The capability to aspire and the guarantee of sustainable cities. an examination using data from colombian cities.

Rovira Quesada, Carolina; Sanchez Masferrer, Manuel (2018). 'The capability to aspire and the guarantee of sustainable cities. An examination using data from Colombian cities.' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


The notion of sustainable city is broad and potentially ambiguous (Kates et al., 2005). Sustainability is a complex policy goal already installed in the public policy agenda in multiple dimensions: environmental, urban planning, equity in access to services and consumption, citizen participation, among others (UN-Habitat, 2016; UN, 2017).

Aside from other elements involved in the definition of sustainability that guides public policy in different models, a key element in the achievement of a sustainable city is citizen participation, as a guarantee of the forward-looking orientation implied in the term (Leach et al., 1997; Schumacher, 1973).  Nevertheless, citizen participation is limited and, in several cases, replaced by apathy or contentment (Portney, 2005; Ray, 2003).  Thus, it becomes necessary to produce among citizens the aspiration of a sustainable city. This aspiration, together with its associated capability, is a sine qua non condition for the achievement of sustainability as a functioning (Hart, 2012, 2016; Hart et al. 2014).

To support a sustainable city, citizens should adopt an active role in promoting sustainability, i.e. they should take care of the public space, defend the rule of law, encourage the strengthening of the social fabric, and demand accountability from policy makers, all this in the long term and not sporadically or with a short term view (UN-Habitat, 2016; UN, 2017). These attitudes and behaviours are rooted in individual and shared aspirations that would evolve in time to engage in the changing needs of urbanization

Aspirations are not static, they exhibit a dynamic behaviour evolving from individual aspirations to what are called shared, guided and finally, conflicting aspirations (Hart, 2006).  The evolution of aspirations is driven by the extent in which the gap between what is desired and what is attained closes, at which point a new aspiration is built.  In the urban context, this dynamic process pushes citizens to exert pressure and motivate change and improvement, which is a necessary element to guarantee sustainability in all its domains.

There is a capability to aspire, which is heterogeneously distributed among citizens, along their endowments of economic, cultural and social capital (Bourdieu, 1984, 1986; Hart, 2012). Those who lack the capability to aspire—because they find themselves in a dominated position in social space—will tend to make “virtue out of their necessity” (Bourdieu, 2006) and to become content with what they have, generating no pressure for the change and innovation that are requirements for sustainability.  Very high aspirations coupled with low achievements, on the other hand, will tend to create frustration, which also hampers effort (Ray, 2006; Rovira, 2017) towards sustainability.

Aspirations are difficult to measure, not because of lack of instruments, but rather the lack of a standardized methodology to quantify them. Outside of the capability literature, measures of aspirations have mainly focused on educational and career-related achievements (Hart, 2016).  Furthermore, evidence on the dynamic behaviour of aspirations is scant, given the lack of adequate longitudinal datasets. We claim it is of paramount importance to analyse and understand the evolution of aspirations in order to promote and guarantee urban sustainability.

This article develops an indirect approach to the analysis of the dynamic behaviour of aspirations.  By acknowledging that satisfaction is related to the gap between aspirations and achievements (as formulated in Mason and Faulkenberry, 1978), we can track the evolution of aspirations contrasting the evolution of satisfaction with changes in objective well-being. This aspiration gap has been postulated to be the main driver of behaviour (Ray, 2006).  To account for possible lags and complex functional relationships between aspirations and satisfaction, a large-enough dataset with sufficient variation in key variables across time and place is required. Satisfaction measures are generated by using latent-variable models, including factor analysis.

We employ the datasets from the Cómo Vamos project, which measures citizen participation, satisfaction with quality of life, with social services and city infrastructure, in the largest urban areas of Colombia.  Como Vamos is a network of research initiatives in 14 cities in Colombia and 74 cities in all of Latin America, which collect data on quality of life and citizen perceptions, as well as monitors the performance of city councils. We choose to focus on Colombian cities since these have the longest time collecting data and they have made their survey data publicly available. Two of these cities, Bogotá and Medellín, are widely recognized for their efforts to improve quality of life and sustainability (Castro and Echeverry, 2011).

By combining different waves of the Cómo Vamos survey across cities and years, along with objective data regarding social progress, we construct a pooled cross-section database that enables us to track the evolution of satisfaction measures and thus, the gap between achievements and aspirations. We are able to analyse different domains of wellbeing and explore the dynamics of achievement and satisfaction in each of them. Additionally, by controlling for individual characteristics we are able to explore the hypothesis implied by Bourdieu, i.e. that the position in social space will affect aspirations (and therefore satisfaction). 

The methodology can be replicated at other cities which conduct the Como Vamos survey or other comparable instruments.  Results suggest that policymakers should worry not only about providing better services and urban planning, but also promoting the capability to aspire to guarantee sustainability. The type of aspirations promoted should dwell in the range that avoids frustration at one extreme and contentment at the other. 

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