A corpus-assisted discourse analysis of sustainability transitions in urban basic infrastructure services

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Basic infrastructure services – water and sanitation, waste collection and management, transport, energy, and housing – form the foundation upon which cities are built. Sustainable and equitable provision of services is key to combating climate change, eradicating poverty and meeting targets set out in international sustainability agendas. However, even as the language of the sustainability transitions literature is being appropriated by governments, social movements and practitioners, the concepts of sustainability and sustainability transitions remain ill-defined and often narrowly applied. We conduct a corpus-assisted discourse analysis of the sustainability transitions literature on urban basic infrastructure services to tap into prevailing representations and conceptions. Findings show that the delivery of sustainable urban services is discursively framed as a predominantly institutional and economic challenge, favouring a top-down techno-managerial approach to transitions that applies technical fixes to environmental problems at the expense of social dimensions of sustainability. While some studies, such as those with a focus on the Global South and/or water and sanitation services, engage to a greater degree with issues such as justice and equality, they still tend towards technical and economic solutions. An integrated approach encompassing all dimensions of sustainability and a broader understanding of infrastructure services not as separate, single-purpose technologies but as part of interconnected systems with multiple social, economic and environmental objectives is needed if we are to transition to a more sustainable urban future.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)44-71
Number of pages28
JournalEuropean Journal of Spatial Development
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • Urban basic infrastructure services
  • urban service delivery
  • sustainability transition
  • corpus-based discourse analysis
  • frame analysis


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