Co-creating alternative `zero-waste' urban imaginaries

The project addresses the participation of citizens in imagining and shaping sustainable urban futures, focusing on issues and infrastructures of waste. The aim is to develop a transferable transdisciplinary approach that supports the co-creation of alternative, inclusive ‘zero-waste’ imaginaries, by critically and creatively addressing the notion of ‘waste’ in urban contexts.

collection of urban waste

Imaginaries of the sustainable city

Breaking away from damaging fossil-fuelled practices and working towards transitions to urban sustainability has never been more pressing. This urgency is visible both in the policy and academic arenas, while urban experimentation as a mode of governing transitions is fast gaining traction (Bulkeley and Castán Broto 2013; Newton and Frantzeskaki 2021; von Wirth et al. 2019). Often, the sustainability imaginaries that are promoted, such as ‘zero-waste’, revolve around ‘smart’ technologies that claim to deliver efficiencies in the urban system. Such imaginaries tend to portray issues like waste as an objective and somewhat isolated challenge that can be addressed through data-driven technological solutions, smoothing out any potential frictions that may result from implementing them.

While raising questions around social justice and inclusion, this domination of sustainability imaginaries by smart city corporate actors might also prevent cities from opening up space for alternative and potentially more sustainable imaginaries (Miller 2020). Following Donna Haraway's plea of 'staying with the trouble' (2016), we instead suggest developing future visions on ‘zero-waste cities’ that embrace waste as an inherently cultural aspect of human and more than-human coexistence, thus needing to include a multitude of perspectives.

Co-creating: what is urban waste?

To this aim, we will develop and prototype a transdisciplinary approach for facilitating the inclusion of diverse citizens in the making of ‘zero-waste’ imaginaries that acknowledge cultural diversity, local specificities, and lived experience. We will develop the approach through collaborations with creative organisations and local initiatives that address waste in Utrecht neighbourhoods, and by engaging with residents. The research team will reach out to these initiatives via Anders Utrecht and through the mediation of local societal partners, such as Creative Coding Utrecht and Travelling Farm Museum of Forgotten Skills (a co-initiatve of CASCO  Art Institute and The Outsiders). Together with these groups and initiatives, the research team will investigate what is considered urban waste, by whom and with what implications. 

Creative methods

With our approach, we aim to create research environments that redistribute agency among specialists, lay people and non-human entities, such as objects or technology (Whatmore and Landström 2011) and that widen participation beyond discursive forms to include experiential, material and affective modes of expression (Davies et al. 2012). This will allow us to develop participatory and creative methods (Van der Tuin and Verhoeff forthcoming) that address these three dimensions of participation. The methods will support challenge-based activities that enable citizens to re-imagine, evaluate and debate alternative ‘zero-waste’ urban futures and the kinds of actions required (e.g., reusing, re-cycling or re-purposing) from their own perspectives. A particular focus will be placed on exposing frictions that emerge when addressing diverse worldviews and values, and on actively including a plurality of perspectives when imagining sustainable urban futures.

Based on the insights that are gained from these activities, the project will conceptualise a transdisciplinary research framework that supports collaboration among diverse urban actors and widens  inclusion in shaping alternative ‘zero-waste’ urban futures, with the potential to extend to other urban sustainability transitions. With this, we aim to provide critical and creative tools that enable questioning singular future visions and generating a plurality of potential sustainable urban futures.

Project lead

Dr. Corelia Baibarac-Duignan, Uinversity of Twente,

Tamalone van den Eijnden, University of Amsterdam,