Competing for Green Neoliberalism and the rise of sustainable cities



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Conclusion – Social change in the era of neoliberalism

One of the weaknesses in much of the scholarship on neoliberalism is to see neoliberalism as not only ubiquitous, but also monolithic. In critiquing neoliberalism’s very real and problematic implications for social justice, distribution of resources and wealth, democracy, etc. many scholars implicitly reject all policies tainted with neoliberalism’s dirty fingers. Unfortunately, this can lead to an unsatisfactory analysis of politics and policies that, though they are operating within the constraints of a neoliberal framework, may have important benefits to people or the planet.

In this essay I have attempted to offer a more nuanced understanding of the importance of neoliberalism, especially in its relationship to environmental policy in the United States. In particular, I have argued that the changes in environmental policy and discourse that have accompanied neoliberalism have encouraged the rise and rapid proliferation of urban sustainability initiatives. These policies are important and have the potential to transform the relationship of the city to the natural world and reduce the ecological footprint of major urban areas. However, because these policies have been formulated within the context of neoliberalism, they are constrained by limitations of the market-oriented, urban entrepreneurial policy alternatives that are acceptable within the neoliberal global economy. As such the questions of social justice and equity that neoliberalism fails to answer remain equally problematic within green urban entrepreneurialism.

Furthermore, though urban sustainability projects in the United States are in many ways manifestations of “actually existing neoliberalism,” there is reason to believe that other factors also have an important influence on how and why cities embrace sustainability. Social movement pressure, growing public concern for environmental issues, and a genuine commitment by local officials to reduce their city’s environmental impact must also be considered. As Raco argues in his examination of British New Labour’s 2003 Sustainable Communities proposal and its implementation, urban sustainability programs are “not simply a neoliberal agenda that has been played out in a particular way. [They are] constituted from a number of rationalities, some of which can be defined as neoliberal, some of which are drawn from other intellectual, political, and ethical traditions.”101 In other words, sustainability projects may be hybrids of neoliberal urban entrepreneurialism, progressive attempts to tame the destructive tendencies of capitalist production and consumption, responses to calls for environmental justice, and part of a growing transmunicipal social movement to address pressing global issues. The extent to which any one of these is the predominant driving force in a city’s adoption of sustainability needs to be determined empirically, with an eye both to the constraints created by neoliberal globalization and the ways that social actors maintain agency within the framework of neoliberalism to shape their social and ecological surroundings.


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1 Cursory evidence of this claim is that as of April, 2008 only 103 of the 815 members of Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI) are located in countries generally considered part of the global South.

2 Hackworth 2007, 13.

3 Bernstein 2001.

4 Brenner and Theodore 2002a; and Beatley and Manning 1997.

5 Whitehead 2003; Portney 2003; and Regelson 2005.

6 Desfor and Keil 2004.

7 Portney 2005.

8 The definition of sustainability is notoriously vague. Though most policies and decision-makers formally accept the Brundtland Commission’s definition of sustainability as meeting today’s needs without compromising the needs of future generations, what this means in the context of actual policies varies significantly. As such, this paper will not attempt to define or measure sustainability, though this has been done elsewhere (i.e. Alberti 1996; Portney 2003; and Kahn 2006). Rather, the policies of cities who have proclaimed the goal of becoming more sustainable will be analyzed in order to see the ways that they conform to and challenge theorizations of urban entrepreneurialism under neoliberal globalization.

9 “ICLEI Members: Cities for Climate Protection Campaign,” ICLEI. Available at http://www.iclei.org/fileadmin/user_upload/documents/USA/members/ICLEI_Local_Governments_Oct07.pdf, accessed on 28 December 2007.

10 “Mayors Climate Protection Center: List of Participating Mayors,” U.S. Conference of Mayors. Available at http://www.usmayors.org/climateprotection/list.asp, accessed on 8 January 2008.

11 Bulkeley et al. 2003.

12 Brenner and Theodore 2002a, 341.

13 See Bernstein 2001.

14 Sale 1993.

15 See Polanyi 2001[1944].

16 See Harvey 1989a.

17 Mazmaniam and Kraft 1999.

18 Ibid.

19 See Harvey 2005 for an excellent discussion and analysis of the rise of neoliberalism.

20 Peck 2001, 445.

21 Peck and Tickell 2002.

22 Ibid, 384.

23 Brenner and Theodore 2002b, 15.

24 Ibid, 20.

25 Hackworth 2007.

26 Harvey 1989b.

27 Ibid, 7.

28 Hackworth, 43.

29 Peck and Tickell 2002b, 40.

30 Harvey 1989.

31 Hackworth 2007, 67.

32 Weber 2002, 186.

33 Ibid, 190.

34 Hackworth 2007.

35 Brenner 2001; Hackworth; Harvey 1996; Hubbard and Hall 1998; and While, Jonas, and Gibbs 2004.

36 Hackworth.

37 Peck and Tickell 2002, 46.

38 The New York Times, 3 November 2, A12 and 7 November 2007, H10; “Aggressive ‘Green Vision’ Goals for San Jose,” AMR Research, 4 December 2007. Available at http://www.amrresearch.com/Content/View.asp?pmillid=20967, accessed 20 December 2007; and “A Tale of Four Cities,” AMR Research. Available at https://www.amrresearch.com/Content/View.asp?pmillid=20932.

