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What could a Just and Sustainable City Look like in Brussels?

In recent years, the concept of ‘just transition’ has evolved from a narrow social project, aimed at protecting workers in industries affected by environmental regulations, to a comprehensive social-ecological project aimed at addressing social inequalities and environmental degradation in an integrated way. This integrated pursuit of social justice and environmental sustainability objectives is particularly relevant for the urban context, where social and ecological issues concentrate and intertwine. Despite the growing prominence of just transition imperatives in urban agendas, questions of what a just and sustainable city could and should look like remain under-investigated.


Against that background, the main objective of the last COGITO report, an overview of which is provided in this blog, is to explore urban visions that explicitly combine social justice and environmental sustainability objectives. More specifically, this research aims at 1) outlining contrasting visions of a just and sustainable city in the Brussels Capital Region, 2) identifying the actors who support these visions, and 3) highlighting the areas of consensus and debate on the issue. With that aim in mind, we conducted a survey of Brussels’ stakeholders based on a Q-methodology, i.e., a statistically supported survey method for understanding the plurality of perspectives on a topic within a group. This survey was carried out between December 2023 and January 2024, and 32 representatives of administrations and other public institutions, NGOs and associations, business federations, trade unions and citizen movements took part.


The statistical analysis of survey data and the interpretation of its results led to the definition of three contrasted urban visions bridging social justice and environmental sustainability objectives: The ‘Smart City’, the ‘Foundational City’ and the ‘Exnovation City’. The main distinguishing characteristics of these visions of the just and sustainable city reflecting the different perspectives of Brussels' stakeholders are summarised in the figure below.


Overview of the three visions of a just and sustainable city in Brussels-Capital-Region[1]


The vision of the ‘Foundational City’ is the one with the highest number of survey respondents endorsing it, while the ‘Smart City’ vision is the one with the fewest. Regarding the type of stakeholder supporting the different visions identified, we find members of administrations and other public organisations subscribing to each of the three visions. On their part, the representatives of the NGOs and associations consulted promote either the ‘Foundational City’ or the ‘Exnovation City’ visions. As for the business’ federations, the two respondents representing eco-companies embrace the ‘Foundational City’ vision, while the other two representing incumbent companies adhere to the ‘Smart City’ vision. Finally, all the three trade unionists and the only member of a citizen's movement who took part in the survey support the vision of the ‘Foundational City’. 


Each of the three visions of the just and sustainable city can be associated with a specific conception of ‘just sustainability’. In the ‘Smart City’, it equates inclusive and sustainable economic development, i.e., an economic growth decoupled from its environmental degradation and delivering social justice. The ‘Foundational City’ abandons the imperatives of economic growth and understands ‘just sustainability’ as a juxtaposition of intragenerational justice – i.e., justice between different humans of the present generation – and intergenerational justice – i.e., justice between humans of different generations –. The ‘Exnovation City’ goes beyond an anthropocentric conception of justice and interprets ‘just sustainability’ as an integration of ecological justice – i.e., justice for nature – with environmental justice – i.e., justice between different humans in relation to their natural environment –.


The three visions of the just and sustainable city can further be distinguished by the relative priority they give to the objectives of economic growth, social justice and environmental sustainability. Indeed, if a trade-off arises between some of these objectives, the ‘Smart City’ will tend to prioritise economic growth seen as a source of trickle-down prosperity, the ‘Foundational City’ will tend to put the fulfilment of fundamental human needs and social equity first, and the ‘Exnovation City’ will tend to give priority to the preservation and restoration of nature deemed necessary for sustaining a good and fulfilling life for all. The priority differential between the three visions of the just and sustainable city reflects the challenges of simultaneously fostering economic growth, social justice and environmental sustainability, and the inherent tensions and conflicts between these three objectives of sustainable development.


Beyond this priority differential, the cross-analysis of the three visions offers additional insights on the terms of the debate among Brussels’ stakeholders on what a just and sustainable city should look like. Among the most controversial topics, we find the future of the capitalist system and the neo-liberal approach to the city, the place of exnovation in the transition to a just and sustainable city, the role of technology – and notably digital technology – in the deployment of ecological modes of production and consumption, the establishment of a ceiling on income and assets, the (de-)densification of the city, and the provision of universal access to decent and affordable housing in Brussels.


Besides these divergences, the analysis also highlights some areas of consensus. In this respect, the most striking point of convergence between the three visions of a just and sustainable city lies in the high priority given to the health of the city's residents. This paves the way for the construction of a vision of a just and sustainable city centred on health shared by all Brussels’ stakeholders, which could lead to the adoption of ‘full health’ as a compass to guide the just transition in Brussels-Capital Region. 


By identifying and exploring three original visions of Brussels bridging social justice and environmental sustainability objectives, this research contributes to understanding the contours of the future(s) towards which just urban transitions could orient, alongside the main disagreements and consensus on this issue. It thus provides fruitful ground for open debate and further research on just transitions in Brussels-Capital Region and other metropolitan areas.


[1] The pictures were generated with artificial intelligence.

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