Rethinking urban transitions: An analytical framework

Andrés Luque-Ayala, Harriet Bulkeley, Simon Marvin

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterAcademicpeer-review


Over the course of the past two decades cities have become critical stakeholders in the development of responses to climate change. With urban populations growing rapidly across the world, from a total of 30% in 1950 to 54% in 2014 and an estimated 66% by 2050 (UN Population Division, 2014), how cities engage with efforts to mitigate climate change is of paramount importance for the governance of climate change. Acting as pioneering and visionary leaders in the international arena, cities and local authorities worldwide are leading efforts to translate global climate needs and commitments into meaningful action on the ground. Since the mid-2000s a range of scholarly work has been tracking cities' involvement in climate action and their efforts towards GHG (greenhouse gas) reduction. From evaluating targets and commitments within local policy, to tracking the collective efforts of transnational networks of cities and examining the transformation of urban infrastructures into low carbon systems, this scholarly work has laid out invaluable foundations for an analysis of urban low carbon transitions. Building on this work, and developing a sympathetic yet critical analysis of what we refer to here as first-generation studies on low carbon urbanism, this chapter provides a broad framework for taking steps towards a second-generation of studies on low carbon urban transitions - one where low carbon transitions are interpreted primarily as social, political and developmental processes. The chapter argues that a next generation of urban transition studies needs to be more forthcoming in considering transitions in their political and geographical context. A critical reading of the signifcant contribution of the first-generation studies on low carbon transitions would suggest that advancing an understanding of low carbon urbanism requires a shift from an 'extractive' model of transitions, where the focus is on reducing emissions (an end-of-pipe approach), to an 'embedded' model of decarbonization that transcends narratives around systemic change and reconceptualizes low carbon as a matter of development modes. Key to this shift is thinking about low carbon transitions not solely as technical or infrastructural shifts but also as a way of thinking about society, its politics and economic processes, and its ways of envisioning the development of collective futures. The proposed framework examines the multiple and competing ways of designing, practising and mobilizing low carbon urbanism - three pivotal dimensions in the making of the low carbon city. Foregrounding the politics of low carbon, the framework asks what does it mean to be low carbon, what and who is involved in the transition, how does the transition unfold and how will we recognize one when we see it. Its purpose is threefold. First, it provides a conceptual lens through which we can begin to interrogate and compare urban low carbon transitions in multiple contexts, framed by a set of concepts that cut across empirical and theoretical domains. Second, it refects critically on over a decade's work, between 2005 and 2017, undertaken by a wide range of scholars across multiple disciplines - urban studies, geography, environmental studies and innovation studies, among others - concerned with analysing (and in some cases shaping) urban transitions. This is not an attempt to provide a comprehensive review of the literature. Rather, it is a summary review of pivotal positions and works with the aim of sympathetically and constructively evaluating key contributions, identifying key elements for an emerging research agenda, and distinguishing potential conceptualizations that might inform a second generation of low carbon transition studies. Finally, the framework is designed to be informing of wider societal and policy debates about the potential and limits of low carbon urbanism, hinting at the strategic direction of future policy responses. In doing this the framework operates at both analytical and normative levels, opening a space for critical thinking while also signalling a way forward. The framework, while articulated by the editors, is the result of a collective process of refection carried out with and alongside the authors participating in the development of the individual chapters of the book as well as some practitioners who joined us at key moments. It developed slowly, over the course of four years, through individual and group meetings, academic workshops, discussions and visits to low carbon initiatives in several of the cities where each author conducts research. As a result, the framework embraces plurality and multiplicity from the outset, having been informed by an extensive range of disciplinary backgrounds, geographical locations (and their contexts), research interests and even academic cultures and languages. The site visits to 'exemplary' and 'mundane' urban low carbon initiatives, characteristic of each meeting and workshop, were pivotal in grounding the ideas discussed, allowing for a cross fertilization between theory and empirics. The framework purposefully draws from distinct and diverse theoretical positions, namely theories of governmentality, political economy and urban political ecology, social practice theory and institutional approaches. The rationale behind this broad (and perhaps, at specific junctions, disparate) combination of conceptual entry points is not to provide an integrative device, but rather one that 'sets the frame' for analysis, allowing research on urban low carbon transitions to take different analytical pathways. The rest of the chapter is structured into the three dimensions constituting the framework (Figure 2.1). First, it focuses on designing low carbon urbanism, looking at the relevance of unpacking ways of thinking about low carbon in the city and the emerging socio-technical configurations associated with this process. Second, it centres on practising low carbon urbanism, locating the analytical gaze on the agencies and subjectivities, objects and flows, and mechanisms and techniques at stake. Third, the chapter concentrates on mobilizing low carbon urbanism, providing insights for an analysis of how transitions unfold. The conclusion provides a synthesis of first-and second-generation studies on urban low carbon transitions, advocating for an acknowledgement of multiple junctions towards the low carbon city and embracing plurality in the pathways through which a low carbon urbanism might occur.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRethinking Urban Transitions
Subtitle of host publicationPolitics in the Low Carbon City
PublisherTaylor and Francis Inc.
Number of pages24
ISBN (Electronic)9781351675154
ISBN (Print)9781138057357
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2018
Externally publishedYes


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