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Special Issue "Putting Sustainability Transitions into Spatial and Socio-Cultural Context"

A special issue of Sustainability (ISSN 2071-1050). This special issue belongs to the section "Sustainable Urban and Rural Development".

Deadline for manuscript submissions: 31 March 2018

Special Issue Editors

Guest Editor
Dr. Markus Egermann

Leibniz-Institute of Ecological Urban and Regional Development, Dresden, Germany
Website | E-Mail
Interests: sustainability transition; grassroots innovations; planning; transition theory; role of civil society in sustainability transitions; local and regional governance
Guest Editor
Assoc. Prof. Dr. Niki Frantzeskaki

Dutch Research Institute For Transitions (DRIFT), Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Website | E-Mail
Interests: sustainability transitions; urban environmental governance; scenario and pathways planning and research; nature based solutions; transition experiments; experimentation; urban living labs; knowledge co-production
Guest Editor
Prof. Dr. Robert Knippschild

Leibniz-Institute of Ecological Urban and Regional Development, Dresden, Germany & Technische Universität Dresden, Dresden, Germany
Website | E-Mail
Interests: strategies and instruments for sustainable urban development; border cities; quality of life in cities and regions; inter-municipal and cross-border cooperation; urban and regional governance
Guest Editor
Dr. Timo von Wirth

Dutch Research Institute For Transitions (DRIFT), Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Website | E-Mail
Phone: +31 (0)10 408 8792
Interests: sustainability transitions; quality of life in cities; person-place relations; narratives of change; social innovation; new economies; diffusion and acceleration patterns of innovation; urban living labs; transdisciplinarity

Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

This Special Issue sheds light on the role of the spatial and socio-cultural context in sustainability transitions in cities and city-regions. We position that transition pathways towards sustainability will look fundamentally different in different socio, cultural, and spatial settings across cities and regions, but also within cities. The urban environment, as a diverse socio-cultural and political context, provides the ground to shape innovations, to give rise to new forms of social organization and new cultural and political movements for sustainability in practice. As such, challenges, opportunities, change dynamics, political agendas, grassroots actions, power constellations, actors and many other aspects that are relevant for a sustainability transition differ in large, medium and small cities, as well as in villages and rural areas. Even between different urban districts, change dynamics may differ considerably. We recognize this diversity and want to further examine how it plays out in creating different forms of urban transitions and pathways to urban sustainability.

We invite papers that help us to paint a more differentiated picture on how change dynamics might be stimulated, initiated, stabilizes and accelerated in different contexts within cities and across cities and regions. This includes theoretical and conceptual contributions, empirical evidence from single but preferably from multiple case studies and comparative case studies as well as papers on methods and tools to capture and map the spatial dimensions of sustainability transitions. We invite contributions from a diversity of geographies and contexts (reporting different sizes of cities) to provide grounds for our special issue working hypothesis that diversity of context, drives diversity in sustainability transitions’ patterns and pathways. Papers can deal with all possible sustainability domains (food, energy, mobility, etc.) but should highlight the socio, cultural or spatial implications and how they relate to context-specific sustainability challenges and aspirations. Papers that derive recommendations for policy makers, practitioners and urban change makers are particularly welcome.

One or more of the following research questions should be addressed:

  1. How do socio, cultural and spatial factors influence urban transitions to sustainability? What are the distinct drivers and barriers to urban sustainability transitions?
  2. How urban sustainability innovations and innovative solutions in particular shape spatial factors and urban politics in the course of urban sustainability transitions?
  3. How do transition dynamics and pathways towards sustainability differ in large, medium and small cities as well as in villages and rural areas?
  4. What is the role of different actors (citizen, public, private) and especially of community initiatives in large, medium and small cities as well as in villages and rural areas in urban sustainability transitions?
  5. What are strategies and mechanisms to stimulate, initiate, stabilize and accelerate sustainability transitions in large, medium and small cities as well as in villages and rural areas?
  6. What are the different governance approaches that can contribute to and navigate the complex context of urban sustainability transitions? What are conceptual and/or empirically-based propositions for new governance approaches to steer, facilitate and accelerate urban sustainability transitions?
  7. What are the paradoxes and/or oxymora in the way spatial configurations of cities influence the speed and course of urban sustainability transitions? What are critical reflection points or proposition to consider for future research in urban sustainability transitions?

