Making climate change responses happen in suburban areas.

Suburbs are a delicate issue for researchers.  They are not well studied but they are where most of us live (researchers often prefer trendy neighbourhoods rather than everyday ones – even though the vast majority of Europeans live in suburbs).  Suburbs are a very mixed bunch of places – some have problems of success and some have problems of failure but as Peter Clark pointed out in an article from 2003 – all suburbs have issues of adaptation whether that be driven by social, economic or environmental forces.

Based on work carried out through the SNACC (Suburban Neighbourhood Adaptation to Climate Change) project ( I have been thinking about the perspectives researchers take on suburban adaptation to climate change in a recent chapter within the new SAGE handbook on Urban Studies.  Clearly the perspective you take tends to frame the kind of answers you get.  So there has been a lot of thinking about whether suburbs can be thought of as part of an urban system or how local governments can facilitate the participation of suburban residents in the machinery of local government.  Perhaps the somewhat neglected aspect is thinking about the ways we organise our everyday life in suburbs – this comes down to issues like how we use our gardens, airing cupboards and attic space.  If we can better the things that frame our everyday suburban lives, we will be in a better position to help suburbanites make lower carbon impact choices.  These choices might include: growing plants rather than paving, choosing plants that do not need watering in summer, insulating our loft spaces and how we finish the laundry without having a great big hot water tank.

So, thinking about suburban transitions requires us to flush out what are the deal-breakers of everyday life.  Once we can have those conversations we can talk about self-organising low carbon suburbs.  Not all suburban communities are ready to make this step but all will have to face up to a changing climate eventually.


For more see: Smith, I. S. (2017) What are the collective action issues for suburban communities responding to the climate change debate? In: Hannigan, J. and Richards, G., eds. (2017) Handbook of New Urban Studies. SAGE Publications Ltd. ISBN 9781412912655 [In Press] Available from:

SELF CITY – what type of climate change activist are you?

The aim of the SELFCITY project over the past 3 years has been to explore a variety of questions about what it means to be a climate change activist in Europe in the 2010s.  Over the past 2 years we (as the SELFCITY team) have spoken to more than 100 participants in towns and cities in Germany, Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.  Through these conversations we have asked what are the most important things that they associate with being a climate change activist involved in self-organising environmental groups.

The UK team talked to 56 participants of two UK-based local environmental groups during the summer of 2016: Transition Keynsham and Winchester Action on Climate Change.  Our questions (framed by a Q-sort method) centred on their feelings about environmentalism and their feelings of being involved in a community-led initiative.  This was challenging, illuminating and fun since it involved placing 49 statements in a pyramid of importance whilst also getting our respondents to tell us why they placed the cards as they did.

We analysed their answers to explore the similarities and differences in our respondents linked these two ideas (‘responding to climate change’ and ‘being a community-based activist’).  Based on our partipant’s responses we have identified four distinct narratives of self-organised response to climate change which we have labelled:

1) a ‘Eco-egalitarian’ narrative that combines strong ecological values (informed by a ‘limits to growth’ logic) with a commitment to social justice;

2) a ‘Consensus-building’ narrative that advocates non-confrontational reform to the existing political-economic system and emphasises the synergy between environmental protection, economic growth and social inclusion;

3) a ‘Community building’ narrative that advances firm green beliefs (of an anti-anthropocentric character) and a commitment to building a ‘sense of place’ locally; and,

4) a ‘Radical anti-system’ that foregrounds unyielding ecological ideals (predicated on a robust critique of neo-liberalism) and an aspiration to challenge directly business, government and formal authority.

The four narratives demonstrate that local ‘self-organisers’ articulate very different challenges and opportunities vis a vis climate change, while prioritising different responses and forms of action albeit that they were trying to achieve their environmental aims within the same group.  Our on-going analysis critically assesses the connections and differences between the narratives, the demands and messages they communicate, and the influence of national and demographic contexts on them.  So which one do you think you would belong to?

Stephen Hall from the Self City team will be presenting this research at the European Urban Research Association conference in Warsaw this week (June 22nd – 24th) and at the Association of European Schools of Planning conference in Lisbon (July 11th – 14th).  If you are there come along.  We have attached a copy of our presentation below.

eura aesop 2017 final online version

Are volunteers in environmental groups self-organisers?

