspect.

That’s the case all over the world, but especially so in the Global South which is where I have worked in the past. In my previous work I did a lot of research in cities in east Africa and India where the necessity to address social sustainability is perhaps more obvious than places like the Netherlands or the UK. For example, in Ahmedabad, India, I worked with an organisation called the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). It’s a cooperative and trade union that has organised informal female workers who are performing jobs like waste picking, a really important service of waste collection and recycling – especially important in informal settlements where there might not be any formal service provision. Because they’re informal they are not paid to do this by anybody, they are marginalised citizens. But 45,000 women in this city have organised to form SEWA. This enabled them to enter into contracts with the municipality who were able to hire them to perform the recycling duties. The women then received more stable salaries and access to benefits like childcare and education for themselves and their children. This is a good example of the meeting of the social and environmental aspects.

‘I don’t want to romanticise the work that waste pickers do’

I am looking for lessons on ways to organise and ways to govern the provision of urban service delivery and urban infrastructure. At the moment, policy and rules around providing these services, if they consider sustainability at all it’s really from the environmental dimension. But we also need to bring awareness to how we measure and take account of the social dimensions of that. I’m especially interested in what high income countries can learn from low- or middle-income countries from this perspective. The people doing these jobs do so because they have no alternatives so I don’t want to romanticise the work that waste pickers do, but the example of SEWA shows that it is possible to bring together the social and environmental benefits by creating meaningful partnerships, especially with those who are the most vulnerable. In high income countries we also need to look for ways to provide services in ways that better meet contemporary societal and environmental needs. I think there might be something to learn about locally based experimental modes of service delivery, also for cities in the Global North.

I’m working a lot with theory now because due to Covid I can’t do the kind of ethnographic research that I had hoped. I think a lot of engineering, architectural and urban theory has been developed based on northern Europe, for example. At the moment it’s sort of being exported to other parts of the world, and cities are developing based on theories that have been developed here. I’m also trying to test those theories and see how applicable they really are for different contexts and adapt them so that the learning is more multi-lateral rather than one directional.”

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Heather Montague / Freelance writer

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