Accepted Paper:

Urban Translators: The role of anthropologists in sustainable urban planning  


Saffron Woodcraft (UCL)

Paper long abstract:

If "documents are the paradigmatic artifacts of modern knowledge practices" (Riles 2006), then "plans may be considered those kinds of documents that both act on that knowledge and seek to predict what will be knowledge in the future."(Abram & Weszkalnys 2011). In this context the study of urban planning, and in particular spatial planning and the multiple policies, narratives and investments about sustainability and sustainable places, are central to analyses and understanding of the city. It is notable then how few anthropologists have focused specifically on analyzing spatial aspects of sustainable urban planning and the immaterial processes that are bound up with it.

Cities are not neutral physical spaces. They articulate ideas, aspirations and contradictions about the social use of space, particularly who and what space is for. Yet Abram & Weszkalnys note that anthropological studies reveal how planning rarely takes account of actual people in their 'radical variety.'

In this paper I will explore why there is a pressing need for an anthropological critique of the idea of sustainability in urban development. While a social dimension to sustainability is now widely accepted as important (alongside environmental and economic dimensions) it is not clearly defined or well integrated into the policy or practice of urban planning and development and remains largely neglected in mainstream sustainability debates (Manzi 2010).

It is here that applied anthropologists in particular, have much to contribute to thinking about how the idea of sustainability is translated from academic concept to professional practice of urban planning.

Panel G16
Towards an anthropology of sustainability?