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Politicising planning through images of the future
KTH, School of Architecture and the Built Environment (ABE), Urban Planning and Environment, Environmental Strategies.ORCID iD: 0000-0003-3101-5902
2011 (English)Conference paper, Presentation (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

One major challenge in contemporary research about planning is how to change societies in a more sustainable direction. However, in the last decades of planning research and practice for sustainable urban development, more radical transformations have been rare. Instead, planning for sustainable development is viewed as something that can be achieved within society’s current frames (Bradley, 2009; Keil, 2007). However, futures studies often pro­pose radical changes in terms of technological development and behavioural change to approach sustainable development, but social structures such as the vulnerability of different societal groups to environmental problems and gender roles are seldom explicitly analysed. The focus is typically on changing physical or technical aspects, but without asking who should change or highlighting social structures (Wangel, 2011).


The aim of this paper is to contribute new knowledge and deepen existing knowledge on long-term planning for sustainable development through merging planning with a critical futures studies perspective. This paper thereby proposes a more prescriptive postmodern planning and highlights both process and outcome.


By suggesting the Just City approach, Fainstein (2000; 2010) also falls within the more prescriptive postmodern tradition. The Just City approach is a ‘normative position concerning the distribution of social benefits’ (Fainstein, 2000:467). It highlights process values and desirable out­comes. Thus, it recognises that just processes do not necessarily result in just out­comes, an issue which is also discussed by e.g. Bradley et al. (2008), Larsen and Gunnarsson-Östling (2009) and Gunnarsson-Östling and Höjer (2011).


In the view of Fainstein (2000; 2010), the purpose is to recommend nonreformist reforms and thus improvements should be made within the current structures. Fainstein (2010:20) denotes this as a form of ‘realistic utopia­nism’. Thus, ‘[t]he discussion does not go so far as to investi­gate the broader concept of the good city’ (Fainstein, 2010:58) and e.g. environ­mental issues are not considered.


Harvey (2009) is critical towards the approach of acting within the capitalist regime and questions capital accumulation and economic growth as prime targets in city development. He claims that the question of what city we desire is inseparable from what kind of people we want to become. He thereby approaches transformative futures studies. The field of futures studies is characterised by plurality regarding research approaches and one way of classifying those different approaches is that they respond to one of the three questions ‘what will happen’, ‘what can happen’ and ‘how can a specific target be reached’. They thereby belong to the three categories predictive, explorative and normative scenarios (Börjeson et al., 2006).

Normative scenarios in turn can be divided into preserving and transforming scenarios, where preserving scenarios depict images of the future built on today’s societal structures (Börjeson et al., 2006:728-729). In transforming scenarios the goals are seen as very difficult to reach within today’s structures and major societal changes are therefore seen as necessary.


One form of transforming scenario studies is backcasting. Robinson (1990:822) writes that ‘[t]he major distinguishing characteristic of backcasting analyses is a concern, not with what futures are likely to happen, but with how desirable futures can be attained’. Dreborg (1996:814) states that back­casting is especially useful for ‘long-term complex issues, involving many aspects of society as well as technological innovations and change’.


However, futures studies often lack a critical and reflexive perspective (Gunnarsson-Östling, 2011). Inspiration for critical and transforming sustainable futures could instead be found within the field of political ecology where researchers have also called for alternatives. Swyngedouw (2007) sees the need for imagining and naming socio­environ­mental futures and Keil (2007:57) notes that radical change is needed and proposes a radical urban political ecology, meaning that sustain­ability cannot be achieved within capitalism as we know it.


This paper highlights normative scenarios as a way of clarifying political dimensions of planning and visioning about sustain­able futures. They can be a way of depicting antagonistic futures.






Börjeson, L., M. Höjer, K.-H. Dreborg, T. Ekvall and G. Finnveden (2006) "Scenario types and techniques: Towards a user's guide." Futures 38:723-739.

Bradley, K. (2009) Just Environments: Politicising Sustainable Urban Development. PhD thesis, Stockholm: KTH.

Bradley, K., U. Gunnarsson-Östling and K. Isaksson (2008) "Exploring Environmental Justice in Sweden - How to Improve Planning for Environmental Sustainability and Social Equity in an "Eco-Friendly" Context." Projections: MIT Journal of Planning 8:68-81.

Dreborg, K.-H. (1996) "Essence of backcasting." Futures 28:813-828.

Fainstein, S. S. (2000) "New Directions in Planning Theory." Urban Affairs Review 35:451-478.

Fainstein, S. S. (2010) The Just City. New York: Cornell University Press.

Gunnarsson-Östling, U. (2011) Just Sustainable Futures: Gender and Environmental Justice Considerations in Planning. PhD thesis, Stockholm: KTH - Royal Institute of Technology.

Gunnarsson-Östling, U. and M. Höjer (2011) "Scenario Planning for Sustainability in Stockholm, Sweden: Environmental Justice Considerations." International Journal of Urban and Regional Research Forthcoming.

Harvey, D. (2009) "The right to the Just City." in Searching for the just city: Debates un urban theory and practice, edited by Marcuse, P., J. Connolly, J. Novy, I. Olivo, C. Potter and J. Steil. Abingdon: Routledge.

Keil, R. (2007) "Sustaining Modernity, Modernizing Nature." in The Sustainable Development Paradox: Urban Political Economy in the United States, edited by Krueger, R. and D. Gibbs. New York: Guilford Press.

Larsen, K. and U. Gunnarsson-Östling (2009) "Climate change scenarios and citizen-participation: Mitigation and adaptation perspectives in constructing sustainable futures." Habitat International 33:260-266.

Robinson, J. B. (1990) "Futures under glass: A recipe for people who hate to predict." Futures 22.

Swyngedouw, E. (2007) "Impossible "Sustainability" and the Postpolitical Condition." in The Sustainable Development Paradox: Urban Political Economy in the United States, edited by Krueger, R. and D. Gibbs. New York: Guilford Press.

Wangel, J. (2011) "Exploring social structures and agency in backcasting studies for sustainable development." Technological Forecasting & Social Change Article in press.


Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Keyword [en]
planning, futures studies, sustainable urban development, transformation
National Category
Social Sciences
URN: urn:nbn:se:kth:diva-123601OAI: diva2:628177
Green Futures, Linköping University

QC 20130617

Available from: 2013-06-13 Created: 2013-06-13 Last updated: 2013-06-17Bibliographically approved

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