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Cities as sustainable ecosystems: Realising the vision

Jennings, Isabella (2009) Cities as sustainable ecosystems: Realising the vision. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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This thesis examines the potential for developing a sustainability assessment process that not only documents change in an accessible way, but also inspires people to take action. It explores the dynamics of change in democratic systems and the role that storytelling might play in these processes of change.

The chosen action research framework follows the stages of designing a sustainability assessment process, trialling it, presenting the findings and reflecting on the usefulness of the process. Reflecting my participatory paradigm and epistemology, my personal reflections and creative expressions have also been included.

The impetus for this thesis emerged from research into formulating a Cities as Sustainable Ecosystems (CASE) framework and vision, and the desire to investigate a tool that might assist in moving urban systems in that direction. The CASE framework was developed from examining those patterns in structure and processes evident in sustainable ecosystems and social-ecological systems. The lens used was a systems-based approach, that is, an approach which focuses on relationships and interactions rather than on individual parts.

My reading on sustainability assessment and the dynamics of change led me to choose a story-based technique, the Most Significant Change technique, and I applied this to Perth. Using the CASE framework, interviewees were selected who were involved in sustainability-related programs, initiatives or projects. In face-to-face, phone or written interviews, I asked them to identify the most significant changes they had noticed or contributed to through their work. Some extra questions on perceived lessons and personal influences were also included. Following the collection of the most significant changes, these changes were analysed using the CASE criteria and the idea of leverage points - places in the system where a small change can produce a larger effect. The lessons that interviewees shared were also analysed.

For Perth, the most common change identified across the system was a shift in consciousness and greater awareness of climate change, which could be regarded as a high­ level leverage point change. Yet the depth of the paradigm shift at this stage is limited - reflection is generally lacking on deeper questions of what sustains us, what it means to be human and the goals of the system. Furthermore, the literature and reflections from interviewees on behaviour change indicate that a paradigm shift alone will not be enough. Programs to shift the dominant paradigm need to go hand in hand with pushes to change the goals, structures and processes of the system as well as individual behaviour. There is some evidence that this is happening.

Networks and partnerships are gaining ground too, which bodes well for organisational learning and adaptive action across the urban system. New deliberative governance structures and processes are emerging. Infrastructure projects that include sustainability features - even though not necessarily cutting edge - are growing, along with demonstration projects. Behaviour change programs across the community and business sectors are being conducted. Storytelling is being used as a tool for sharing insights and promoting personal change.

The lessons shared by interviewees were grouped into the following categories: the concept of sustainability, the engagement of people, behaviour change, the mplementation of institutional change, collaborative practice, reflective practice and personal sustainability. They included the need to navigate carefully from vision to implementation, the importance of building strong relationships, the power of dialogue and stories, the importance of initial research in designing effective programs, the way that positive action and demonstration can lead to further and deeper changes in people's lives, the importance of listening in reflective practice, and the importance of positive action to sustain hope.

A story-based assessment approach has potential, not as a substitute for indicator-based approaches, but as a complement to provide greater accessibility and, perhaps, a more effective stimulus for change. Stories which have a personal element are more memorable and engaging, as are those storytellers who speak from the heart and really reveal something of themselves and the passion that drives them.

The wisdom and wealth of knowledge that people shared through their lessons emerged as an important basis for collective learning. The sharing of significant changes, as well as lessons and personal visions, might drive faster change in the system if these could be communicated on a regular and integrated basis.

The inner journey this PhD has taken me on has opened up the world of mindfulness and mindfulness practice. I now see it as a key part of transforming our relationships with ourselves and the world and, thus, in transforming the way we live our lives. In the space of being present in the world, aware of our thoughts and feelings in the moment, we open up the possibility for letting stillness
in and finding a gentler way to engage with the world.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Environmental Science
Notes: A digital copy of this thesis is not available. Your library can request a copy from Murdoch University Library via Document Delivery. A fee applies to this service.
Supervisor(s): Ho, Goen and Hobbs, Richard
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