Photography by:
  • Teboho Ntsamai

Just sustainability transitions (2024)

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 Fatti's PhD project as well as the 'Just sustainability research collective'.

Christina's PhD explores the boundary space between social justice and environmental sustainability, and how knowledge and decision-making interact with this space, using the case of government-led housing in Johannesburg. In September 2020, Christina hosted a roundtable event at the 2020 Southern Africa City Studies Conference on Just and Sustainable government-led housing.

Just sustainability research collective

A key element of this project included exploring the complexities around navigating social justice and environmental sustainability imperatives through a ‘just sustainability research collective. This research collective, initiated by the volume’s editor, emerged out of a desire to explore from a range of perspectives those instances where social justice and environmental sustainability are not neatly aligned. The aim of such an exploration is to refine how just sustainability is conceptualised and put into practice. Accordingly, the research collective set out to:

  • Unravel the sets of agendas, power relations and decision-making processes that influence how trade-offs are made and why particular decisions are reached within the context of the respective case studies;
  • Reveal the nuance in the GCR context by using different analytical lenses or perspectives; and
  • Lay a basis for reaching a more nuanced understanding that supports more informed and engaged decision-making, by drawing on a range of knowledge types.

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 this work has culminated in a GCRO Research Report entitled In pursuit of just sustainability, which was published in late 2021.


GCRO outputs

C. Culwick Fatti (Ed.), In pursuit of just sustainability. GCRO Research Report No. 12. Johannesburg: Gauteng City-Region Observatory.


Culwick Fatti, C. and Patel, Z. (2023). In pursuit of just sustainability: Decision-making and conflicting rationalities in government-led housing projects. Local Environment. 28(3), 277-303.

Culwick Fatti, C. (2022). 'Towards just sustainability through government-led housing: Conceptual and practical considerations'. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. 54. 101150.

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 Fatti (August 2022). ‘Just transitions: a view through housing’. Symposium on Spatial transformation and the Gauteng Spatial Development Framework Review, University of Johannesburg. 18 August 2022.

Christina Culwick Fatti (October 2021). 'Deconstructing just sustainability in government housing: Knowledge, decision-making and conflicting rationalities in government housing projects'. UCT Postgraduate Colloquium. 11 October 2021

Christina Culwick Fatti (September 2021). 'In pursuit of just sustainability: Knowledge, power and conflicting rationalities in government housing projects'. GCRO brownbag seminar. 29 September 2021

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: 2 October 2023


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