The civics of urban greening: topics, tendencies, and tensions from the frontlines of sustainable transition

The civics of urban greening: topics, tendencies, and tensions from the frontlines of sustainable transition

Anders Blok, Anette Gravgaard Christensen, Troels Krarup and Jakob Laage-Thomsen

Denmark is often portrayed as an environmentalist forerunner in the Western world. While reality is as always more muddled, not least as far as efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions are concerned. However, it is certainly the case that green sustainability goals have long since become embedded within urban planning and policy orthodoxy across Danish cities. The capital city of Copenhagen, for instance, has made official plans to become carbon neutral by 2025. The city of Vejle seeks to meet new flooding risks by becoming a leader in urban resilience, while Aarhus has reinforced its commitment to having all residents live within walking distance of parks and other recreational green-spaces. In short, the idea that cities are at the forefront of sustainability transitions is well entrenched in Denmark.

In an on-going research project, we leverage the notion of ‘urban green communities’ (see Christensen et al. 2019) to inquire further into these developments, examining specifically the emerging tendencies and tensions in civic engagement with urban greening across Denmark. Through this notion we point in particular to the proliferation, over the past 10-15 years, of new place- and practice-based civic urban collectives such as gardening groups, food cooperatives and biodiversity enhancement efforts, which focus to some extent on the environmental improvement of their neighborhood, city, and the world at large. Here, we ask about the new types of collective common ground, compromise, or conflict that such civic actors help to enact and sustain in the search for wider urban transitions towards sustainability.

As others have shown (e.g. Karvonen 2015), claims to green and sustainable urbanism arise and must prove themselves in an increasingly pluralistic civic-political arena. This arena is shaped not only by planning visions and municipal strategies, but also by professional consultants, private landowners, activist groups, and a citizenry variously sensitized to environmental challenges in every-day life. Attendant coalitions range from technical interventions in lower-carbon infrastructures of energy and housing all the way to concerns for the more verdant and experiential spaces embodied in parks, gardens, and wastelands. In our project, we illuminate the civic backdrop to such divergent shapes of sustainable urbanism.

Topics: how are citizens committed to urban greening?
In the summer of 2017, Copenhagen witnessed a public struggle for the city that pitted different conceptualisations of sustainability against each other. For their part, municipal authorities defended their right to build on part of one of the city’s larger green-spaces, known as Amager Fælled (‘Amager Commons’), by invoking the low-carbon status of the proposed new housing stock. They were countered, however, by a sizeable, and eventually successful, activist mobilization built around the notion of protecting the site out of concern for its rich and unique biodiversity, as an urban wild space suitable for educational and recreational purposes. The latter campaign mobilized the support of tens of thousands of concerned citizens.

In and beyond the activist campaign itself the wider situation served to pose a number of more general questions about diverse visions of urban greening and who would stand to benefit from them. In media portrayals, activists were seen to garner support primarily from those cultural middle classes with a ‘green sensibility’ that have grown to become a strong political force, amid state-led gentrification drives and rising housing costs, in Copenhagen since the 1990s. Meanwhile, activists sought to expose the hypocrisy of an urban regime happy to brand itself internationally as green and sustainable, yet unwilling in practice to support viable habitats for the city’s plants and animals.

Besides providing every-day spaces for relaxation and recreation, in short, urban green-space clearly sits in the middle of important tensions in urban development, pitting economic development objectives against concerns for environmental protection. Given that procedures of urban planning are still rather closed and technocratic, however, little is known as to how the majority of citizens weigh such competing concerns and justifications, and how such positions may differ according to socio-demographic group profiles. As part of our study, a representative survey of the Danish urban citizenry writ large, we will provide new answers to these questions, allowing us to detect patterns in how people’s use of green-space in everyday life ties into questions of green volunteering, civic engagement, and ideological positions.

Tendencies: how to co-produce urban planning?
Nowadays, such potentially conflictual, local urban greening in Denmark is more commonly articulated in the consensual language of civic-municipal ‘co-production’ and collaborative planning. In a Danish setting, these terms represent a set of novel initiatives emerging over the past decade, as municipalities acting as landowners have sought to take advantage of a seeming upsurge in civic green volunteering to provide free public services, thus alleviating budgets while catering to diverse user groups. In turn, city dwellers have increasingly manifested their interest in using and shaping public urban greenspace in a plurality of ways, all somehow drawing on a municipal language of sustainability. In practical terms, civic initiatives range from outdoor cooking, fitness and walking trail facilities to urban gardening, grazing livestock, bee-keeping, and flowerbeds conducive to enhanced biodiversity.

