Wednesday 24 August 2016

How do cities learn to become sustainable?

Alistair Sheldrick - University of Manchester, UK
James Evans - University of Manchester, UK
Gabriele Schliwa - University of Manchester, UK

Cities are key players in the drive towards global sustainability and are increasingly seeking to learn from experiences elsewhere when planning programmes for positive change. I first became interested in the topic of policy learning and sustainable urban transitions through the ESRC-funded Manchester Cycling Lab research project at the University of Manchester whilst completing my Masters study there in 2014. The project was established with the aim of providing research that would facilitate Manchester City Council and Transport for Greater Manchester’s (TfGM) Vélocity programme and help turn Manchester into a cycling city. 

On reading the Vélocity promotional material I was immediately struck by the prominence of intentions to emulate and establish ‘learning relationships’ with a few German cities – most notably Berlin. As an urban geographer I was particularly interested in this apparent departure from the obligatory nod to Amsterdam or Copenhagen in favour of a new exemplar cycling city.  

The study originally set out broadly to explore what exactly Manchester could learn from Berlin’s experience and possibly consider how and why particular places - such as Berlin - emerge as examples to follow in urban governance more widely. Despite a lack of existing critical research on cycling in Berlin, I didn’t foresee the study challenging the existing consensus in policy, academic and grey literature that attributed Berlin’s cycling renaissance largely to local pro-cycling policy interventions. I was, in fact, actually planning to use this as a point of departure for any findings. 

However, the first few interviews in Berlin brought this consensus immediately in to doubt. When asked about the factors that have driven Berlin’s cycling renaissance since c1990 - from local bike shop employees to transport consultants - everyone who was interviewed failed to mention any form of local transport policy as having a significant impact. Even a Senior Transport Planner from the Berlin Senate expressed regret at the long-term lack of impetus, investment and influence the city authorities have had over cycling participation. Instead, the study identified four prevailing causal factors – none of which can be attributed to pro-cycling policy interventions. 

These four factors include: 
1. the relative cost of cycling, 
2. the relative convenience and speed of cycling, 
3. Berlin’s particularly fashionable, ‘hipster’, and environmentally aware population, and 
4. the city’s pre-existing urban form.

Despite this rebuke of the existing consensus, the fact that the city has implemented a strategic cycling plan since 2004 can’t be totally ignored. However, when examining the driving factors behind Berlin’s remarkable cycling renaissance since c1990, the city authorities’ efforts to promote cycling can be summed up as being too little and too late. Crucially, the article argues that pro-cycling policies in Berlin should be seen as reactive - responding to maintain an existing trend - rather than driving it from the start. 

The first part of the article uses Transition Management Theory to understand time and multiple-actor influence in the development of large complex systems (such as urban transport systems). This theoretical lens supports the conclusion that Berlin’s cycling renaissance was not guided by policy from an early stage, but was in fact made possible by a pre-existing context and forces unrelated to local cycling policy. Put into the context of Manchester’s current position, policy learning from Berlin’s experience will likely be limited as policy intervention here is developed under completely different geographical and cultural preconditions. 

The second part of the article considers the processes leading to Berlin’s prominence in Manchester’s Vélocity bid in the first place. Here Policy Mobilities research is drawn upon to analyse how and why the narrative of the Berlin experience was chosen and communicated. The article argues that Berlin’s inclusion in the Vélocity bid was motivated by the need to display Manchester’s ambition and competence in what was a competitive bidding process. 

The article offers a novel integration of Policy Mobilities and Transition Management theoretical frameworks. It seeks to influence further connections between these two previously distant bodies of work to offer innovative findings. For cities to effectively guide sustainability transitions, it is vital that planners and policy-makers have sufficient and appropriate knowledge at their disposal. We hope this article and research topic will encourage the reader to adopt a more critical consideration of the production and communication of policy knowledge and the forces and actors who influence these processes. 

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