39 While, Jonas, and Gibbs 2004, 560.

40 Whitehead 2003, 1184, emphasis in original.

41 Ibid, 1188.

42 Leitner, Peck, and Sheppard 2007, 314.

43 See Hart 2002.

44 Hajer 1995.

45 Eckersley 2002; Mol and Spaargaren 2000; and Mol 2002.

46 Mol 2002, 93.

47 Dryzek et al. 2003, 169.

48 Schlosberg and Dryzek 2002; and O’Connor 1994.

49 Schnaiberg 1980; and Schnaiberg, Pellow, and Weinberg 2002.

50 Harvey 1996, 378.

51 Buttel 2000.

52 Mol 2002, 97.

53 Byrne, Glover, and Martinez 2002; and Szasz and Meuser 2000.

54 Haughton 1999; and Tarrant and Cordell 1999.

55 It is important to note that from a perspective of social justice this conception of wilderness has been extremely problematic in many cases, specifically where it negates the existence of indigenous peoples within so-called wilderness areas and therefore may deny or forbid long-standing subsistence and other uses by these populations (see Magnusson and Shaw 2003).

56 Harvey 1996, 387.

57 See Cronon 1991.

58 The New York Times, 17 May 2006, G6.

59 “A Tale of Four Cities.”

60 “Welcome to DOE,” Chicago Department of Environment. Available at http://www. egov.cityofchicago.org, accessed 12 March 2008.

61 Ibid, emphasis added.

62 The New York Times, 17 May 2006, G6.

63 “A Tale of Four Cities.” See also The New York Times, 26 November 2007, A14.

64 Hackworth 2007, 59.

65 Rowan and Fridgen 2003, 58.

66 The New York Times, 17 May 2006, G6.

67 “Is Your City Green?” MSN City Guides, 2007. Available at http://cityguides.msn.com/citylife/greenarticle.aspx?cp-documentid=4848590, accessed on 3 October 2007.

68 The Sacramento Bee, 5 September 2007, A1.

69 Ibid, A14.

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73 The New York Times, 29 January 2007, C8.

74 The Oakland Tribune, 28 February, 2008.

75 “Aggressive ‘Green Vision’ Goals for San Jose.”

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77 Hackworth 2007.

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79 Misseldine 2006.

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81 See Rodriguez 1999 for information on the roots of environmental justice activism in Oakland.

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87 Abraham et al. 2005; and “Port of Oakland: Private industry or public agency,” Urban Habitat. Available at http://urbanhabitat.org/port, accessed on 17 March 2008.

88 See “Green Collar Jobs Campaign,” Ella Baker Center. Available at http://www.ellabakercenter.org/page.php?pageid=33, accessed on 18 March 2008.

89 Bailey 2007; Portney 2003; “Is Your City Green?; and “The Top 10 Green Cities in the U.S.,” The Green Guide, 2007. Available at http://www.thegreenguide.com/doc/113/top10cities, accessed on 28 September 2007.

90 “Timeline: Green Building Milestones,” Seattle Department of Planning and Development. Available at http://www.seattle.gov.dpd/GreenBuilding/OurProgra/Overview/Programhistory/DPDS_007658.asp, accessed on 2 January 2008.

91 Portney 2003, 194-195.

92 Ibid.

93 OSE 2001, cited in Krueger and Agyeman 2005. 415.

94 “Seattle, a Climate of Change: Meeting the Kyoto Challenge, Climate Action Plan: Highlights,” City of Seattle, 2006. Available at http://www.seattle.gov/climate/docs/SeaCAP_summary.pdf, accessed on 3 October 2007.

95 “City of Seattle 2006-2007 Environmental Action Agenda: A Global City Acting Locally,” City of Seattle, 2006. Available at http://www.seattle.gov/environment/Documents/eaa/2006_Brochure_color.pdf, accessed on 3 October 2007.

96 “Seattle Metronatural,” Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau. Available at http://www.visitseattle.org/bureau.brand.asp, accessed on 16 March 2008.

97 Bulkeley and Betsell 2003; Bulkeley et al. 2003; Bulkeley 2005; and Davies 2005; see also Lipschutz 1996.

98 See Hajer 1995 for a discussion of the importance of discursive understanding of environmental problems in the formulation of environmental policy prescriptions.

99 Bulkeley 2005, 893. Emphasis added.

100 Leitner and Sheppard 2002, cited in Bulkeley 2005, 894.

101 Raco 2005, 343.

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