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Title:Transitioning to sustainable urban development: a niche-based approach
Author(s):Boyer, Robert
Director of Research:Deal, Brian M.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Deal, Brian M.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Miraftab, Faranak; Olshansky, Robert B.; Oswald, Ramona F.; Fulton, Gale
Department / Program:Urban & Regional Planning
Discipline:Regional Planning
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Urban Planning
Sustainability Transitions
Socio-Technical Systems
Grassroots Innovations
The Multi-Level Perspective
Abstract:Solving the ‘wicked’ and ‘persistent’ environmental problems of the twenty-first century will require changes in the social and technological structures that guide urban development. While modern planning offers a century’s worth of solutions to environmental problems at the local scale, many of these ‘first-order’ solutions exacerbate problems at larger scales (e.g. sprawl, auto dependency, climate change). Change of the ‘second-order’ is necessary to address problems such as climate change, energy scarcity, and the destruction of finite ecosystems. The Multi-Level Perspective of Socio-Technical Systems (MLP) claims that ‘second order’ structural change is resisted by socio-technical regimes—a tangle of mutually reinforcing rules, physical structures, and social networks. While regimes are critical for day-to-day functioning in a complex world, the regime structures that guide urban development in North America have resulted in human settlements that consume life-supporting resources faster than they can replenish, and result in diffuse social and environmental consequences that are difficult to ‘solve’ at the local scale. According to the MLP, regimes begin to transform under the exogenous pressure of socio-technical landscape forces (e.g. demographic shifts, national politics, armed conflict, resource scarcity) and with alternatives incubated in socio-technical niches, or networks of actors that play by different ‘rules of the game.’ This dissertation looks specifically to the relationship between local urban development regimes and ecovillages—grassroots niche projects ideologically committed to low-impact living. Ecovillages are a locally-rooted response to the inadequacies of government environmental policy in the twenty-first century. They exist in urban, suburban, and rural areas on six continents. They attempt to model alternative housing, transportation, energy production, food production, and social governance all on one site. In recent years, multiple ecovillages have earned media attention for partnering with local policy makers on climate change and other environmental initiatives. Some have helped craft new land use regulations that allow for a broader mix of uses and cooperative spaces. Others are less influential. Why are certain ecovillages influential and others less so – especially in terms of urban policy? Drawing from Smith (2007), I hypothesize that the most influential ecovillages share some but not all elements of the urban development regime. That is, they are ‘intermediately’ situated relative to the mainstream and the radical grassroots. This enables them to translate their innovative practices to mainstream actors. I test this relationship by disseminating a survey to ecovillages across the United States and Canada and scoring them on two scales: regime distance (independent variable) and regime influence (dependent variable). The survey results confirm Smith’s hypothesis. 'Intermediacy' is a necessary but insufficient condition for ecovillage projects to influence mainstream planning policy. I elaborate on these results by conducting several ethnographic case studies that compare ‘influential’ ecovillages against their less influential counterparts. Taking up residence in ecovillages and conducting semi-structured interviews with ecovillage member-residents, I find that ‘intermediacy’ is a dynamic and liminal state. Influential ecovillages exist simultaneously inside and outside the urban development regime, but they do not start as intermediate. Rather, they achieve this status by ‘settling in’ to the regime, accepting some regime rules, and demonstrating their feasibility to institutional actors in the mainstream. It is through these connections that the regime begins to ‘warm up’ to the niche experiments, and begins to adopt their practices as municipal code. The results of this dissertation offer planners a path toward a clearer understanding of systemic change for sustainable communities and support interpretive/pragmatic conceptions of planning, which frame planners as facilitators of communication amongst diverse entities rather than objective analysts or experts. Future research and practice might use the MLP and similar theories to frame innovative local and regional environmental policies as regime transition.
Issue Date:2013-05-24
Rights Information:Copyright 2013 Robert Boyer
Date Available in IDEALS:2013-05-24
Date Deposited:2013-05

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