On 06 October 2021 Giuseppe Feola presented the paper ‘Collective memory and place-framing in urban sustainability transitions‘ at the 12th International Sustainability Transitions conference (held online)
There is growing interest in the contribution of a geographical perspective on sustainability transitions. A new theoretical research agenda has emerged, framed around the conceptualization of scales, places and spaces in which transitions unfold. This paper contributes to this research field by advancing our understanding of how distinct collective memories of place are constructed and mobilized by different social groups to inform and justify competing place frames in urban sustainability transitions.
Sustainability transitions are often seen as inherently future-oriented by both researchers and practitioners. Moreover, it is often claimed that a condition for escaping the environmental crisis is the imagination of radically novel futures. On the other hand, some sustainability transition research and practice uses the past to derive ‘lessons’ for, or otherwise inspire present attempts to transition toward sustainability. However, much of this research is not sensitive to place, and tends to read the past as a singular history, rather than to acknowledge the multiple constructions of the past which coexist and compete in place-framing and sense-making more broadly.
Building on theories of place-framing (Pierce et al., 2011; Murphy, 2015) and collective memory (Halbwachs, 2001; Zerubavel, 2003), this paper examines the ways in which collective memory is constructed in the present -that is, which different pasts are remembered, how they are interpreted, and by whom- to inform and justify competing visions of a sustainable future for the city of Sogamoso, Colombia. In this city, recent changes in the planning regulation have allowed urban expansion in formerly agricultural peri-urban areas, which are also claimed for mining and tourism. The changes have laid bare ongoing land use conflicts, and the contested visions of a desirable future for this city. This study is based on 38 semi-structured interviews with key informants comprising leading members of the civil society (social, cultural and/or environmental non-governmental organizations, journalists), public servants at local authorities and members of the construction, education (universities, social enterprises) and farming sectors (self-provisioning farmers, commercial farmers, leaders of farmer organizations, retailers).
We identify three combinations of future visions, place frames and collective memory, namely: (i) a vision of economic progress, which involves a notion of unproductive, ‘empty’ peri-urban areas in waiting of economic development, and which constructs the past as a linear progress from backward pre-industrial tradition to hopeful modernity; (ii) decline, which involves a notion of peri-urban areas as ‘full’ of social and ecological relations, cultural meaning and emotional connections, and which constructs the past as a linear decline caused by economic development, from a dignified, autonomous, self-sufficient pre-industrial past to a culturally, socially and ecologically impoverished, morally corrupted modernity; (iii) cultural renaissance, which involves a notion of peri-urban areas as ‘full’ of social and ecological relations, cultural meaning and emotional connections, and which constructs the past as a circular process of recovering and reinterpretation of ancient, pre-Columbian socio-technical traditions as a place-specific approach to meaning-making and to building alternatives to capitalist development. These three place frames and collective memories provide three fundamentally distinct positions in relation to capitalist urban development, hence of a desirable future, in Sogamoso. Yet, the first frame, which is shared by urban developers, policy-makers and journalists, has the most purchase in the policy-making process and effectively influences not only the visions, but also concrete planning and urban development policies in this city.
The paper shows that an approach to place that is sensitive to multiple framings of the past, as well as future visions of a place, will equip sustainability transition scholars to recognize the multiple readings of place that social actors re-produce, and support a better understanding of the roots of conflict in sustainability transitions.