More than just places

Book coverBook Review

Adamson, D., Axinte, L., Lang, M., & Marsden, T. (2023). Sustainable places: Addressing social inequality and environmental crisis. Routledge. £35.99 paperback, £26.99 ebook.

This short book covers much the same question that we have been concerned with in our own work. That is how to organise an economically, socially and ecologically viable local society, providing dignified lives for citizens without using more than their fair share of the world’s limited resources, nor overstepping the boundaries that the planet’s ecological and geophysical systems impose.

The first part of the book is an insightful review of the existentially challenging context in which genuine community development now takes place. This has environmental and social aspects; in all they list 14 key issues and trends, from climate change and land contamination to global poverty and inequality. Any developmental approach has to take them all into account. The analysis is degrowth-friendly, and maintains a global awareness grounded in the realities of local communities.

In part two the authors get into the alternatives. In doing so they review a number of increasingly influential mainstream and alternative economic and policy approaches, including those familiar to our readers, Social Exclusion analysis, Transition Theory, Total Place, The Foundational Economy, Anchor Institutions, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. They then synthesise their own methodology, what they call Deep Place which they go on to explore through six case studies, four from South Wales (Tredegar, Pontypool, Llandovery and Lansbury Park), one from New South Wales (Muswellbrook, in the Hunter Valley), and one from Vanuatu (Freshwater, Port Vila).

Deep Place involves a series of steps, refined over the course of the case studies: socio-economic analysis, co-production and ‘think spaces’, horizon scanning, action points and setting up a ‘coalition for change’. This looks like a fairly standard approach – first understand the context, then identify needs, then action plan and evaluate. Of course the book gives more information about the content of each of the steps. Other approaches, such as Participative Action Researchi and Organisational Workshopii cover similar ground, as did the Reconomy projectsiii that arose from the Transition Network. Nevertheless it is useful to have the Deep Place approach as a model. An issue with all these approaches is that of “boundary judgements”. There are two types, firstly what is in scope for the analysis, and here the approach takes a broad view, with its dual local-global perspective. The second type is more difficult and concerns who sits at the table, with what legitimacy, and how the interests of those not represented are taken into consideration. Forty years ago Werner Ulrich devised a methodology for tackling these fundamental issues, and it has become part of critical systems practiceiv. There is insufficient detail in this small book to know how adequately the boundary issues of participation and representation were handled. The co-production work and the construction of the “coalition for change” could be problematic in these terms, making it difficult to arrive at interventions that have legitimacy in the community and backing from key resource gatekeepers.

I would also like to have had more detail about the projects and specifically the action plans and their fate. Not all the interventions really seem to match the aspirations of the authors, this was especially evident in the Australian case study where proposed projects included biofuels and household waste incineration. For other projects, for example in the care sector (a plank in the foundational economy), it was unclear what the funding and governance arrangements were to be and how feasiblev changes might be in the continuing neoliberal policy context. These are not criticisms of the authors but cautions as to the difficulties in meeting the ambitions for a truly Regenerative Social, Economic and Political Order – the theme of the final chapter which reprises the questions covered in the book.

The book is a helpful distillation of what elsewhere might be called a conjunctural approachvi, knitting together the local and global, the political, economic, social and ecological, in the context of intersecting and accelerating systemic crises, with Place as the uniting theme. It is of course far too expensive, and that is the reality of profit-seeking academic publishing, but it means that, sadly, the insights of the book, like that of so many others, will remain effectively locked up on the shelves of a few academic libraries.

Mark H Burton

iv Ulrich, W. (1983). Critical heuristics for Social Planning: A new approach to practical philosophy. Haupt.  Reprinted Chichester, Wiley, 1994.

Ulrich, W. (2005). A Brief Introduction to Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH). ECOSENSUS Project Website.

v The philosopher Enrique Dussel went so far as to propose feasibility as a fundamental principle of ethics.

vi The term comes from political analysis drawing on the theoretical contributions of Antonio Gramsci.

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2 Responses to More than just places

  1. Raquel Guzzo says:

    Thank you for this refletion

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