Green Spaces And The ‘Good’ Citizen by Susan Brown

In a previous post,  I talked about the role of imagination and curiosity in helping us care about the World we pass on to future generations. The notion of imagined futures was discussed, among others, by Tone Huse of the University of Tromsø, Norway, at the annual conference of the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change  held in Manchester, UK.

Future cities
Image from


Tone Huse talked about images illustrating architects’ conceptualizations of future ‘sustainable cities’. In these visions people stroll through verdant spaces, grow food in city allotments, use low carbon/electric public transport and enjoy pleasant temperatures in buildings cooled and insulated through vegetation on their walls and roofs. The below images provides an  examples (go to Google Image – or similar- for more ‘sustainable future cities’ images) :


These are, Toni Huse argues, utopian images in which ‘social, economic and cultural tensions seem to be alleviated’. They depict, in the words of Jabareen,  ‘a perfect society, where justice prevails, people are perfectly content, people live and flourish in harmony with nature, and life moves along smoothly, without abuses or shortages’,  (2008, p.186).


The people in the images epitomize ‘good’ citizens conforming to the sustainability aspirations of those whose vision this is. Radical, disgruntled non-conformist individuals who have their own ideas as to how to live in society do not have a place in these visions of sustainable city life.  Either the radical citizen no longer exists – because they live in a perfect society which has eliminated poverty and diffuses radical impulses- or they are kept (cue sinister undertones) from disrupting social harmony.


The images are, no doubt, intended to inspire people; make people feel optimistic about the future.  I personally am cheered by views of cities where the natural World is integrated into the urban environment. However utopian visions tend to be conceived by the few for the many. This can result in rather stale, sanitized visions, rather than visions of vital change. By ‘vital’ I mean not only necessary change but also change imbued with the dynamical, evolving thinking of humans working together to positively affect their environment.


Incredible Edible Todmorden

There are numerous examples of such visions.  I think, for example, of Incredible Edible in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, UK. Incredible Edible is a project which ‘aims to provide access to good local food for all’ with people ‘working together for a world where all share responsibility for the future wellbeing’ of the planet and each other (IE website). People in the community (or anyone who want to join in) can plant and grow food in and around the town and anyone can pick and eat the produce grown.


The vision of Incredible Edible is broadly scoped, encompassing both the local and global. It is predicated on sharing and responsibility.  People in the project are active, responsible stakeholders rather than compliant to a vision drawn up for them. In its ‘anyone can take part’ approach, it is also freewheeling and relaxed, eschewing regulation for an element of ‘messiness’ that may keep the project vital. Indeed that messiness has been criticised by some in the Todmorden community apparently – a sign of the complexities inherent within any sustainability vision.


So what does all this mean for sustainability learning? There is a strong focus on creative, active, responsible citizenship in much of the literature on sustainability education.  People are not viewed as compliant to a vision of sustainability but as active builders of a vision for sustainability.  Helping people to build visions of their communities/towns or broader visions of (global) society may be a useful way forward. This may entail deconstructing the utopian vision of sustainable futures and constructing a more vital vision of sustainable futures, one rooted in complexities, understandings of human nature -there will always be dissenters to visions- and of humans’ creativity.


We may find that thinking of sustainable futures leads us less to sanitised images of possible futures and to more vital ones. It may do us good to think of sustainable futures as vital and potentially fun – just as in below – well, maybe not quite!



Huse, T. (2012). Political subjects of the green city. Paper presented at CRESC Annual Conference: Promises: Crisis and socio-cultural change, Manchester. 5th to 7th September.
Jabareen, Y. (2008). A new conceptual framework for sustainable development, Environment, Development and Sustainability, 10(2).

This article was originally published on Susan Brown’s sustainability education blog: