BSRS Module 1: Introduction to ‘Cities in climate and energy transformation’

Bergen Summer Research School: Cities in Climate and Energy Transformations is a PhD course that was originally offered through the Center for Climate and Energy Transformation at the University of Bergen in June 2020. It is comprised of 8 modules with 7 lecturers. The materials and recorded lectures and discussions are made available for free here and on the associated youtube playlist.

Course Introduction

As the world urbanises rapidly, and faces an imperative to accelerate climate action, cities are key actors to deliver much requisite action. This course examines what roles cities and urban regions are playing and can play in climate and energy transformations.

Cities have critical policy tools at their disposal. A C40 report identifies major opportunities such as decarbonising the electricity grid, optimising building energy use, enabling sustainable mobility and improving waste management. Cities are also important political change arenas. While many national leaders have sidestepped climate commitments, city leaders have stepped up theirs. City networks equip ambitious leaders and planners locally and globally. They enable shared resources, ideas and experiences. Cities host civil society climate politics that range from youth-led ‘climate strikes’ to ‘yellow vest’ protests. These diverse, contentious forces behind urban change merit critical examination.

Our guiding questions are:

  • Who accelerates situated urban transformations and how?
  • Why and how does resistance against sustainability transformations arise?
  • How does climate action in cities impact equity and justice?


Video discussion for module 1

Video to watch:

Discussion prompts:

  • Do you agree with the theories/ assumptions presented in the opening about why people move to cities?
  • Do you agree with these solutions, and can you think of others?
  • What stops cities from simply implementing these solutions?
  • How does this compare with your approach to urban development?

The first class discussion in response to the video above:

Written response to the the video from WG 1 (Lucas Barning, Sara Dehghani, Esraa ElMitainy, Shravanth Visisht, Agnieszka Kuras):

In our view, Robert Muggah’s presentation makes an important contribution to raising the awareness for an urgent need to transform cities globally due to their role as concentrated loci of social and economic interactions with vast effects for the world climate. However, we share a number of doubts over Muggah’s oversimplified picture of “the city” and its general needs.

Firstly, we agree in parts with Muggah’s assumption on determinants for migration towards cities, namely their appearance as “open, creative, dynamic, democratic, cosmopolitan and sexy”. Cities, in our opinion, often provide these rich environments. However, we think that Muggah neglects a number of other factors, such as economic incentives (e. g. job opportunities), persisting networks or individual expectations. Furthermore, we argue that the qualities Muggah names cannot be understood as inherent to “the city” in general but are rather imposed on it, particularly on western cities. In this sense a certain dynamic or cosmopolitan appearance, for instance, varies greatly between and even within cities. Lastly, also the relation between state, city and its surrounding region differ in every case, so that for instance in some rural areas life might prove far more healthy or democratic compared to the city.

Of the six solutions for urban transition that Muggah proposes, we feel that most are rather shallow commonplaces. However, some seem quite fruitful, e.g. Muggah’s emphasis on integrated and multi-solutions, promising a more complex account to the interweaving of the city. Still the proposed solutions stem clearly from the idea that cities globally have similar problems, which we object. Instead of focussing on the abstract level of the city, we suggest to examine further the heterogenous situation within a city and the embedding of a city in a national context as well as transnational constraints (e. g. markets, institutional networks or global discourses).

The difficulties for cities to enact Muggah’s solutions are in our view (at least) threefold: Firstly, a lack of political competences within a nation state (in this sense Muggah’s role model Singapore seems rather odd). Secondly, a preference of economically promising pathways, compared to costly sustainability measures. Thirdly, their persisting individual institutional and built structures (e.g. lacking green spaces in historic city centres) that cannot be redesigned right away.

This being said, we find Muggah’s approach rather myopic with regard to its narrow focus on a universal notion of “the city”. We fear that such a focus on cities and inter-city networks (neglecting nearly half of the world’s population living in rural areas) runs the risk for anti-democratic and “expertocratic” policy-making. We suggest that in order to find solutions, the perspective must be directed at a specific city and its embedding. Moreover, we suggest to highlight the lifeworld in the individual city. In our opinion, it is important to stress communicative and participatory elements in policy development. Last but not least, also the relation between existing structures and their involvement in developing new structures should be considered.