Book reviews and end-of-year thoughts

For some reason the end of the year gets people in reflective mode, so let me join the trend. This has been my fourth year in Australia and the switch of seasons still hasn’t fully settled in. Sun, 30+ degrees and long days does not feel like the end of the year to me. Sun, 30+ and long days feels like mid-Summer (well, it’s only the start of Summer, we’ll get the 40s soon). And I don’t associate mid-Summer with the end of the year. This is a little strange, because I am now pretty used to December being Summer (used to be Winter for me) and June being Winter (used to be Summer for me). I’ve heard lots of people who’ve been here for decades and still have a difficulty to experience Christmas (chrissie) and New Year as actually happening (this is why we celebrate “Christmas in July”. Really we do).

Perhaps it’s the slightly compulsive exporting of everything that reminds me of Winter by Australians (well, by Australian commerce). There are Christmas trees with lights that do not really make sense because the sun does not set till late. There are Christmas songs telling me that I have to hope for a white Christmas. I’m currently wearing shorts, a shirt and thongs (that’s flip-flops, for the other side of the world). I don’t WANT a white Christmas. Too cold. The shopfronts are decorated with fake snow, snowmen (haven’t seen any snowwomen yet), and icicles. Really? Snow, snowmen and icicles whilst it is 30+? My hipster cafe/baker sells stollen. A ‘stollen’ is the Ozzie take on the traditional Northern European Christmas bread (but without the almond paste) – over there (in Europe) they are just called ‘stol’ or ‘stoll’ and more than one makes for a couple of ‘stollen’.

This all adds to me being reminded of the euro-christian end of year traditions (which there make sense as it took over from pagan traditions to celebrate the short Winter days, etc) but which are a little strange in the Australian context. All the more because for most Australians this all is absolutely normal. So I find myself doing things that feel unnatural and natural at the same time. That’s a paradox right there.

But this is, of course, not the only paradox of this time of year. As a society (the Western part of it) we probably won’t “use” more short term plastic and paper than any other time of year. We probably won’t waste more food than any other time of year. We probably won’t waste more energy to make things “gezellig” (which is Dutch for cosy, friendly, warm and feel-good – all at the same time): Christmas lights, candles, the heating/arco on and doors open because we don’t want our guests to suffer the hassle of ringing the doorbell. That won’t make for good hosts, would it? On Boxing Day (that’s Second Christmas Day in Northern Europe) we run to the malls to get some new furniture, clothes, and what not. It’s end of the year sale. Better get your cheap goods now. Not that the old stuff really needs replacement, but it’s nice to start the new year (next week; just like any other next week) in the new. Or maybe we’ve even deserved it. These new things. I’m moving into a three bedroom house all by myself again next week, after over six years of not having had such a thing, including the last four years of being without a permanent address at all. When I told my parents, their first reply was “you deserve it”.

Let me stop the rambling and get back to reflecting – and the book reviews that I’ve promised in the title. Professionally, it’s been a BIG year for me. That’s it. I’m not going to brag about it. The best thing, perhaps, is that I’ve found a nice challenge just last week. The editor of the CUP series that (hopefully; fingers crossed) might accept my book manuscript on “Cities, sustainability and governance innovations” (working title) sent me a very, very critical review of the first full draft of the intro. And that has been great! It was the metaphorical kick in the butt that I needed after all the good stuff that has been going on.

So this week I’ve read a number of highly interesting books on urban governance, urban sustainability and even some works that address governance for urban sustainability:

  • Adam James, 2015, Urban Sustainability in Theory and Practice: Circles of Sustainability (Edward Elgar). This book has an amazing critical introduction, and presents some five or six paradoxes on how we currently think about urban sustainability. From there on the book gets really hands on and will be a great guide for policymakers and practitioners (and hopefully academics) to improve urban sustainability on local, regional and global levels.
  • Daniel Mazmanian and Hilda Blanco, 2014, Elgar Companion to Sustainable Cities: Strategies, Methods and Outlook (Edward Elgar). This book brings together some 20 chapters on various aspects of urban sustainability (e.g., water, food, density, economy, governance) in short and highly readable essays. What I found most intriguing about the book is that it, between the lines, introduces at least a hundred examples of innovative governance instruments for urban sustainability. If there’s anyone out there who seeks a PhD project: an in-depth analysis of these 100+ examples will absolutely enrich our understanding of urban governance, urban sustainability, and interactions between the two.
  • Jon Pierre, 2011, The Politics of Urban Governance (Pallgrave Macmillan). What is absolutely brilliant about this book is that Pierre very, very clearly explains why we still don’t have a dedicated “urban governance theory” but have to fuss around with “urban politics” (which is not really about governance) and “urban regime theory” (which still has a strong focus on power and politics, and less on the implementation of instruments, the collaboration of citizens, firms and governments, and all kinds of other governance issues that the larger governance literature has been discussing for such a long time that already schools of critical governance studies have emerged). Read this book!
  • Peter Taylor, 2013, Extraordinary Cities: Millennia of Moral Syndromes, World-Systems and City/State (Edward Elgar – yes, again, I got a bunch of books for free for doing a review for them). Taylor makes an excellent case of why cities are important objects for the social sciences (political science included) to study, and that for long the social sciences have focussed too strongly on the nation state as unit of analysis. The book is not as crisp and clear as Pierre’s, but is another really good one to rethink our current approach to studying urban governance, urban sustainability, urban resilience, and all kinds of other urban studies’ aspects.

That’s it. Get these books on your Kindles, iPads, or other eReaders. Or just read them for free on Google Books (see the links – only Pierre’s book is not there, but it shouldn’t take too much work to find some of his articles that summarize the book). Or be unsustainable like me and get the books in print. They are absolutely good reads for the end of the year holidays. May this be in Winter or Summer.

Happy holidays! And thanks for reading me in 2014.

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