The role of governance in urban sustainability transitions -case Eko-Viikki

Cities are responsible for many of the current environmental challenges in the world. Even though the need for urban sustainability transitions is apparent, city governments have been, so far, incapable of governing the change.

In her master’s thesis, Jenni Nieminen examined the possible urban transition and its multi-level governance through the case example of Eko-Viikki neighbourhood and the urban planning changes around it. The framework of multi-level perspective on socio-technical transitions (MLP) was used for the analysis. Traditionally, the framework has not been used to study transitions in cities, due to which, there is a lack of case examples of urban sustainability transitions and their governance. The research aimed to address the deficiency in question as well as to find out which types of policy instruments could be essential in bringing about urban sustainability transitions. Furthermore, the study examined whether the regime (the dominant system), in this case the urban planning of Helsinki, can actively influence the steering of the transition.

The research was based on document analysis and semi-structured expert interviews. The materials were analysed by qualitative content analysis using the MLP framework and a commonly used environmental policy instrument classification as a frame.

The results indicate that regime actors can have endogenous power to somewhat steer the urban sustainability transitions. The regime actors of urban planning of Helsinki were active in the Eko-Viikki project, and sustainability issues have become more integrated part of the everyday urban planning in Helsinki. As for the niche level of Eko-Viikki, regulation and collaboration related policy instruments were the most successful in advancing the sustainability issues. In fact, the plot assignment stipulations containing sustainability demands as well as the area working group method have been scaled up to the use of the regime. Moreover, the city of Helsinki has committed in advancing sustainable city development through international agreements and its own city strategies. Furthermore, the land use and construction legislation changes have remarkably tightened the requirements for sustainability of urban planning, especially for the energy efficiency.

On the contrary, the lack of certain types of instruments seem to hinder the urban sustainability transitions remarkably. According to the results, information related instruments need to be developed to make the most of the technical solutions available and, ultimately, to make urban planning more like continuous learning processes rather than individual projects. Also, the issue of short-term profit seeking should be addressed by economic instruments that involve long-term investments and set sustainability issues as a first priority.

All in all, much has done for promoting sustainability in urban planning of Helsinki but there are still steps to be taken by all the actors operating in the urban area in order to achieve ambition levels needed in, for what could be called, an urban sustainability transition. Particularly, systemic and process focused policy instruments are needed to take into account the multiple different stakeholders involved, and the governance levels where urban sustainability transitions take place. The urban sustainability transitions can be enabled only together with all governmental bodies of the city, state, construction companies, maintenance companies and, ultimately, residents.

For future research, more comparative and larger sample of case studies are needed on urban sustainability transitions and their governance to be able to compare the examples. This kind of comparison can bring more information on the context specificity of these governance solutions and about the possibilities of using the workable solutions in other cities.

Jenni Nieminen has recently graduated as Master of Science in “Environmental change and policy” from the University of Helsinki. She conducted her master’s thesis as a part of research project "Miten kestävyysmuutos toteutuu kaupungeissa? (KEMUT) within the Urban Environmental Policy research group.

For more information about the study, take a look at the thesis online