Book Project: Grounding Urban Natures
With increasing urbanization and ecological crisis, ‘the urban’ has become the site of increasing attention for understanding problems and finding solutions. This has created simplified policy models that circulate the globe to get inserted into practice—iterations like the ‘resilient city’, ‘green city’, ‘eco-city’, or notions of ‘urban agriculture’ and ‘ecosystem services’. Grounded research that articulates and analyses the history and contested character of urban natures, is however severely lagging behind, and we have few answers on what this present ‘greening’ of city agendas will entail from a critical, historical, and justice perspective. Who wins, looses, gains voice, or is silenced? And how is the notion of ‘urban nature’ reworked across the world?
The volume we are working on, Grounding Urban Natures, has chapters from all continents in an effort to ground the studies of urban natures in the texture of the cities of the world. Senior and junior scholars bring their in-depth and textured understanding from studies in non-Western big cities like Lagos (Nigeria), Delhi (India), Dalian and Yixing (China); and Cape Town (South Africa) and Rio de Janeiro (Brazil); but also from ‘old world’ cities like Berlin (Germany); and the US cities of San Francisco, New Orleans and Seattle. It gathers anthropologists, critical geographers, design historians and environmental historians that in an accessible style help us rethink urban natures in a world marked by urbanization, contestations of urban futures, and profound transformations.
The aim is to learn from different disciplines and places in order to ground a broader conversation on how to research, debate and contest the histories and futures of urban natures.
The book resists tendencies and temptations to universalize, commodify, or simplify—and aims through its ethos of grounding, to intervene in a growing academic debate and policy area on ‘how to fix the city’. When carefully researched across social, cultural and indeed ecological contexts, simple policy solutions becomes more difficult to dictate. On the other hand, a grounded understanding attends to difference—and opens towards a more informed debate on how ‘urban nature’ has been, and will necessarily be caught up in social, political and ideological projects, which seems of vital importance for democratic debates on how to avoid future planning disasters, be they ‘green’, ‘grey’, or ‘brown’.
The book has three sections—Unexpected Natures, Popular Natures and Technological Natures—that are described below and the following authors are involved:
Amita Baviskar—Delhi, India; Jai Ching Chen—Yixing city, China; Lance van Sittert—Cape Town, South Africa; Lisa Hoffman—Dalian, China; Lindsay Sawyer—Lagos, Nigeria; Lise Sedrez—Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Richard Walker—San Francisco, USA; Joshua Lewis, New Orleans, US; Andrew Karvonen—Seattle, USA; Anne Whiston Spirn—Philadelphia, USA; James Evans—Baltimore, US; Henrik Ernstson and Sverker Sörlin (editors, introduction and conclusion).
The first section, Unexpected Natures, includes chapters that demonstrate the variety of urban natures. The argument is obvious but important as a starting point: urban nature is broader than the fixed things of ‘green space’, such as parks or cemeteries. Urban nature is process—part cultural, part biophysical—and includes built-up natures, infrastructured natures of pipes and sewage, of piped water, of waste, private and public gardens, ornamental spaces, but also weeds, and all kinds of animals, including domesticated species, wild species, and unwanted synanthropic species such as lice and rats. Some of this nature is indeed related to humans in a very real sense; urban nature is also human disease and vermin. The section will show how difficult it is to talk about ‘green space’, urban nature, urban ecosystems in simplistic ways, as ‘ecosystem services’, or as detached from social and political processes; but instead that they have carried multiple meanings over time and space.
The second section on Popular Natures demonstrates how popular movements, ‘grassroots’, or similar ‘in-place’ ways of mobilizing, have reworked and re-signified urban nature, shifting potentially who can claim to be in the know of urban nature. This is a politics of physical space and of material reality, but also a cultural struggle of recognition and a mixing of the social and the natural into vehicles of mobilization. Green spaces themselves play a role in the construction of collective action, while they also become part in cultural universes that try to re-imagine the city as a more equal space. It also works in another direction—with the ascendency of ‘urban sustainability’ and ‘green urbanism’ such popular care and reworking of urban nature can become sites for the expansion of wider forms of governing, to shape and discipline the formation of certain sensibilities and subjectivities of ‘stewarding’.
