Victims, villains and heroes: storylines and the discursive construction of the sustainable city

Rogers, J 2011, Victims, villains and heroes: storylines and the discursive construction of the sustainable city, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Architecture and Design, RMIT University.


Document type: Thesis
Collection: Theses

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Title Victims, villains and heroes: storylines and the discursive construction of the sustainable city
Author(s) Rogers, J
Year 2011
Abstract This thesis is concerned with how the ‘sustainable city’ is currently spoken and written about. I ask:

– how is the idea(l) of sustainability and the sustainable city framed in discourse?
– how is it contested?
– what are the basic terms and conditions upon which agreement or consensus are reached?
– which understandings come to dominate and which are marginalized?
– what storylines and subject positions are available to participants in sustainable city discourse?
– And, finally how is transformation or change possible?

Using the 2003-2005 Australian Federal Government’s House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Heritage’s Inquiry into Sustainable Cities as a case study, the thesis employs a discursive approach to analyse the Inquiry documents. What becomes evident in analysing the inquiry documents is that the word sprawl has powerful metaphorical importance in sustainable city discourse suggesting two alternative stories about the future of cities. The first, the story of decline suggests out of control growth of cities that threatens not only the resource base, but also ‘nature’, agricultural land and social stability. It also leads to isolation, loneliness, boredom, crime, obesity and a whole litany of other evils. The alternative storyline – the story of control on the other hand gives ‘us’ a choice and the only choice ‘we’ really have – the compact, contained city is a place where resources are used wisely, ‘nature’ and agricultural land are protected, and there is a sense of ‘community’. It is the contention of the thesis that that the dominant focus on sprawl in sustainable city discourse effectively closes down rather than opens up discussion about the future because embedded in the use of the term ‘sprawl’ is a predefined conclusion.

Stories and storylines about the sustainable city do not, however, simply emerge in discourse, they are told and so the analysis uses positioning theory to explore what subject positions and cultural stereotypes were made available in the storylines. Far from being a passive retelling of a familiar storyline various actors positioned themselves and others within the dominant storyline by either using or challenging cultural stereotypes. Two dominant and linked cultural stereotypes emerged during the Inquiry – the suburban dweller and the consumer who are positioned as ‘villains’. Responsible for the ‘unsustainability’ of cities ‘they’ need to be ‘educated’ and once given the ‘right’ kind of knowledge individual citizens are expected to then effectively and efficiently govern themselves.

The thesis shows that the impediments to transition and change are embedded in the language used to frame the debate in the first place. If sustainability is to remain a worthwhile goal for all citizens and for government then ‘sustainability’ research must do more than develop techniques and methods to measure, monitor and map sustainability as a way of ensuring compliance, and shift towards an understanding of sustainability that acknowledges that it is ‘aspirational’, contested and open to interpretation. It is, in fact, discursive.
Degree Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Institution RMIT University
School, Department or Centre Architecture and Design
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Created: Mon, 17 Sep 2012, 14:22:11 EST by Brett Fenton
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