Avoiding sustainability fascism

“Neighborhoods are where people consistently find identity, belonging and community.” Hurd & Hurd 2012

If we can build this cozy community where people get along and feel connected and belonging, wouldn’t that be great? Who doesn’t want to live in a sustainable, healthy and friendly community?

Stockholm was the first winner of the European Green Capital in 2010 and has come a long way in many aspects regarding sustainability. To further advance its position as a sustainable city and reach its environmental goals the latest large scale development (10,000 new dwellings and 30,000 workplaces) has an explicit sustainability focus. Norra Djurgårdsstaden will lead by example and aims to be one of the world’s first climate positive neighborhoods, with interim targets of being climate adapted and fossil fuel free by 2030 and emitting less than 1.5 ton of CO2 per person and year by 2020. Passive houses, energy-positive-buildings, solar cells, energy efficient transportation and closed loops for water, waste and energy are means to this end and multiple stakeholders have partnered up to meet the challenge.

However, a neighborhood is only as sustainable as its residents and to address this, the City of Stockholm adopted an environmental program for the new city district which includes a sub-section concerning ‘sustainable lifestyles’. The idea is to make it easier for people to make informed and ‘correct’ decisions and lead the right kind of life, meaning something like civic education should be offered to new residents about why and what the goals are, and how to reach them. The well-meant vision for the residents stretches beyond recycling; ideally the new residents should exercise and hang out with neighbors, all in the name of social sustainability.

The picture in my head right now is something like a Soviet propaganda poster. Think rosy cheeks.

Sure enough, adopting the program caused big debate in Stockholm, where politicians were accused of being health fascists and restricting choice. Not that anyone is forced to move into this neighborhood (nor is everyone able to, considering housing shortage and the high prices the new construction is likely to induce) but then again, to some extent this is the kind of development we want for all of the neighborhoods out there.

I think a deeper problem that can be made out from this is the paternalist and elitist tendencies that the sustainability movement sometimes tends to lean towards. Everyone should join the choir or they are to be dismissed. Whoever doesn’t want to adhere to the new sustainability religion has to be converted. Whoever objects hasn’t understood and must be taught. That I wouldn’t mind leading a sustainable lifestyle if imposed on me (because in all honesty, although I consider myself aware, willing and able, there is a lot more I could do), doesn’t mean everyone wants to.

Visions are important but they must be balanced against the diversity of views and participation if they are to be supported and drive development forward. An important way of doing this, I think, is to involve the existing and potential residents in the development process, guided by a mediator who is able to reframe the problem and find the common denominator, to make sure everyone (who wants to) can make his or her voice heard. Even visionaries may have to compromise but unless everyone is able to participate in the discussion in a democratic fashion I find it hard to believe that we, the sustainability cult, will win over many doubters.

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