In the third section, on Technological Natures, the book traces and explores how more abstract models of urban nature, those used—by necessity—by different levels of planning and often referred to as ‘experts’ work in reality. Abstract and simplified models of city-making—from Ebenezer Howard’s garden city, to the sanitarians, the Promethean large-scale systems for transport of water, people and electricity, to today’s gentrified port-developments, the ‘compact city’, ‘resilient city’ or ‘biophilic city’—play this role. In these technological natures, ‘green spaces’ and urban ecosystems seem to behave according to a plan, obediently following the envisioning of architects, ecologists, planners, or world-bankers. Such models often fail to recognize the ecological embeddedness of urban natures (they are living entities) and their political embeddedness—as caught up in class projects, as tools for ideologies, as popular revolt, or as a means by which the rich, or the poor, can appropriate a place in the city. The construction, circulation and use of these models is part of a wider history of how techno-managerial ‘solutions’ flow across countries and cities to influence urban planning and ideological projects. Here we focus on the mobility of such models, the rationalities they construct, and the politics they have engendered.
‘Worlding of urban nature’
In parallel to the aim to historically compare ‘urban natures’ across space, and use social theory, the aim the book is towards a ‘wordling of urban nature’. This means to allow multiple voices, from different parts of the world to rework urban nature, its notion, meaning and use. The book works to create multiple registers and understandings of what contested urban natures might mean across time and space. This move aims to de-center the EuroAmerican origin of ‘urban nature’ towards its ‘worlding’ and usefulness in various contemporary debates, in various places in the world.
Critique, construction and politics
The book is about critique of standard and taken-for-granted views. The book is therefore timely to the international scholarly community that is researching cities, and for policy discussions, and activists. Nature and culture seems to be more interlinked than ever and the intersection of increased urbanization and ecological crisis have created a plethora of ideas on how urban nature, ‘greenery’, biodiversity, urban farming and ‘ecosystem services’ can help to ‘fix’ the city, making it more sustainable, just, and inclusive. The book’s detailed case studies strives to counter these often free flowing policy models that seldom regard a time perspective or regional differences. The chapters works to show how urban nature is situated in time and place, part of—and reworked through—social, political and biophysical processes. The hope is therefore to provide useful critique, or at least chisel a fracture within the discourses of ‘green urbanism’, ‘landscape urbanism’, ‘resilient cities’, and the almost frictionless circulation of the innate positive values of ‘green space’ and urban nature. The book is about to pluralize urban nature—to urban natures—and demonstrate approaches of study that can be more truthful about the multiple roles, functions and understandings that urban nature carries.
The book’s theoretical intervention is also meant to assemble or create an approach—or approaches—to urban nature that insists that studies and interventions need to work through different registers, over time, and with different questions in mind. Collectively we might even be able to reach further than that, and aim to clarify anchor points for future theory-making (rather than a meta theory that can contain all chapters). These anchor points should be able support discussions towards democratic political practices flavored by the many places from which we write.
The book begins asking what is the political of urban nature? And what politics is possible, and has been possible across time and in different places in relation to urban nature? If the political is, as Erik Swyngedouw (2009) insists, when the staging of equality and liberty for all, fractures the current order of recognized voices, then what politics can flow from such moments of upheaval and questioning, and what noise can be turned into new voices in the search for more democratic forms of urban nature-making? Lying in wait here is an emancipatory subproject of the book—can we, across our various case studies of urban natures, say something about how to support material practices towards emancipatory and sustainable futures? This in itself is a project of worlding—to learn from our case studies to create imaginaries of “alternative social visions and configurations—that is, ‘worlds’—than what already exists in a given context.” (Roy and Ong 2011).