Photography by:
  • Teboho Ntsamai

Just sustainability transitions

In the context of rapid urbanisation, cities in the global South, such as the Gauteng City-Region (GCR) are faced with the challenge of planning development without leading to unjust or unsustainable outcomes. Despite assertions in literature and policies that environmental sustainability and social justice are mutually attainable goals, in reality there is a much more complex relationship between these imperatives.

The GCR attracts people from across the country, continent and around the world because of the available opportunities and services. However, the potential for achieving and sustaining high quality of life is undermined by the inequality and unsustainability entrenched in the form and function of the city-region. It is argued that improving the quality of life of all GCR residents, requires that social justice and sustainability agendas be considered together, which will require a fundamental shift in the current system and the decision-making processes that shape it. Although service delivery and improved access to services help to meet human rights objectives, the current development trajectory in the GCR is very resource consumptive and is not consistent with sustainable development objectives. This research explores the potential for infrastructure transitions to meet the growing demand for urban-based amenities, while building a more just and sustainable city-region.

The first phase of this project involved establishing the theoretical framework, through a review of the relevant literature. A framing paper, entitled ‘Social justice and sustainability transitions in the Gauteng City-Region’ was presented at the 2015 RC21 conference in Urbino, Italy held 27-29 August 2015. Additional details about the paper and the conference are available here. This initial work has been expanded to form the basis of the lead researcher, Christina Culwick's PhD project as well as the 'Just sustainability research collective'.

In September 2020, Christina hosted a roundtable event at the 2020 Southern Africa City Studies Conference on Just and Sustainable government housing.

Just sustainability research collective

The complexities around navigating social justice and environmental sustainability imperatives is currently being explored through a set of case studies, each investigating a different aspect within the GCR where these imperatives stand in opposition. Each case study will explore the sets of agendas, power relations and decision-making processes that influence how trade-offs are made and why particular decisions are reached. The aim of this collection is to get to the heart of these issues and to inform the process of how to tackle a transition in the GCR that will bring it towards a more just and sustainable city-region. The set of case studies include:

  • Deconstructing sustainability and justice in government housing developments
  • Moving beyond the 'conservation versus development' debate: exploring conservancies
  • The politics of going off-grid
  • Gauteng e-tolling: unravelling complexities, interests, mistrusts and tensions
  • Greenhouse gas mitigation and social justice in the South African coal expansion programme
  • A justice- or rights-based approach to sustainable urban transport

The collection of case studies was presented at the African Centre for Cities (ACC) International Urban Conference, in Cape Town 1-3 February, 2018, and will be published as a collection that furthers the debate regarding just sustainable transitions.


Tyler, E., & Cohen, B. (2021). A complex systems view of climate and development issues in South African coal power expansion. Journal of Energy in Southern Africa, 32(1), 1–13.

Culwick, C. & Patel, Z. (2020). 'Building just and sustainable cities through government housing programmes'. Environment and Urbanisation. 32(1), 133-154.


Christina Culwick (September 2020). 'Just and sustainable government housing'. Southern Africa City Studies Conference, 3 September 2020.

Christina Culwick (February 2018). 'Deconstructing sustainability & justice in social housing developments'. ACC International Urban Conference, 1 February 2018.

Giillian Maree (February 2018). 'Moving beyond the 'conservation versus development' debate: exploring conservancies'. ACC International Urban Conference, 1 February 2018.

Graeme Götz (February 2018). 'Complexities of urban social policy in the gap between sustainability and justice: a re-reading of the ‘Phiri matter''. ACC International Urban Conference, 1 February 2018.

Christina Culwick (November 2017) Deconstructing sustainability and justice in housing: Knowledge, power and competing rationalities in the global south. UCT EGS Proposal presentations. 30 November 2017.

Christina Culwick (August 2015). ‘Social justice and sustainability transitions in the Gauteng City-Region’, RC21 Conference, Urbino, Italy, 28 August 2015.

Last updated: 14 April 2021


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