Dr. Markus Egermann
Prof. Dr. Assist. Niki Frantzeskaki
Prof. Dr. Robert Knippschild
Guest Editors

Manuscript Submission Information

Manuscripts should be submitted online at www.mdpi.com by registering and logging in to this website. Once you are registered, click here to go to the submission form. Manuscripts can be submitted until the deadline. All papers will be peer-reviewed. Accepted papers will be published continuously in the journal (as soon as accepted) and will be listed together on the special issue website. Research articles, review articles as well as short communications are invited. For planned papers, a title and short abstract (about 100 words) can be sent to the Editorial Office for announcement on this website.

Submitted manuscripts should not have been published previously, nor be under consideration for publication elsewhere (except conference proceedings papers). All manuscripts are thoroughly refereed through a single-blind peer-review process. A guide for authors and other relevant information for submission of manuscripts is available on the Instructions for Authors page. Sustainability is an international peer-reviewed open access monthly journal published by MDPI.

Please visit the Instructions for Authors page before submitting a manuscript. The Article Processing Charge (APC) for publication in this open access journal is 1400 CHF (Swiss Francs). Submitted papers should be well formatted and use good English. Authors may use MDPI's English editing service prior to publication or during author revisions.


  • Sustainability
  • Transition
  • Spatial
  • Geography
  • Socio-Cultural
  • Urban
  • Rural
  • Policy
  • Governance

Published Papers

This special issue is now open for submission, see below for planned papers.

Planned Papers

The below list represents only planned manuscripts. Some of these manuscripts have not been received by the Editorial Office yet. Papers submitted to MDPI journals are subject to peer-review.

Title: Sustainable Transitions and the Spatial Interface: Developing Conceptional Frameworks
Authors: Jens Ibendorf, Meike Levin-Keitel *, Tanja Mölders and Frank Othengrafen
Abstract: The ongoing debate about sustainability transitions and its pathways towards an implementation of sustainable living conditions lacks a crucial perspective: the spatial dimensions about how specific places have to facilitate, prepare, promote or implement a more sustainable future. This “spatial blindness” increases factual challenges on the local and regional level, seen both as a spatio-physical space where natures, (new) technologies, settlements, buildings or infrastructures have to be developed, tested and constructed, as well as socio-cultural and political environments where different actors, institutions and political arenas negotiate sustainability and aim to implement sustainable practices. The theoretically oriented paper approaches the problem in three steps; 1) focusing on different spatial concepts (from a positivist mode to relational and social-constructivist approaches) and their reflection in different disciplines of social, natural and technical sciences as well as practice; 2) analyzing the implications of different spatial concepts for spatial sustainability transformation; 3) developing conceptual frameworks for joining the different approaches in an inter- and transdisciplinary mode. The aim is to develop a more differentiated picture on the dynamic interrelations between transition processes and spatial perspectives, including physical spaces, actors, institutional frameworks, symbolical meanings and ideologies. Referring to theoretical approaches and empirical examples our contribution points out, that inter- and transdisciplinary sustainability sciences will unavoidably be confronted with different conceptualizations of space. This differences need to be reflected in order to transfer them in conceptual frameworks for analyzing and realizing sustainable spatial transformation.
Keywords: sustainability paradigm; physical space; socio-cultural space; interdisciplinarity; conceptional frameworks

Title: Contrasting regional habitats for urban sustainability experimentation in Europe
Authors: Harm A.R.M. van den Heiligenberg *, Gaston J. Heimeriks, Marko P. Hekkert,
Rob P.J.M. Raven and Jifke Sol
Abstract: The sustainability challenge requires experimentation with innovations, followed by an upscaling process towards a wider regime change in the long term. In Europe we observe various regional hotspots for sustainability experimentation; this points to localised context conditions . In this paper we explore contrasting regional habitats; they contain the most important context conditions for experimentation. We developed archetypical experimentation patterns to capture the diversity of habitats, including five dimensions: knowledge, governance, informal institutions, regional advantages and social learning. In a comparative case study in four city-regions in Europe we found a large contrast in enabling context conditions. There is a remarkable role for countercultures; these groups may create alternative ideas and lifestyles. We also found some indications that it is important that the context conditions are present in combination and that they can mutually reinforce themselves. This can make the habitat more mature. A societal relevant insight is that most of the habitat factors can be influenced in a positive way, mainly by the regional stakeholders themselves. However, some regional advantages, such as the living conditions, the economic specialisation and the cultural factors have a path-dependent nature and are more difficult to improve on the short term. We suggest local and regional policy makers to ground their sustainability vision in an analysis of the distinct regional habitats, supported by discussions in multi-actor sustainability networks on improving experimentation.

