Transformative Cities: linking local and translocal perspectives on sustainable and just cities

Sustainable Just Cities
Blog on Sustainable Just Cities
5 min readApr 30, 2020


Around 40 people attended the third UrbanA Community Conversation, a dialogue between UrbanA Fellow Emma Erwin of Transition Stirling (Scotland) and Sol Trumbo Villa, Coordinator of the Transformative Cities project at the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam (in which UrbanA Fellow Erick Palomares is project researcher).

Emma Erwin joins the conversation from Transition Stirling, Scotland

The call opened with a discussion between Emma and Sol about the relationship between Transformative Cities and Transition Stirling (see the video above). Transition Cities identifies, showcases and connects exemplary urban transformation projects worldwide, while Transition Stirling facilitates positive local responses to climate change through community-scale projects

Participants then broke into small groups to examine questions asked in the application form for the current Transformative Cities open call, which is open until May 20th. They considered the relevance and usefulness of the questions to their own work, with some lively debate and discussion. Then everyone came back together for a plenary discussion.

After the event Emma offered a number of reflections prompted by the discussions:

Going through the process of answering the [Transformative Cities open call] questions helped me to think of the work we do in a more holistic way. For example, I found it useful to think right back to the beginning of our project and what we wanted to achieve then, and consider how well did we or did not reach that goal. We have annual targets for reducing carbon emissions, yet after four years this was the first time that I’d quantified it as an initiative, and from the beginning, rather than separately for each project year.

It also made me think of all the things we always said we would do but have never quite got round to! Or things we’ve never thought about. For example, one of the questions relates to political strategies. We often get frustrated by not being included enough in local authority plans, but our experience has always been us finding that there is a table we haven’t been invited to sit at, asking to sit there and then not hearing anything back. Perhaps if we took a more strategic approach to these things we could get further.

One participant in the call asked me how inclusive had we managed to be, or whether Transition Stirling had a problem of always attracting the usual ‘green crowd’. This is relevant to one thing I felt could improve about the questions in the application form. While it asks about how we approach inclusivity from a financial aspect, which is very important, could inclusivity be part of other questions?

For example, under communications, how does a group make sure their communications reach everyone? What outreach have they done to make sure they get people involved who aren’t normally involved in these things? Some of these are issues we don’t ordinarily ask ourselves, which can lead to some of the difficulties discussed in our breakout group, such as gentrification.

We talked about the extent to which a group integrates the social into sustainability, but also about the danger that in being too concerned with the social aspect a group could then neglect environmental aspects. Perhaps another question could ask if there are any other barriers to involvement?

An example of a difficulty we face is that we require photographic ID for members to join, to ensure we know who they are if items turn out to be stolen and we need to inform the police. However, in Scotland having a photo ID is not a legal requirement and many people cannot afford to buy a driving licence or passport. Because it isn’t to do with the actual price of membership, it isn’t something that would come out of the questions as they are. However, it is a really valuable piece of information that a well-constructed question might uncover, allowing us to share our experience with and learning from other groups with ideas about how to get round this issue.

A final thought is that while completing the answers I was doing so in a reflective way, for my own benefit. However, if I were answering the questions in the hope of winning the award, I would be likely to answer in a different way, boasting about our achievements and ignoring some important lessons. I love the positive nature of these awards and real benefits of them inspiring other groups. At the same time, I’m a big believer that some of the biggest lessons we can learn come from where people have had the biggest challenges. What has gone wrong? What was the impact? Perhaps we should have a second award, or an atlas of failures, with the ‘losers’ getting a prize instead of the winners’!

Sol also gave written answers to several questions raised by participants that we did not have time to discuss during the call itself. We share his responses here:

How do you know if transformation is happening? Or innovation? What kind of signals and reference points do you use?

We do not have an exact definition, and we expect to solve this question collectively. We see cities broadly as the location for place-based struggles for basic rights. ‘Transformative’ recognizes that these struggles have succeeded in articulating an inclusive vision for a social majority to transform their city or defined environment. These practices will have measurable results, since they have been implemented successfully, and they will be practices that can be replicated in other regions and places.

The evaluation criteria include: equity and participation, capacity to inspire collective action, sustainability and efficiency, solidarity and public ethos, impact, transferability and replicability, accountability and transparency, ecological transitions, fairness of labour conditions, and the recognition of domestic and care work.

Though I understand the importance of acting as a group (NGOs, cities, etc.), is there any place left for individual citizens (such as committed artists) to work for more sustainable cities ?

Sure there is, but with Transformative Cities we have a particular interest in countering some neoliberal paradigms such as individualism. For this reason we focus on collective efforts.

Isn’t the problem with awards the same problem with grants: they reward groups who can present themselves in certain ways, they take up too much time (which could be spent on real work) and they make those who don’t win into ‘losers’

We understand that for those challenging corporate power, authoritarian regimes, environmental degradation, inequality and injustice in all its forms, it is hard to find time to sit down and reflect on your political practices. We offer assistance filling in the application form to those who need it, so not only groups with certain levels of experience and capacity have a chance to win.

Regarding ‘losers’, we haven’t had any feedback in that respect. We encourage those who do not win to participate again. Many do, and get better results the following year.

The UrbanA team thanks Sol and Emma for sharing their experience and wisdom, and everyone else who took part in the online conversation. The is open until May 10th. You can find further details about the 2020 Transformative Cities Open Call here.

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