Part of our study involves ethnographic research on the emerging varieties of civic-municipal cooperative formats, as these are shaped by place-specific histories, land use arrangements, municipal resources for facilitating volunteering and civic aspirations for their local neighborhood. One case involves a small town of 13,000 inhabitants where a rather sizeable civic association has emerged to foster the implementation of a shared vision, co-developed with the municipality, for transforming a derelict brownfield site into a thriving recreational greenspace. Here, civic engagement has proven itself strong and long-lived, even as tensions emerge and require continual mutual accommodation. In other cases, including in middle-sized Danish cities of up to 50,000 inhabitants, cooperative formats tend to grow more complicated, amid overlapping land ownerships and a multiplicity of institutional stakeholders. By implication, the opportunity for volunteers and activists to co-shape places according to their own sense of a proper urban greenspace, i.e. their space for civic action (Lichterman & Eliasoph 2014), typically narrows.

Tensions: what room for civic urban sustainability?
Our research extends also to a final sub-inquiry, in which we deploy digital platforms and data to map out the emergence, socio-geography, and patterns of civic engagement styles in a sample of 250 grassroots, place and practice-based, greening groups across urban Denmark. Again, roughly half of these are civic-driven, and food-production-oriented, urban gardens established in various public spaces, sometimes in conjunction with existing urban parks. The other half is made up of organic food collectives, near-city grazing associations, as well as an inchoate mix of partnerships and green-tech projects. Overall, our mapping thus lends credence to the notion that civic urban greening engagement in its various guises has been on the ascent during the last decade.

While this emergence is sometimes portrayed as a form of revitalized environment-oriented set of social movements for everyday life (e.g. Schlosberg & Coles 2016), our fine-grained inquiry into the wide variety of civic-political aspirations pursued by these groups cast some doubt on them acting in organized coherence (see Blok & Laage-Thomsen 2019). Notably, practices and aspirations range from groups oriented to neighbourhood attachments and the encouragement of familiar sociability, to groups oriented to a more clearly principled form of environmental critique enacted as visible public-political activism. New civic-based urban green communities, in short, embody different ways of putting to work place-based forms of environmental care and an orientation to global justice in sustainable transitions.

Such divergent engagement styles, and the various ways of bringing them together in new socio-material compromises, also serve to condition the sources of legitimacy which civic groups can deploy and attain vis-à-vis the wider neighbourhood and municipal authorities. For instance in the case of a highly visible, permaculture-based urban garden in Copenhagen we show how the group struggled to attain legitimacy for its alternative, ‘messy-looking’, greenspace practice that ultimately had to close. Here, aesthetic norms of proper urban greenspace, and ideas about how different spaces should cater to human and more-than-human constituencies, form an increasingly important political question in the green city.

Concluding remarks: sustainable transition in question
Overall, by taking a keen interest in the civics of urban greening, our studies aim to cast light on all the intricate ways in which transitions towards more sustainable urbanism involves much more than just technocratic planning, policy-making, and their attendant infrastructural fixes. By doing so, we aim to better understand how civic understandings of, engagements with, and valorizations towards the more verdant sense of urban sustainability plays a central role in contemporary urban politics.

Our research is set, as noted, in a national setting (Denmark) long famed for its environmental progressiveness, and one in which the very idea that cities are, and should be, at the forefront of sustainability transitions enjoys widespread support. Our research seeks to showcase all the forms of civic engagement, capacities, and aspirations for urban democracy at work just behind the facades of our greening cities. This work, we venture, is necessary in order to continue to develop approaches that have the potential to become embedded and have impact around sustainable and low-carbon transitions in cities everywhere.

Blok, A., and J. Laage-Thomsen (2019) “Civic modes of greening the city? Urban natures in-between familiar engagement and green critique.” Under review in Local Environment.
Christensen, A. G., A. Blok, and J. Laage-Thomsen (2019) “Urban green communities: towards a pragmatic sociology of civic commonality in sustainable city making”, forthcoming in J. Hoff, Q. Gausset and S. Lex (eds.) Community driven sustainable futures. London: Routledge.
Karvonen, A. (2015) “Pathways of urban nature: diversity in the greening of the twenty-first century city.” In Now Urbanism: The Future City is Here, edited by J. Hou et al., 274-285. London: Routledge.
Lichterman, P., and N. Eliasoph (2014) “Civic action.” American Journal of Sociology 120 (3): 798-863.
Schlosberg, D., and R. Coles (2016) “The new environmentalism of everyday life: sustainability, material flows and movements.” Contemporary Political Theory 15 (2): 160-181.


Anders Blok is an associate professor in sociology at the University of Copenhagen. His research and teaching focuses on civic and professional engagements with urban sustainability transitions. Anette Gravgaard Christensen is a PhD Fellow at the Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen. She worked as an urban planner prior to commencing her PhD, which focuses on collaborative planning around urban greening projects. Troels Krarup is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Sociology at the University of Copenhagen. He presently works on the politics of civic urban greenspace engagements. He completed his PhD on European financial market integration at Sciences Po Paris in 2016. Jakob Laage-Thomsen is a PhD student at Copenhagen Business School. Jakob has a Masters degree in Sociology from the University of Copenhagen, and has been a research associate on the “Urban Green Communities” project for the past year and a half.

Image: Dovydas Zintikas