Unpacking Swedish Sustainability : The promotion and circulation of sustainable urbanism

Abstract: Sweden has been praised for its achievements, and promoted as a role model, in sustainable urban development. This thesis, comprising five separate articles and a cover essay, is a critical study of the Swedish urban sustainable imaginary. The first article examines how this imaginary is produced. Using an actor-network theory approach, I view the Swedish pavilion at the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010 as a node in a wider network, arguing that the notion of decoupling GDP growth from CO2 emissions constitutes a central storyline.The second and third papers study the circulation of this imaginary in practice, specifically examining two cases of exporting Swedish sustainable urban planning to Chinese eco-city projects. Few of these plans, I note, were materialised in built form; rather, they contributed to the circulation of a repetitive model of sustainable urbanism, reinforcing a paradoxical idea of urban sustainability as “green islands of privilege”.The storyline of decoupling – and the circulating business of sustainable urbanism into which it feeds – is based on a deficient territorial view of space. In this research, I advocate a political ecology perspective and relational view of space, wherein there are no such things as sustainable or unsustainable cities. Rather, planning should aim for more just socio-environmental relations within and across urban borders. The fourth and fifth papers address the wider question of how planning can foster more socio-environmentally just forms of urban sustainability. Here, I emphasise a consumption perspective on greenhouse gas emissions as an important counter-narrative and analyse two Swedish municipalities’ efforts to lessen citizens’ consumption through policy and planning practice.  This research highlights the need to continuously develop and contest imaginaries and planning practices of sustainability, of who is perceived as “sustainable” and what a socio-environmentally just perspective might mean in practice for policy makers and planners alike.