Open Access Journal

ISSN: 2183-7635

Article | Open Access

Identities as Enabling Conditions of Sustainability Practices in Urban Planning: A Critical Realist Exploration with Planners in England

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Abstract:  The case has been made in reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for the crucial role of the built environment in mitigating the worst excesses of a warming global climate. Urban planners are essential actors in delivering a sustainable built environment. Alongside macro influences such as policy, practices in urban planning are influenced by underlying mechanisms at the level of the individual. Adopting a Bhaskarian critical realist approach, in this study we examined enabling conditions of sustainability practices. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 19 planners in England with at least seven years’ experience. The analysis found evidence from the planners’ experience of tensions between the three strands of sustainability, and of practices which could be understood from theoretical perspectives of collaboration/consensus, dissensus and pursuit of specific outcomes. A professional commitment towards a better environment appeared to be a generative mechanism for sustainability practices and underlying conditions included professional identity, identity as a public sector worker, organisational and team identities, and personal commitment. Constraining conditions were found to include stakeholder and political pressure and weak policy. The findings suggest points of leverage for the professional body, local authorities and planners themselves, in order to strengthen sustainability practices and potentially lead to transformation.

Keywords:  built environment; climate change; critical realism; identities; professional identity; sustainability; urban planners



© Niamh Murtagh, Nezhapi-Dellé Odeleye, Christopher Maidment. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (, which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.