Two persons innovating

Justice is hardwired into research & innovation projects on urban sustainability


EU research agendas are steered to investigate how cities can achieve social and environmental sustainability in a just, inclusive and equitable way. Research stems from the concerns and needs of inhabitants in urban contexts and does not impose concepts, practices or blueprints. EU-funded projects aimed at improving urban planning in the field of sustainability have clear justice incentives, address the needs of vulnerable groups and include their voices in the research process, as well as its outcomes and impacts. 

Research funding should encourage new research objectives, tools, and pathways to fully examine the extent to which historically marginalised groups are exposed to longstanding exclusion or inequality. Funding schemes should give space for exploring bolder pathways to just and sustainable cities, including alternative economic models, land arrangements or urban development strategies. Some of the approaches identified by UrbanA that could contribute to such a direction would be the broader embracement of citizen science in EU-supported research projects, and co-learning and knowledge brokerage processes.

More interdisciplinary dialogue is needed if justice is to be given due consideration in policy and funding schemes. This requires a comprehensive vision of change that assists policy makers, municipal technicians, civil society organizations and other urban governance actors to draw links between different aspects and scales of sustainability policy -- from biophysical processes to issues of identity, culture and social justice. 

Efforts to strengthen transdisciplinarity in urban sustainability research require work to acknowledge and involve non-academic actors as holders of vital expertise. But doing this crucial work opens up more opportunities to embody justice in the research process. In this sense, other supportive governance arrangements could include committing to meaningful participation processes and tapping into existing community networks

It is often the case that projects of research and implementation on urban sustainability engage with the notion of justice only superficially or mechanistically, for example through loosely defined concepts such as ‘social cohesion,’ ‘diversity’ or ‘participation.’ Instead, justice needs to be understood and studied in its many facets: It has (among others) material, historical and symbolic dimensions. What is often falsely assumed in sustainability research is that justice will automatically trickle down from sustainability interventions into local contexts. But this fails to consider the ongoing effects of perpetuated exclusion and inequality. A problematic and limited engagement with the concept of participation in urban planning and sustainability projects can exacerbate, rather than alleviate inequalities. 

Moreover, there is often a lack of effective knowledge brokerage and stewardship opportunities; access to useful information and know-how produced by academics around sustainable urban interventions is not shared effectively or equally among social groups, sectors or disciplines. To overlook this gap constrains the potential for meaningful work towards sustainability and justice. 

  • EU research and innovation focusing on the local level should better respond to inhabitants’ needs, rather than answering questions unrelated to their concerns.
  • Guidelines for funding should be co-designed with marginalised groups and/or marginalised groups’ representatives.

Inspirational example

Research supports intersectionality, Barcelona

In Barcelona, the City Council has initiated an effort to address the question of civil participation and intersectional inequities in urban planning by awarding a prize to research projects with a community and ecofeminist perspective.

In 2019, this award went to a project with the title “Network of climate and care shelters from a community and ecofeminist perspective,” which co-designs urban climate shelters in under-served neighborhoods, actively involving immigrant women residents. By recognizing the value of intersectional projects with a gender perspective and women acting as change-makers, Barcelona is exemplifying one way through which research can support sustainable and just urbanism. In Barcelona, this research is part of a wider effort to tackle the climate emergency – while leading with an ecofeminist focus. 

A video that summarizes this initiative is available here.

Avenues for action

You might be wondering, what everyday actions can I take to put all this theory into practice? Take a look at the avenues for action, below, for some practical guidance.

Get inspired!


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