The SELFCITY project has focused on local communities who have got organised to response to the climate change debate in Europe.  The concept of self-organising grouping emerges from the Developing South where governments are poorly resourced and basic needs are great (and unmet).  Thus, local communities get their act together in the absence of local authorities in order to sort out housing, basic services and responses to environmental disaster (such as extreme weather events) that those communities need.

In the case of Europe (and indeed the US) there is much government and local government that even in the midst of austerity and recession regulates markets and provides many services.  These services and resources are all implicated within a societal/economic response to the emerging climate emergency but there is still space for communal activism.  Thus the concept of self-organising potentially focuses our minds upon the relationship that volunteers in environmental groups have with existing forms of government.  If self-organising is important and an appropriate way to discuss volunteering for environmental (and climate change) groups we might expect to see volunteering for environmental groups associated with protesting and dissatisfaction with an existing political system.  It is also possible that this relationship may be different in different countries/regions – as there is also variation is national/regional preferences for getting involved in communal activity.

The analysis of existing survey data suggests that environmental activists (our self-organisers) do have a strong affinity for protest in a way that civic organisers (eg people who run sports clubs or who are part of religious groups) do not.  Unlike civic activists, our environmental volunteers can be dissatisfied with their democratic system (in the Netherlands or in Britain) but they still see themselves as interested in politics and say that they are not put off taking part in that system (through voting).  So, environmental volunteers do appear to share some things in common with self-organisers.

In the Netherlands, Great Britain and Western Germany, those who would engage in a range of different types of protest were 2-3 times more likely to belong to a self-organised environmental group than respondents who had not protested (ranging from petitions to occupying buildings).  Equally people with a history of being part of a trade union or professional group were also more likely to be in an environmental group that those who were not members of a trade union.  Self-organising environmental activists were also more likely to have a clear partisan view on who they intend to vote for implying that they maintained an interest in politics.  In the case of both Great Britain and the Netherlands environmental activists also reveal themselves to be dissatisfied with the existing democratic system.  Combined this is a very different profile from the men and women who volunteer tirelessly for more general civic associations (such as sports clubs or religious groups) who seem disinterested in the political process and outright dissatisfied with the democratic process (on average).

So where are the self-organising climate change responders in Europe?  Well they are likely to be petitioning and demonstrating against the current systems of government but they have not given up on politics.  European self-organising on climate change acknowledges that government remains resourced and important.  So it is but a short step from the demo (emergent self-organising) to the environmental association (institutional self-organising).  Government still has a role in advanced countries even if it tries to shirk its responsibilities of seeing beyond the lifetime of its leader.

On this World Environment Day, we can self-organise a better future.

Ian Smith from the SELFCITY team will be at the Regional Studies Association conference in Dublin this week presenting this research this week (June 4-7).

presentation attached

learning to talk about climate change issues – communication and public engagement on climate change

As part of the work of the UK team, SELFCITY-UK has been invited to take part in an ESRC-funded seminar that will explore how we (as researchers) talk to others who are interested in climate change issues beyond our own academic communities.  The SELFCITY project is part of the ESRC’s investment in climate change research and as such the SELFCITY-UK team will look to both learn from and pass on good practice in communication and public engagement when it comes to understanding the challenge of climate change.  This is all taking place at the LSE in London on March 8th.  We will pass on what we learn.

Getting out in the field

by Ian Smith

After all the reading, from my perspective as an empirical researcher, the most interesting part is always when I get out (or get let out?) to talk to people.  Thus it is with great excitement that we are starting to organize the first workshop with our partners in Transition Keynsham.  We are looking at March 14th.  The aim of this first workshop is to establish what we (as the SELFCITY-UK team) and what our partners in Transition Keynsham want to find answers for together when it comes to understanding how community-led responses to climate change can be made more effective (as well as working out what ‘effective’ might mean in this context).  Post-its and hob-nobs at the ready!

Cool Communities in Winchester, England

cool communities logo

As part of the SELFCiTY project team, I attended a workshop for neighbourhood leaders for the implementation of a Cool Communities Programme in Winchester (England).  Winchester Climate Action on Climate Change (WINACC) are running training courses for volunteers who want to engage their neighbours on the issue of lowering their carbon footprint.  We (as the SELFCiTY team UK) are looking at ways we can support and complement this project and the volunteers who will be pounding the streets of their neighbourhood over the next couple of weeks.  These brave volunteers are looking for advice from others who might have already done this…..

For more information about this project see: