Realising Just Cities 2019: Lessons, Outcomes, and Impact

Between 13–18 October 2019, the Realising Just Cities team at the Urban Institute coordinated a succession of events as hosts of the 4th Mistra Urban Futures conference. Why did we meet and what did we achieve? Realising Just Cities UK impact officer Iona Hine reports:

Mistra Urban Futures is an international research and knowledge centre, working to co-produce knowledge and action to support sustainable urban transformations across cities in the Global North and South. Local interaction platforms bring together researchers and city partners, while annual conferences have served to facilitate comparative learning from our different locales and exchange knowledge with a wider range of participants including others from the host locale. Previous conferences have been held in Gothenburg (2016), Kisumu (2017), and Cape Town (2018). Participants in the Sheffield-Manchester conference (2019) included Mistra Urban Futures representatives from those cities as well as partners from Buenos Aires, Malmö, Shimla, and Stockholm. This year Mistra Urban Futures' Realising Just Cities programme draws to a close, and the overarching theme of our gathering was therefore “Impacts, Lessons and Outcomes”.

Over the course of six days, delegates took part in field trips and site visits as well as comparative workshops and an open day conference.

QUICK LINKS: Sheffield Field Trips (Monday)  •  Open Conference (Tuesday)  •  Greater Manchester site visits (Wednesday)  •  International Policy Exchange (Wednesday) •  Keynote Lecture (Thursday)  •  To conclude

You can also download a visual report from the conference (PDF).  •  View feedback from the conference (PDF).  •  Watch video footage from the conference.   •  Download GM policy exchange presentations


For international guests, the programme began on Sunday 13th October, with a pie and peas supper at Sheffield Winter Garden. Many of those involved with Mistra Urban Futures have a strong interest in sustainability so RJC UK Director (and Urban Institute Co-Director) Beth Perry took care to tell everyone about the venue’s credentials: the temperate glasshouse is supported by larch wood from sustainable forests, and monitored by an intelligent building management system that maintains the climate required by the plants. Faculty Director of Research and Innovation John Flint and Internationalisation lead Greg Morgan both welcomed delegates on behalf of the University.


Mistra Urban Futures has worked to foster learning between different localities, and on Monday 14th October several comparative projects met to workshop findings together. Workshop participants reflected that this was valuable in connecting across countries but also cities: UI researcher Dr Charlie Spring reported new links made between her co-researchers on parallel projects in Sheffield and Greater Manchester.

That afternoon it rained, which was unfortunate for the multitude who departed on walks around Sheffield. With a professional tour guide, one group viewed the highlights of “New and Old Sheffield”. Others took a tour of Kelham Island, birth place of social justice activist Mary Anne Rawson (1801–1887) and winner of the UK & Ireland Urbanism Awards “Great Neighbourhood” category (2019).

Officers from Sheffield City Council involved a third group in a walking conversation about climate resilience, showing how the “Grey to Green” scheme has been transforming parts of the city centre—accompanied by RJC UK research student Ryan Bellinson (see photo above). Meanwhile, Sheffield Hallam researcher Dr Aimee Ambrose took intrepid explorers along the route of Sheffield’s district heating system and into the incinerator—involving heights not recommended for the faint-hearted. Jenny Patient accompanied the group, lending out her umbrella to a few under-prepared visitors. (Read Aimee’s full write-up here.)

For those seeking a gentler (and drier) outing, Dr Charlie Spring led a delegation to Heeley City Farm (pictured below), a community-based enterprise south-east of the city centre. There, delegates learned about current experimentation with aquaponics—cultivating plants and aquatic life symbiotically; heard what ‘The Food Works’ are doing to tackle food waste in Sheffield; and shared some of their own learning from international contexts.



On Tuesday 15th October, the doors of Cutlers’ Hall opened to welcome anyone with an interest in Realising Just Cities. The packed programme began soon after 8am with a blast of trumpets, courtesy of the University brass band. Conference-goers gathered in the main hall, to hear about the programme of research, and meet some of the key actors who had made it possible.

We premiered a short video prepared by the MISTRA Urban Futures secretariat highlighting outcomes, and heard testimony from a range of stakeholders who spoke about how involvement in the research programme had affected them--including UK RJC co-researcher Sharon Davies of Mums’ Mart. Sharon has worked closely with Dr Sophie King and contributed much to the success of community-led organising work in Greater Manchester—including as a founder of GM Savers. She told delegates:

All over the world women are living with the same issues, the same pressures, the same inequalities... We found we can support each other to change that. We need to challenge these systems that are holding us at disadvantage. (Source)

During the rest of the day, ten workshops served to exchange learning and share outcomes from Realising Just Cities research. These included seven with direct input from the Urban Institute team:

Three sessions ran independently: looking at the role of urban and rural communities in place-based diversity; public finance and Agenda 2030; and localising the Sustainable Development Goals. All delegates received a copy of the newly released policy brief produced by Dr Kristina Diprose, Dr Nick Taylor Buck and Prof Beth Perry with UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development.

Rike Sitas of Cape Town Local Interaction Platform hosted “What have we heard”, a report back from each of the workshops, leading into a plenary reflection. Speakers Åsa Moberg (MISTRA), Vanessa Toulmin (University of Sheffield), Mark Whitworth (Sheffield City Council) and Caroline Kihato (MISTRA Urban Futures) were asked: “How can we support local action to address global challenges and realise more just cities?”

