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Functions of sustainability: exploring what urban sustainability policy discourse “does” in the Gothenburg Metropolitan Area

Journal article
Authors Nazem Tahvilzadeh
Stig Montin
Mikael Cullberg
Published in Local Environment
Volume 22
Issue Supp. 1
Pages 66-85
ISSN 1354-9839
Publication year 2017
Published at School of Public Administration
Pages 66-85
Language en
Keywords city region, discourse coalitions, Gothenburg, metropolitan governance, Sustainable cities
Subject categories Public Administration Studies


© 2017 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis GroupStudies on urban sustainability policy often analyse what it is, could or should be in terms of contents, objectives and rationale. Often neglected, however, is what sustainability discourse actually “does”. For this article, we explored the function of sustainability discourse in a collaborative metropolitan governance process of 1998–2014 that resulted in an infrastructural strategy aiming for “sustainable growth” in the Gothenburg Metropolitan Area (GMA). We asked why sustainability had become a hegemonic concept in urban politics despite the paradoxical decoupling of objectives, outputs and outcomes from environmental protection and social equity in policy achievement. We argue that sustainability works as a vehicular idea that brings significant value to fragile governance arenas by functioning as a linguistic political mechanism with no essence other than the capability to attract positive affections for any coalition of actors with the power to mobilise others. In the GMA, sustainability served as a cohesive and mobilising discourse empowering a coalition of techno-economic experts to “get things done” and make an unruly city region governable enough to develop infrastructure perceived as crucial for the advancement of economic-growth projects.

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