Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Sustainable Consumption and the Importance of Neighbourhood: A Central City/suburb Comparison

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Sustainable Consumption and the Importance of Neighbourhood: A Central City/suburb Comparison

Article excerpt


As international climate change treaties flounder (Berman and Leiren-Young 2011), the potential for local responses to environmental challenges has garnered increased attention (Fisket and Mamo 2007; Seyfang 2009). Knowledge of how physical and social communities function is now vital for the creation of pro-environmental outcomes. Despite theoretical advances on the topic of urban sustainability within environmental sociology (Lorr 2012), such theories insufficiently consider the impact of place, and specifically neighbourhood, on daily actions. Here, we explore the potential to apply urban and environmental sociological theory to the study of sustainable consumption practices.

In 2009, we interviewed families living throughout the city of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, asking about their commitment to the environment and how they expressed that commitment in action. We established that informants living in the suburbs experience myriad challenges to living sustainably: the time required by commuting; the difficulty in forming neighbourhood social networks; and the distance to basic services. As a result of such barriers, a strong interest in the environment is not always followed by strong sustainable practices. As has been reported elsewhere, some central city residents report becoming "greener" by virtue of the location and structure of their neighbourhood, despite not necessarily identifying with the environmental movement (Kennedy 2011). We decided to explore this difference further, by administering a survey to a matched sample of residents of a suburban neighbourhood and of a central city neighbourhood in order to see whether and how self-reported sustainable daily practices differed between them. This paper presents the core findings of that survey. Our primary objective is to add to the scant literature contrasting household environmental behaviours in different urban contexts (Capek 2010) and to explore the applicability of urban sociology as a framework for understanding patterns of environmental behaviour at the neighbourhood level.

Urban Sociological Perspectives on Place

In addition to evidence from our interviews, there is a strong foundation in urban sociology leading us to expect that sustainable practices might differ by neighbourhood. Urban sociological perspectives have long credited neighbourhood with varying outcomes, including community engagement (Jacobs 1961; Sampson 2012), crime (Morenoff and Sampson 1997), and health (Kawachi and Berkman 2003). Sampson writes,

Whether it be crime, poverty, child health, protest, leadership networks, civic engagement, home foreclosures, teen births, altruism, mobility flows, collective efficacy, or immigration ... the city is ordered by a spatial logic ... and yields differences as much today as a century ago. (Sampson 2012:6)

However, the causal pathways from neighbourhood to such outcomes are not always clear.

Responding to those who argue place is less relevant in our globalized age (e.g., Friedman 2005; Giddens 1991), Sampson (2012) shows instead that spatially coordinated social differences exist and mediate structural and individual level processes. He identifies epistemological conflicts that have been debated in the urban literature. For example, complicating theories of neighbourhood effects is the issue of "selection bias"--do neighbourhoods attract certain types of residents who in turn establish daily rounds and socioeconomic outcomes? Or do collective, preexisting features of neighbourhoods--their sociodemographic, market-oriented, structural, or politico-economic characteristics--shape incoming residents, regardless of background? These questions about the dialectic between characteristics of neighbourhoods, who moves to them, and how they shape residents living in them are relevant to our analysis of associations among variables at different levels--household sustainable practices and demographic characteristics, individual attitudes, and neighbourhood characteristics. …

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