Title: Sustainability Transitions at the Frontline. Lock-ins and Potential for Change at the Local Planning Arena
Authors: Karolina Isaksson 1, Satu Heikkinen 2
Affiliations: 1. Swedish national road and transport research institute
2. Karlstad University
Abstract: This paper explores challenges and possibilities to integrate goals of long term sustainable development in urban planning practice. Empirically, the analysis is based upon a qualitative single case study of a large urban development process in the city of Malmö, Sweden. The case illustrates the prerequisites to work with sustainable development targets in a decentralized planning context where sustainability issues are high on the overall policy agenda, but still difficult to implement in practice.
The aim of the paper is to explore how specific local institutional factors influence how sustainability ambitions are integrated into the urban planning process. The paper tells the story of the development of a new city district, Hyllie, which is a large and complex planning case, that includes investments in transport, housing, shopping, major sports and music events. Hyllie has been branded as a flagship project for sustainable urban development, with particularly high ambitions on climate neutrality and sustainable energy consumption. In practice however, the outcome of the project in terms of sustainable urban development has been questioned since the district is also framed around luxury shopping, private motoring and international air travel.
In the paper, we explore the specific institutional dimensions that has been influential for the development of Hyllie. Considerable attention is being put on the complex interplay between actors with differing agendas and targets that interact at different stages in the process. Theoretically, the analysis is inspired by the multi-level perspective (MLP), applying the concepts of landscape, regime and niche to explore the complexities and power relations that evolved over time. Through the analysis, we have identified important socio-cultural and institutional dimensions that have proven to be important for how ambitions of sustainable development were being managed and operationalized in planning practice. The specific results are applied in a general discussion of challenges and possibilities for urban planning to contribute substantially to a transition to long term sustainable development. The analysis demonstrates the importance to consider specific local institutional conditions in the strategic work for long term sustainability.
Keywords: urban planning; sustainability transitions; institutional dimensions; power; Malmö

Title: Innovative Planning Activities as Part of Urban Resilience Strategies towards Sustainability of European Cities
Nataša Pichler-Milanović
Affiliation: University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Civil and Geodetic Engineering, Jamova 2, Ljubljana, Slovenia
Abstract: The paper will focus on innovative planning activities as part of emerging urban resilience strategies towards sustainability in response to the multiple challenges facing European cities, including Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. In this context resilience is concerned with politically challenging questions about assumptions of equilibrium and the ability to control the urban environment. Urban resilience can provide a common framework for multidisciplinary actions by municipalities, local communities and other public and private stakeholders, highlighting the impact of planning to meet environmental and spatial challenges. The paper will identify some of these transition pathways in the City Municipality of Ljubljana and Ljubljana Urban Region (LUR) on the basis of research conducted under the EU FP7 TURAS project (2011-2016) Transitioning towards Urban Resilience and Sustainability. In Ljubljana there are already a broad range of collaborative planning strategies and community participation activities (both top-down and bottom-up) towards developing (public and private) projects and services. These innovative activities are identified as transition pathways in order to sustain viability and improve the quality of life in European cities.
Keywords: urban resilience; sustainability; transition pathways; innovative planning activities; Ljubljana; European cities

