From #BuildBackBetter to Net Zero to Black Lives Matter – 2020 has been characterised by calls for a better and more sustainable future. Transition narratives have dominated much of the public conversation, with COVID 19 shifting our thinking on what a good, dignified, decent life is. 

Calls for transitions also uncover cultural, social, and political decision-making patterns and biases – with our political imagination often hampered by what can be known and the inherent biases in our political economies. They are ‘make or break’ moments – points in time where societies, more than ever, are dependent on clear, strategic, and compassionate leadership with a vision for the future.

This blog is part of a series documenting the findings from a number of events hosted in partnership between IPPR and Agulhas, for IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission. The events explored how we can better design public policy to support a rapid and fair transition to net zero and the restoration of nature. The events sought to explore the lessons and insights from previous transitions in different countries, sectors and industries, sharing what worked and what did not in their stories of transition.

A tale of two Burghs

This case study looks at industrial collapse across two cities which appear very different yet share strong similarities – Pittsburgh in the US and Gothenburg in Sweden. The two cities are, names aside, similar due to their historically predominantly working-class populations and their histories of highly concentrated heavy industry, which served as the foundation of the respective cities’ identities.

Gothenburg, primarily known as the home of Volvo and SKF, boasted of being the world’s biggest shipyard in its heyday in the 1930s. The linkages to the sea and to industry saw Sweden’s second largest city build a distinctly different identity from financially affluent Stockholm. From 1979, Gothenburg fell into the shipyard demise plaguing many industrialised countries at the time, and its once bustling shipyard was abandoned with an estimated 45,000 job losses in the city region and nearby communities. Nearby western seaside towns of Uddevalla and Malmö saw similar stagnation due to these closures.

On the other side of the world, another proudly industrial city was facing collapse. The year 1979 saw Pittsburgh, the ‘Steel City’, lose its steel industry. This led to an estimated loss of 133,000 jobs in the city, and over 200,000 jobs regionally. This loss in jobs led to a population drain, with the city losing roughly 30 per cent of its population in the following years. The loss of both people and industry led to a debt crisis for the city, causing a chronic revenue loss.

Two different approaches

The two cities employed very different coping strategies to deal with the losses the collapse in industry caused.

Gothenburg saw a top down approach to tackling the loss, with the state as well as Gothenburg municipality moving in to buy up the abandoned shipyard sites with a plan to regenerate them for a sustainable future. Shipyard workers found work in the still strong car industry – as then SAAB and Volvo – absorbed some of the losses, but more coastal cities struggled to cope as easily. An economic boom and a robust social security network also helped facilitate the transition for the workers. The bought-up shipyard site was gradually rebuilt and repurposed to house a branch of Chalmers University and the city’s identity gradually started shifting more toward a knowledge-based economy. This shift also incentivised tech companies to make a home in Gothenburg. The regeneration was managed by a municipally owned company, Norra Älvstranden AB, with a clear provision that it would stay out of municipality and party politics. The transition was heavily steered by the municipality, and soon incorporated into a vision of Gothenburg as a green knowledge economy.

Pittsburgh, with no social security system, and barely any tax revenue in place, had a less smooth transition. With no federal help coming in and dwindling coffers, locally based philanthropic foundations and university leaders stepped in with the local government to mitigate the damage of the collapse. The choice was made to invest in universities and medical centres, such as the University of Pennsylvania and Carnegie Mellon, slowly shifting the identity of the city towards a knowledge-based economy. The city leadership worked hard to attract tech giants such as Google and Uber to invest in the city. The transition was driven by a gradual process of collaboration across different stakeholders, rather than a centralised, planned effort. The mayoral leadership also put an emphasis on improving environmental conditions of the city, further pushing away from the ‘rust belt’ imagery, with improved rivers and recreation areas.

However, getting people on board with transitions, especially ones occurring mid crisis, is not always an easy task. In Gothenburg’s case, stakeholder engagement meant bringing people into the newly acquired shipyard site, which was previously closed off for the general public. The subsequently regenerated shipyard became habitable, with areas designated for flats and for parks as well as office sites. However, less caution was given to the impact this had on the smaller cities around Gothenburg. A whole class of workers who dominated the area now saw themselves displaced as the nearby city core came to be dominated by new industries.

In Pittsburgh, the engagement with the general public was an even less prominent focus. Retaining jobs and building new industries became the primary focus of local leadership. This focus on attracting new and primarily knowledge-based industry, meant hubs of growth flourished while pockets of poverty persisted in less prioritised areas. A racialised and ruralised poverty soon became an entrenched part of the city region’s geography. The ‘greening’ of city centre jobs in particular has meant that pollution in the city has become equally segmented along geographic and racial lines.

Just Transitions and transitioning justly

Pioneered in the 1970’s by Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) organiser Tony Mazzochi, ‘Just Transition frameworks’ combined the environmental and social concerns of the labour movement to create accountability principles for transitions in industries. The concept has gained traction over time – informing debates around transitions from high to low-carbon societies, and in thinking on how to absorb the sort of shocks that communities were left to struggle with in the aftermath of industrial decline in the previous century.

So far very few transitions can be classified as a truly ‘just transition’, partly due to politicians, policymakers and industrial leaders failing to bring communities onboard as well as a wider failure by governments to put in place the necessary economic support. There are many lessons to be drawn to ensure that future transitions in the UK are justly managed.

Learning from the examples of Gothenburg and Pittsburgh suggests that local leadership must carefully and strategically manage existing assets (e.g. land, building stock) and networks (e.g. unions, civil society and communities) in order to absorb shocks of the kind the two cities faced. Citizen and stakeholder engagement is crucial to ensuring a successful transition, minimising the negative impacts as far as possible and maximising any opportunities. In this example, the engagement and empowerment of citizens and communities left much to be desired, but in the case of Gothenburg, the robust existing social security nets in place certainly enabled a faster and perhaps fairer transition than in Pittsburgh.

Hiba Ahmad is an Analyst at Agulhas. IPPR and Agulhas are grateful for the support of the TUC and FES in sponsoring the events in this series as part of the work of IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission. This piece was originally posted on IPPR’s website.

Photo by Mingjun Liu on Unsplash.