ENP PhD study trip 2018: China



PhD researchers from the Environmental Policy Group have previously organised study trips to Sweden and Denmark in 2012, to Belgium in 2014 and to Germany and Switzerland in 2016. We have found that this was a very valuable opportunity to share ideas on theories, methodological approaches and research experiences with peers, policy makers and researchers with similar research questions and from different backgrounds and nationalities. For the 2018 study trip, the PhD researchers set the ambition high by selecting China as our destination and by developing a programme under the theme of the urban nexus.


In this trip the PhD group has extend its networks in China and is especially interested in reaching out the ENP alumni network and strengthen ties with universities, research institutes, think-tank’s in Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai. The destinations and organizations that we plan to visit have been identified based on the umbrella theme of our trip: the “Urban Nexus”. One of the largest challenges of today is the unprecedented urbanization, pressuring food production and demand for water and energy. This problem is particularly apparent in urbanising China, where more than half of the population now resides in urban areas. The current top-down ‘silo-thinking’ way of governance, in largely sectoral resource management strategies, has become unfit to address the current water, energy and food challenges. Recently, the concept of the urban nexus has emerged as a prominent response to policy fragmentation and the lack of coordination between the management of these vital resources, which are inextricably linked.

This helped to further understand, develop, theorise and conceptualise the sustainable governance of the urban nexus. Building on an over 15-year research collaboration between Wageningen University and different Chinese universities and research institutes this consortium comprises high-skilled Dutch and Chinese researchers and policy entrepreneurs on the urban nexus. The social sciences developed at Wageningen University, Environmental Policy Group, are a perfect addition to the more technical and economic research on urban environmental governance conducted at Renmin University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources and Nanjing Agricultural University School of Public administration and other institutes. Moreover, the seminar includes the World Resource Institute to connect the combined Chinese-Dutch research expertise with the existing policy implementation in the urban nexus.


In order to address these urgent environmental problems and opportunities to work towards successful sustainable governance of cities, the theoretical concept of the ‘urban nexus’ is promising. Nexus-thinking emerged as a response to policy fragmentation and the lack of coordination between the management of several vital resources – energy, food and water in particular - which face increasing demand and are inextricably linked. To illustrate this interdependence: growing populations demand more food, and the global food production and supply chain currently already accounts for 70% of all water withdrawal and 30% of energy consumption. Applying the nexus approach to an urban context leads to the concept of the ‘urban nexus’: integrated governance across water, food and energy sectors at the urban level.

The urban nexus as a concept brings together interactions between material and social elements: it concerns the physical resources water, food and energy, which are appropriated by people in and through various provision and consumption practices. This is challenging because participants need to make connections with other parts of the urban nexus beyond their own main expertise. Taking a nexus approach to effect a transition towards sustainability thus requires an interdisciplinary research program, covering both material and social flows and their interconnections. Regarding the former, research into natural resource use efficiency should be conducted. This should be complemented with research into provision and consumption practices within the sectors of water, food and energy.

Consequently, a crucial question is how to govern this urban nexus of water, energy and food in its much-needed transition towards sustainability. What institutional innovations are required, which innovative practices and which policy measures? The PhD researchers at the Environmental Policy Group (ENP) at Wageningen UR have been working intensively on governance of socio-material interactions, drawing on sociological theories like global flows and networks, as well as social practice theories. Our research concentrates on value chains and particularly on production-consumption junctions: the place where policies and practices come together. ENP’s PhDs study these themes within the (nexus) fields of energy, food and water, in a number of settings including the Netherlands, China and beyond. By selecting urban nexus as the guiding theme of the study trip, our intention was to have a framework which both brings together the ENP PhDs who working on different topics and which a bridge with Chinese researchers and organisations who are working on urban sustainability.