Title: Densification and Greening in Rotterdam Inner City: A Transition Approach—Exploring a Stakeholder Based Urban Agenda for a More Sustainable Low Carbon City
Nico Tillie 1,*, Niki Frantzeskaki 2, Judith Borsboom-van Beurden 3, Martin Aarts 4, Duzan Doepel 5, Andy van den Dobbelsteen 1
1 Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, Julianalaan 134, 2628BL Delft, The Netherlands. n.m.j.d.tillie@tudelft.nl * Corresponding author
2 Dutch Research Institute For Transitions, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands, email: frantzeskaki@fsw.eur.nl
3 Norway University of Science and Technology, Faculty of Architecture and Design, Norway
4 City of Rotterdam, City Development, Afdeling Ruimte en Wonen, The Netherlands
5 DSA Doepel Strijkers Architecture, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Abstract: Uncertainty and impacts of pressing forces such as demographic changes, multiculturalism, globalization of trade as well as climate change, that urban planning has to consider when drafting a liveability and low carbon agenda for the short term and long term action of a city.
Work on a low carbon city has often been approached in a technocratic way with many available technical solutions not finding or its way into urban practices at a large scale. This paper explores a stakeholder based urban agenda for a more sustainable low carbon city by densifying and greening with the case study of Rotterdam inner city.
Rotterdam presents a unique European case with a post Second World War modernistic inner city. Like many North America cities, the inner city for a long time mainly served as a business or shopping district with few inhabitants and few synergetic links between processes, urban functions and spatial patterns. In line with many other cities, Rotterdam aims to reduce carbon emissions, become more sustainable and provide a high quality of life. To address this goal as well as the stated challenges the hypothesis of: densifying and greening leads to a more sustainable inner city, was tested and applied with stakeholders using transition management. To bridge the gap between a technocratic a more governance approach urban data, modelling and design was used throughout the process. With a set of sustainability indicators, a baseline study, GIS mapping and urban models, expected outcomes could be predicted and validated 5 years later in reality.
The outcomes showed that linking GIS mapping and city data to the stakeholder process and transition management proved extremely valuable. The outcomes also showed positive results for the densification and greening hypothesis in order to improve the sustainability of the city. It also showed that it is a very delicate process were stakeholder involvement is crucial to get things right. ‘People make the inner city’ was a phrase coined in this context.
The main question to be answered is: What urban densification agenda can help to accelerate the development of a liveable low carbon city with case study Rotterdam inner city.
Keywords: low carbon cities; stakeholder based; densification; liveability; greening

Title: Practices of Co-creation in Urban Living Labs: A Call for Reflexivity
Authors: Emma Puerari 1,2, Jotte De Koning 1,2, Philip Marcel Karré 3,4 and Timo von Wirth 1
Affiliation: 1 Dutch Research Institute for Transitions (DRIFT), Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands; e.puerari@tudelft.nl (E.P.); Jotte.deKoning@tudelft.nl (J.K.); vonwirth@drift.eur.nl (T.W.)
2 TU Delft, IO - Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering
3 Research Group City Dynamics, Inholland University of Applied Sciences, Rotterdam, The Netherlands; philip.karre@inholland.nl
4 Department of Public Administration and Sociology (DPAS), Erasmus University Rotterdam
Abstract: Many cities are experimenting with collaborative ways to tackle wicked urban issues such as today’s sustainability challenges. In this article, we consider one particular type of collaboration in an experimental setting: Urban Living Labs (ULLs). ULLs can be defined as spatially embedded sites for the co-creation of knowledge and solutions by conducting local experiments. As such, ULL in itself represent a form of niche development. Scholars have proposed experimenting in urban laboratories as a new instrument of urban and territorial intervention and development, being able to offer an arena for reflexive, adaptive, and multi-actor learning environments, where new practices of self-organization and (infra-) structures can be tested within their real-world context.
However, it is still understudied how the co-creation of knowledge and practices actually manifest within ULLs and to what effect. This is relevant in order to understand better how learning and knowledge generation among diverse actors can evolve in the context of urban sustainability transitions. Hence, this paper addresses the practices, abilities and mechanisms of how ULLs contribute to co-creation taking the perspective of sustainability transitions. We give answers to this question by analysing empirical data from a series of in-depth interviews and active involvement with ULLs in the Rotterdam-The Hague region, the Netherlands.
Our findings illustrate patterns of co-creation in practice, which result from different combinations of five key principles for co-creation. Based on the patterns of co-creation we discuss implications for the epistemic of sustainability transitions and the ambivalent role of contextualized (place-bound) knowledge to be used in broader transition perspectives. Our findings have implications for the theory of local experimentation and its contextual binding within transition studies.
Keywords: sustainability transitions; urban laboratories; co-creation; socio-spatial context; reflexivity

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