“We need to dare… to show up without being able to predict the outcomes … [and] to dream in the funding space too.”
—Caroline Kihato

Other conference participants contributed their responses via the online tool Menti, suggesting letting “human stories set the agenda”, using techniques such as citizen assemblies, and active “work to assert local knowledge, evidence and needs”.


Site visits

The programme on Wednesday 16th October transported delegates to Greater Manchester, with a fresh set of half-day field trips, offering insight into some local Realising Just Cities research:

Dr Charlie Spring led a trip to Hulme Community Garden, an organic garden centre where the visitors heard about experiments in food sustainability from Kindling Trust, and sampled seasonal fruit—a must during Apple Week. (Project: Self-organising Action for Food Equity)

Dr Jon Silver and Dr Richard Goulding represented Greater Manchester Housing Action, exploring the topic “From homes to assets: Housing financialisation in Greater Manchester”. The energetic walkers travelled several miles, taking in the exhibition Whose Knowledge Matters? Platting, Pigeons and PFI. (Projects: Housing Futures; Whose Knowledge Matters)

Britt Jurgensen and colleagues from Carbon Co-op adapted the Power in the City walk for daytime consumption, exploring the past and future of Greater Manchester’s energy supplies using immersive theatre techniques. (Project: Jam and Justice)

Dr Sophie King arranged a site visit to Wythenshawe to meet members of the Greater Manchester Savers network, in partnership with Mums Mart community association. The theme was “Community-led organising: lessons from the Global South” and visitors heard from a Kenyan representative of Slum/Shack Dwellers International as well as local community-led initiatives. (Project: Community-led organising: Seeing the inner city from the South)

Manchester Settlement Chief Executive Adrian Ball welcomed visitors keen to learn more about Jam and Justice’s Action Research Collective and how it had shaped the work of his organisation. (Project: Jam and Justice)

A sixth group explored the question “Is Manchester Britain’s most political city?” with professional walk leader Ed Glinert.

In the afternoon of Wednesday 16th October, delegates reconvened at the recently renovated home of Greater Manchester’s Chamber of Commerce. Here, we were joined by hosts of the afternoon workshop in the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and representatives from other local authorities for an afternoon workshop exploring co-production in urban policy.

David Rogerson, GMCA Policy and Strategy Principal, introduced six of his colleagues to share something about how the city-region was working together to govern in a more co-productive way. Jane Forrest and Jacob Botham spoke about the Greater Manchester Model for public services. Julie McCarthy spoke about cultural strategy as a means to tackle inequality. Paul McGarry outlined steps taken to make Greater Manchester “the best place in the UK to grow older”. Nick Fairclough explained the origins of GM’s new Good Employment Charter. And Phil Swan talked about the emergent blueprint for GM Digital.

Respondents from six international cities then reflected on what they had heard, and what their cities are doing. Carol Wright (Cape Town) spoke about the importance of bridging the gap so that economic growth benefits all, feeling that GM’s emphasis on work force was especially resonant. Stephen Agong Gaya (Kisumu) reflected on the importance of international frameworks and what helps different sectors thrive. Mariana Cammisa (Buenos Aires) spoke about the importance of data when addressing significant challenges such as public health and ageing. Per Arne Nilsson (Malmö) and Mikael Cullberg (Gothenburg) both reflected on the relationship between academics and the city, with Nilsson emphasising the importance of cities’ readiness to welcome researchers. Arnau Monterde (Barcelona) presented Decidim as an example of a platform that enables an inclusive alternative approach to citizen voice in municipal governance.

Throughout the responses, all participants were invited to work together to record insights about the strengths and weaknesses of co-producing, provide examples of personal learning, and suggest tools, resources and techniques that enable co-production. Hannah Williams of Scribble Inc Ltd created a graphic record of the conversations, completing her work just in time to accommodate a visit from Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham.

A celebratory buffet provided occasion to celebrate four years’ of Realising Just Cities collaboration, and a decade of Mistra Urban Futures.
(Photographs: Jason Lawton for Realising Just Cities.)


On Thursday 17th October, Professor Lyla Mehta delivered the keynote lecture of Realising Just Cities 2019, Climate change, uncertainty and the city.

As Prof. Mehta explained, the scale and impacts of climate change remain deeply uncertain. This is particularly true at the local level, where climate-related uncertainties combine with unequal capitalist growth trajectories often exacerbating social and political inequities and the vulnerabilities of marginalised communities. The talk was illustrated with examples from Prof. Mehta and her colleagues’ work at Sussex’s Institute of Development Studies, including photovoice work carried out with residents of coastal areas in India and Bangladesh. (A video of this lecture will be made available shortly.)

Thursday’s programme also included workshops to take forward comparative work.

To conclude

As usual in these circumstances, a meeting of the MISTRA Urban Futures board and a separate meeting for Coordinators of the Local Interaction Platforms also took place in Sheffield during the conference week. International delegates thus departed iteratively, and with generous feedback, on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

When asked what they were taking away, participants told us “a strong and broad will of working together”, awareness of the need to “embrace different ways of knowing” and “a renewed sense ofhow important it is to listen… and to ask what you can bring to what is already being done”. 


Thanks to everyone who has agreed to let us share photographs taken at the conference, and to all whose input helped make the conference happen.

Watch the action as it happened:

Several parts of the conference were recorded on video. Videos are now available on the Realising Just Cities YouTube channel. Read an outline of what's available here.